Wednesday, 31 October 2007

12. Vision - Part 3

Inevitably the urge not just to consume, but to produce images has infiltrated my thoughts early on. I caught an incurable bug when my first cousin, aunt and my parents read signs I wasn’t even aware of exhibiting - and got me a 13th birthday present in a small box with Cyrillic characters on it. It was my first camera, a small, fully manual, rudimentary but brilliant Russian box of magic... a Smena.

Fitting into a larger pocket, it was lighter than any Soviet-made object of that size, hence it was atypically fragile and was animated by springs and wheels and tiny levers. I joked that it was the most advanced camera, as I could adjust even 1/5 f-stop increments on it, all thanks to a diaphragm control ring which just had numbered dots on a dial... It also had surprisingly good lenses and everything was fully adjustable.

I am, to this day, immensely grateful for that present... and for what that camera did to me. Nowadays, empowered with my state-of-the-art digital and film SLR cameras, bags of lenses and various gizmos beeping at and thinking for me, I am genuinely glad that the little Smena made me think and see things that a semi- or fully automatic camera could not and certainly would not have been able to do. All I had was an exposure ring with extremely sunny, sunny, not so sunny, cloudy and rainy pictograms, some numbers on the diaphragm dial and a rudimentary focus dial with distances and pictograms of portrait, single person, group of people and then for that infinite distance setting, trees with hills... Then in the box of black and white negative film, there was a small table of what to use roughly in what conditions for a (roughly) correct exposure. An exposure meter was costing almost as much as the camera, so it really was out of the question.

So my boy, learn to see while keeping in mind the behaviour of the film, bought with some pocket money... so every frame counts. Learn to know contrasts and how far you can push that sorry film, learn your optics and what depth of field can mean for you and the picture you’ll be trying to impose onto humble silvery molecules. Learn how shimmering snow throws your learnt conventions into a brand new unfamiliar territory. How a sunset will look like when shooting right into the light. Keep wondering, in the absence of any technological feedback whatsoever, right down to the moment of the film emerging from the photolab, how accurate your judgment was. Later, many years and several worlds later, once sitting in a UK camera club I had to listen with straight face to a toe-curling and pompous guest speaker who was explaining, with vast gesticulation, that only 40 years of photography experience can make someone accurately see exposure settings... I wish I had the courage to tell him about how we kids learnt exposure with a precision of half f-stop using eyes and mind, a precision proven by many of our early slide films that possessed a very narrow tolerance of exposure ‘coming out’ perfect. Was really just one more case, where the absence of something led paradoxically to a significant gain in our lives. Less really was more in those days.

I also installed a little film processing lab in the bathroom, to my Mum’s great joy... I stuck towels in the small window and under the door in order to avoid any light getting in. We had nice chemicals imported from the mighty East-German chemical plants - these were pricey, but über-precise and delivered with a characteristic precision what was said on the label... It possibly didn’t help my asthma too much, but doctors could not tell whether those chemicals had any effect on it, so passion outweighed instincts of self-preservation. It took some convincing, but then my parents eventually, after a few lab sessions with no effect on me whatsoever, let me turn the bathroom into a chemical hazard zone from time to time.

The only visible effect it had on me was the satisfied grin on my face that could not be erased for hours, while watching the negatives drying in the kitchen. Oh, and it costed me lot less, than developing the films via an actual photo lab. I really could not predict just how beneficial the ability to turn an opaque plastic strip into a translucent one that had magic conglomerations of silver shades of grey would become, until images of the ethnic pogrom of March 1990 had to be processed in secret.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

12. Vision - Part 2

As kids, we didn’t care about the warped mental processes in the censors’ minds as long as we could go and see some brand new movie production. The ticket queues were truly of absurd proportions – but these were not the hoards of marionettes pulled to the box office by strong strings of media mega-hype, consumerist puppets dying to see whatever momentary wonder was ‘the thing’ at that fleeting moment in showbiz.

Instead, these were crowds of people genuinely starving for new sights, the arrival of a new film from the ‘West’ being a truly major event in any town. To this day I admit being brought close to, heck, be honest, simply to tears by Cinema Paradiso. It does that to me because for me it is still the only film that captures (although of course in a different context) the rare feeling of true, immense, deep wonder experienced by us when a new film arrived in our cinemas.

Nowadays, while senses and billboards saturated by movie releases that are instantly proclaimed ‘classics’ and turn up every few days everywhere, I find it hard to explain to people just how nostalgic I feel about my childhood’s movie screenings.

The moments when the lights dimmed and the curtains revealed the screen hiding behind them, its inert surface about to be lit up by some images that were pure escapism for us, a few hours of peeking at another world, any world, different from ours. Sounds corny, well, sorry... I remember, I used to squeeze my Mum’s hand (unless she squeezed mine first) as the first cracks and pops came from the speakers – the sure signs that in a few seconds, things will start happening... We were squeezing each other’s hands due to a genuine thrill and expectation of something that, when compared to everything around us, could only be nicer, better, and incomparably more beautiful than reality.

My Mum knew the lady in the ticket booth of the biggest cinema in the town, as they were childhood friends. So in a world where who you knew really mattered, this friendship for me translated into the amazing ability of getting tickets without standing in queues for many hours. A phone call from my Mum, the magic materialisation of some banknotes from my Mum’s purse, a quick walk to the cinema 15 minutes away, a knock on the glass doors, the recognition, the opening, the sliding through, the exchange... the tickets in my pocket... and later, the miracles on the screen, seen from good seats.

Theatre life was by no means so vibrant, possibly due to more censorship, but at least our local company had no trouble in staging classics. When salaries were stable, economics (a thoroughly fictitious one of course, with absurd laws) were also stable and you didn’t have to care about how many tickets were sold. Ironically, that’s when the theatres were was packed solid, we often even had to sit on the stairs. Yes, it was, once again, escapism, but when you don’t have to worry about how to attract people to your productions, then you can focus on what happens on stage. And pour all your energy, mental or other, into the acting and the staging.

What resulted, well, were productions with a passionate freshness that I have not found there since the Revolution, since that moment when money and funding started to matter in an entirely different way.

Monday, 29 October 2007

12. Vision - Part 1

Darkness, after all, was good in some ways – it created the ambience that allowed me to install my own imaginary, personal movie screen, to start my own little projector of the mind, to sit in my own tiny and totally private screening room undisturbed by the glare of propaganda-saturated TV pixels. Voices coming from the radio were wrapped in flesh by the mind, imaginary bodies were animated in vistas built from the sounds coming from the box. Oh and reading... That was the delicacy, a true feast, with senses not tied to anything pre-fabricated, no voices, no bodies, no panoramas – all, absolutely all of it only and only acquiring flesh in my mind’s movie sets.

Oh yes, there were films... Resurrected classics of Italian, French and English cinema, some American films (mostly cowboy movies, a few old thrillers), many monochrome films or often monochrome, cheap copies of colour originals... So in some weird way, among all that cultural starvation, one had the chance to grow up watching great old masterpieces or just entertaining old gems...

I devoured countless old films with my parents. We went to cinema often several times a week, checking out the six cinemas in my home town, hunting for the celluloid memories of other worlds. We watched classics and even if I often didn’t understand the tours de force of a Bunuel or an Antonioni or a Godard, they made me feel, think, sense in a world where, outside those walls encasing few hours of darkness and jumping beams of light and bodiless shapes moving on a canvas screen, there was no much magic...

Sounds odd, but I’m grateful for very serious or very comic giants like Mastroianni, Delon, Cardinale, Montand, Belmondo, Funes, the Hepburns and many others like them, for shaping my image of what a real film star means. This also meant that I got immunised for life against looking at current five-minute wonders as awesome, enduring screen legends...

Unfortunately for our hyped herd of ‘stars’, if some kid watched throughout his early teens in a state of beautifully aching daze and reverence the pure light and shadow glory unleashed on screen by such movie legends, then that kid would not be able to admire mass-produced post-modern Hollywood mediocrity as some everlasting embodiments of talent...

Funnily, this is how Ceausescu’s cultural starvation backfired. The carefully enforced absence of beauty and humanity in our everyday life created a dark vacuum in which the beautiful, but painfully ephemeral flares on the cinema screens were all the more brighter. Instead of becoming brainwashed kids hooked on the home-made films that glorified the communist struggles, we ended up being film buffs addicted to the everlasting flicks brought to life by true talents...

Sometimes new films from the ‘West’ were bought whenever they were deemed to be ‘educational’. Star Wars was bought and screened promptly, as somehow some censor found a parallel between the revolution against the Empire shown on the screen and the revolution we were embarked on... They bought Close Encounters Of The Third Kind probably because in some censor’s mind it showed eloquently the subterfuges the ‘West’ is capable of for hiding the ‘truth’. They bought The Towering Inferno probably because, in their minds, it showed how faulty things can be designed and then hidden in the ‘West’ – because, of course, nobody in the communist world built lethal buildings... They bought Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto that, despite it being Hungarian and hence a sensitive thing in Transylvania, somehow didn’t disturb censors with its depiction of informers, opportunism and moral corruption during the Nazis.

Maybe some subversive censors intentionally let it go through their filter... we’ll never know.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

11. Soul - Part 3

There was an entire underground network of music fanatics, and we did help each other with tapes. The luckier once possessed LPs released in more liberal communist countries. Another place of treasures was the so-called listening rooms of the city library’s music archive that held tens of thousands of mostly classical albums. But as this department was run by a co-incidentally bearded fan of electronic music and progressive rock, my visits gradually turned into musical adventures.

I was about eleven years old when I started frequenting those dusty rooms filled with a dozen or so desks, each equipped with a turntable and a pair of old headphones. I used to spend hours there, browsing through the catalogue of small cards ordered alphabetically by composer, asking the lady on duty to bring the vinyl, then putting it on and giving it a spin. By the time I got to high-school, I was terminally infected by the bugs of electronic and prog-rock music. As some of us dug into the non-classical section, asking for more and more ‘obscure’ LPs or tape recordings of them, the bearded man’s attention was caught by such young pilgrims.

It was pure joy, when he opened a listening room in the medieval building that was also hosting the huge library of count Teleki, situated right next to my high-school... He transferred there some of his most favourite records, also got somehow approval for a proper sound setup and hence used some equipment he managed to get his hands on at the local radio studio. Early Sunday mornings the room was empty, so without disturbing anybody, he could play a tape or a vinyl, cranking up the volume and enchanting some musical pilgrim with sound quality and well-calculated perfect stereo imaging I could only dream about while glued to my portable cassette player at home.

So many Sunday mornings became strange but wonderful journeys through space and time... Space, as it always projected me into worlds I was making up minute by minute as the music unfolded around me. Time, as it was such a contrast to walk through the medieval arcades, say hi to the apathetic security guy, walk upstairs on very old carpets and loudly creaking wooden stairs, get into the listening room that was always cool even in the hottest summer, due to the building’s very thick, old walls - and then, to jump to some futuristic age, propelled by a synthesizer wizard unleashing sonic poems that were overwhelming my imagination.

Thinking back to the clusters of kids in my school and then high-school, the camps of heavy metal fans, prog rock fans, synth music fans, it is clear to me now that we were not self-conscious about why we chose to consume western pop tracks only as party music or for moments of relaxing disconnect from deeper thought or feeling.
I believe it had to be some subconscious motor, telling us: music that wanted to express something, music that was thought up and created with a clear overall picture in the authors’ minds, such music was a vehicle that could take us away from the everyday reality we wanted to spend as little as possible time in.

These were games of imagination – and, without realising, we ended up digging deep into whatever music it was... So without any snobbery, but out of genuine drug-free escapism, by our late teens we ended up being fluent speakers of the language of concept albums, jazz and classical and opera and whatever else we got our hands on.

Now while clicking on a CD mail order website, I still cringe with embarrassment, thinking back to how I was able to spend many months chasing music that I heard as background music in some documentary or on radio. Not knowing composer nor title, zooming in on it, hmmmm... maybe some 70s recording, let’s go to the bearded wizard or some friend with similar terminal affliction and describe it, then maybe, maybe identify it eventually.

How could some notes, some sounds get someone at the verge of such sweet obsession? It’s probably not an accident, that such tracks were always from music far removed from the world of everyday trivia. In my case, these pieces were usually space rock or progressive rock tracks, addictive in their projection of some other world I wished so dearly to dip into again and again... And maybe digressing, but it certainly wasn’t an accident that me and many kids I knew read hobby DIY books on how to make telescopes from a 1 dioptre glass, 1 metre long cardboard tube and two 10x magnifying glasses at the other end, then we spent many evenings playing Vangelis and Tangerine Dream while looking through the concoction that had utterly criminal chromatic aberrations, watching utterly imperfect images of Andromeda and Orion...
Loved to be made to feel tiny, but that sense of insignificance was not the one orchestrated by the Regime... It was, well, yes, cosmic insignificance that somehow for us teenage kids-turned-space-romantics suggested gently that none of those grand speeches (and the tiny people believing in them) really mattered...

Saturday, 27 October 2007

11. Soul - Part 2

For me, it is still very difficult to understand the unnatural ‘elitist’ resonances that are associated nowadays with the classical music. It was the only (mostly) freely available music, virtually uncensored, performed all the time, released on vinyls, taught, sold, played without much restriction. Some ideology has infused itself into this area, too, after all, a lot of ‘decadent’ 20th century music was frowned upon, but there was not much wrong with earlier centuries...

For us kids, it was a beautiful and utterly unrestricted escapism. So never in my life I regarded classical music or opera as something ‘reserved’ for certain level of IQ or position in society. It was just deeper music that did something more to us inside, than some pop spasm of 3 minutes. The latter, of course, was consumed by us in school dances and a few discotheques, but hardly filled long rainy evenings. With our attention span not yet shrunk to 20 seconds by MTV culture, we listened with undivided attention to hour-long pieces... Now people tend to look very strangely at me when I accidentally mention an 80-minute long session at home, spent with purely listening to and following a large work, without interruption of any kind.

Despite all official attempts to manage (read restrict) at some grand scale the import of contemporary western pop & rock output, we had so-called copying studios that would be the chronic insomnia-causing horror vision of any copyright lawyer nowadays. There we could show up with a tape or a cassette, order from a catalogue of recordings and walk away a few days later with 60 or 90 minutes of music. That’s how we got our hands on recent recordings from pop and rock artists for our weekend school bashes or house parties - but also, that’s where many of us got hold of entire catalogues of jazz, progressive rock and electronic/space music.

The owner of the music shop in the Kossuth street, located close to my home, was extremely passionate about his music and had immense amounts of LPs and reel-to-reel tapes. His wife was the lady at the tiny desk in the tiny shop - and all I could see of the larger recording area behind her were some blinking lights on the tape recorders laying down hours of magic music for other music fanatics. I got hooked on odd music at an oddly early age and, while being a regular at the shop, ordering all the time obscure electronic music recordings and progressive rock, I developed an almost mythical mental image of her large, bearded husband. He became, via a very easy to make mental association, a musical wizard for me, someone who could charm magnetic particles into a secret order, ultimately those particles bringing to life glorious and so hard to find music in my room.

Usually the chain of discovery and then the possession of some new musical enchantment went like this... I used to stay up late on Sunday nights and listened to a guy called Florian who, already during the Regime amassed a huge record collection of the best rock and jazz music one could find in the country... Not sure how he did this and how he managed to become the only person allowed to have a radio show like that. In his weekly, hour-long program he used to talk about an album, then played it to sleepy heads, getting really close to midnight. No wonder many progressive rock and ambient albums were augmented by the experience of listening to them on the radio, in the dark, close to the boundary between reality and dreams... To this day, I listen to such records, whenever I can, in the dark, possibly and at least partially due to these late Sunday evenings of musical wonder.

Then if I really liked something, well, I was off to beg my Mum for some pocket money, cumulated it over time to buy cassettes, then I ran to the bearded wizard and his less magical-looking wife... If I was lucky, he had the album in his catalogue.

There were albums I only found many years later... Some were rare, and on occasion, I hunted and hunted for them via friends in other towns for 4 years even, until managed to obtain a third-hand cassette copy of it, with not exactly awesome sound quality.

But who cared? It was music that hover above a gentle, wavy jungle of hissing and popping, the results of a vinyl to tape to tape to tape copy... Music, that was so mesmerising that a kid could spend years trying to get it onto his shelf. Years, back then, when weeks were long, languid slices of eternity, before time shrunk and started to occupy the tiny slots of ever-accelerating grown-up life.

Friday, 26 October 2007

11. Soul - Part 1

Rationing of food for the body went hand in hand with rationing of food for the soul. Latter was not highly rated, quite a ballast really in a dialectic materialist society – furthermore, probably downright dangerous, as it could put its owner on the path to spirituality. And then God came into the picture, too.

But despite the idea of a materialist society composed of a swarm of robotniks singing (or at least humming) revolutionary songs, the reality was a far cry from the Stalinist dreams of the Ceausescu couple.

The Romanian orthodox church was not only flourishing, it enjoyed all the privileges of the regime due to the political role it played, especially in brainwashing, being a crucial tool for the propaganda machine. The depth of the collaboration between the Regime and that church only came to light now, 16 years after the Revolution, finally the files of the Securitate having seen the light of day.

The Greco-Catholic church was suffocated, suppressed by its estates being taken over by the orthodox church, and the fight is ongoing to this day. Still, the most threatening ones for the regime were the Roman Catholic church and the various Reformed churches, because the congregation consisted of the oh-so-subversive large Hungarian and no longer so large German ethnic minorities. All those people who understood the language of foreign media and had access to it. Churches with vibrant choirs recruiting kids from early age, beautiful and often dangerously subversive sermons held by brave priests... These churches were indeed a threat. After all, in the end, the whole 1989 revolution was ignited by a Hungarian Reformed priest, Laszlo Tokes... So the Regime’s phobia of Hungarian churches proved to be somewhat prophetic.

But in everyday life, the Regime could not do much to suppress these churches, apart from taking their colleges (like the former Reformed high-school I frequented), and also as much other church-owned estates as they could. The churches themselves remained, functioned, became base camps for the quiet resistance of the not yet atrophied soul... Some other churches, in small villages that gradually turned into ghost villages, were destroyed, bulldozed together with the graveyards... in true Stalinist tradition.

Nobody in our family was particularly practicing religion, and my parents had a certain level of immune reaction against any organised form of it. Still, I attended services from time to time in the white gothic church built in 1490 and reformed later, with its spire rising above the city centre, its walls embraced cosily by the medieval walls of the old city. That’s where I got hooked on choral music, on organ recitals, while sitting on those cold benches. I was fanatic about music, but never had a singing voice, plus I was hopelessly shy – so the local choir was not really something I ever contemplated being active in... hence remained just a fervent ‘consumer’ of music.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

10. Food - Part 2

As with the contents of the shop windows temporarily filled with goodies, it was unclear to us (and generated great epic myths rivalling the Kalevala) where exactly all those grapes and apples and whatever ended up. Clearly not in our shops... When occasionally they did turn up in shops, on such occasions the news of the miracle spread rapidly. The old lady from two houses away came running on her tiny legs to tell everybody that apples arrived at the shop close-by. If we were at home, then immediately in well-trained (and certainly by the mid-70s, well practiced) ways we initiated one of our many family-sized commando missions to the shop, queued up and then came back usually with a few kilos of fruits. If potatoes arrived, then we used to accumulate enough to last through the winter.

As we didn't have a car, a few roundtrips between the shop and our home solved the problem, my Mum usually having stayed behind at the shop and guarded the 80-100 kilos of potatoes bought during the successful commando deployment. Then we loaded the lot into the cellar and for a few months, whatever happened over winter with bread and other basic supplies, we had versatile potatoes for cooking all sort of things according to inventive recipes born out of well-controlled despair and uncontrollable lacking.

Food... now that’s what made one really , really get in touch with the emotions and thought patterns of the early hunter-gatherer man. While I might be arranging the delivered online grocery order in my fridge, it does seem otherworldly what the 1980s were like. While the huge crops disappeared in export shipments, a small portion was sprinkled among the crowds.

Food rationing came in the '80s, exactly when the great Leader, or the Genius of the Carpathian Mountains, the former shoemaker-turned-activist then eventually demi-God decided that the great new task ahead of us is paying off all of the country's debt.
The best and easiest way for doing this was to export everything he could. As the products of his industrial giants were not exactly up to the standards of the Western World, he exported food and timber - to the 'West' and certainly to the Soviet Union. This was meant to turn us into a truly sovereign nation, totally independent of the decadent imperialist world - and had as a result the great change noticed in our shops.

On the other hand, searching for food made kids feel that they really contributed to the running of the family. The basis for this whole charade was the set of coupons handed out to us, coupons for anything from bread to meat. Half kilo of bread per day per head. One kilo of meat of some sort per month per head. One kilo of sugar and flower per month per head. Half litre of cooking oil per month per head. And so on.

Such sub-atomic quantities of basic food were then to be acquired via good old methods of the hunter-gatherer man, updated to our luminous, well, as it was actually called, The Golden Era.

On certain days the meat or sugar or whatever was due in the shops, so residents of our street queued from early morning, as latecomers would slip on to a next uncertain date, when another load of stuff would hopefully arrive. So my pensioner grandmother started the queuing, my Mum may have escaped for an hour or so just before lunch break and joined the queue, relieving granny. Then she ran back to work when another change of guards was accomplished... Sometimes I escaped earlier from school, went straight to the particular shop, met granny in the queue and she could finally go home. Then my Mum came later from work and I went home. After several phases of this mess, eventually she arrived back with the goods: some meat, some sugar or whatever, meant to last for a whole month.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

10. Food - Part 1

The quality of the food, whatever quantity of it was available to us in the monthly rations, was truly abysmal. There were countless dark jokes about the countless dark facts of what one could find in bread, minced meat, or in the occasional salami.

Bits of string, plastic, bone fragments were easier to spot, but the subtler ingredients were even more disgusting. Sometimes the meat was grey from being re-processed from God knows what. Anecdotes about horse meat being added were fuelled by hard-to-identify components of hard-to-identify animals ending up in the sausage. They truly were way ahead of some vegetarian sausages, as the amount of soy added in order to replace meat was sometimes so overwhelming that we really could have called that grey odd looking thing a vegetarian sausage or salami.

There was a science and an industry of food replacement. Even the flour used for making bread has been replaced with odd mixtures... Sometimes the slices of that brown something meant to be bread produced crunchy noises between my teeth, making me think I was eating some vintage blend of the finest sand and sawdust combined with some flour made from some weird plant. Chocolate had not much real cocoa or cocoa butter in it, just brownish chicory - again, making chocolate become a powdery, saw dust-like thing with a bitter taste. Real coffee was a trace element in a box of chicory - the all-purpose plant...

I felt a huge admiration and respect for the confectioners - and in retrospect, still do, especially as I haven't lost my sweet tooth. They invented whole volumes of recipes based on replacements for ingredients they could not get their hands on.

They also invented millions of ways of getting their hands on just a tiny bit more cocoa powder and sugar and flavours (even if synthetic) than any mortal could. These deities made cream for éclairs from God knows what, but in contrast with the mentioned chemical assaults on our digestive tracks, these tasted scrumptious. The amaretto base of chocolate cakes was also made from an enigmatic blend of more basic ingredients, with some minced biscuit and something to make it taste like the real thing. The liqueur flavours were made from synthetic 'essences' they could get in various colours and tastes of the ultra-heavenly end of the spectrum. Ice cream was made from some milk substitute and some weird sugary concentrate, lemon came from citric acid solutions coloured with something. Vanilla came from some sugar powder that probably had only a brief contact with the concept of vanilla. We used to say that it must have seen it on a photo - and from that sight of intense exotic, the sugar acquired a slight flavour as strong as a fleeting thought on vanilla. They also added some amount of artificial flavouring, and after all, who knows what happened in the small temples of sweet, edible poetry.

Oh, the layered ice cream with bits of cake on top, or the cream made out of cream imitation and chestnut puree... We always used to consume it as part of a grand ritual after our annual day out at the canine exhibitions that were held on the last weekend before school started. We used to pamper all sorts of dangerously cute dogs within the medieval city walls on the hilltop, then descended with my Mum and off we went into the close-by ‘Intim’ cafeteria where coffee imitations were served. We used to sit there for an hour or so, slowly eating the sinful poems the magicians or deities or some combination of both concocted in the kitchen. The illusion was perfect.

Our festive meals, well, they were relatively festive. For Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we always accumulated some meat and dubious frankfurters in the freezer, then creatively concocted things from well tried-out recipes. Some very illegal house wine, made in our cellar by my Dad and my godfather, served as extra touch – of course, only when I was old enough to be allowed a sip... Foreign visitors, like my uncle from West Germany and other relatives from Hungary, had to phone in advance with precise plans, and this meant not weeks, but months in advance. Of course, this wasn’t really possible, but the main reason for the extended warning period was our need to accumulate some food in the freezer from food rations, so that we could cook for them something relatively decent during their stay. Going out to restaurants wasn’t really an option. After all, very few existed in the whole city, most of them were serving truly abysmal food with ludicrously high price tags, while others were reserved for the higher circles of the Party...

So hospitality also meant us keeping a theatre play going, featuring stage props of normality... Not in order to construct a fake image for our guests, as they were all too aware of the real situation, but just to avoid the awkwardness of them being reminded every minute of their visit that they are consuming few months’ worth of meat rations...

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

9. Metal - Part 3

With all the astounding crap produced by these mega-factories, industry secrets were managed with great care. My Dad had to go through tedious processes to check out some hand-drawn designs. With my premature sarcasm flexing its adolescent muscles back then, I voiced many times that clearly these drawings had to be kept ultra-secret, otherwise we would have been responsible for incidents leading to international diplomatic scandals... Namely some foreign spies, losing their way and ending up in those archives, would have laughed themselves to death when they saw these schematics...

No wonder our superiority had to be guarded well. We had the so-called Genius of the Carpathian mountains visiting regularly, telling workers and managers what to do, how to improve and what to improve. He knew everything from mechanical engineering to computers, from mixing of concrete to microelectronics... Not many such people walked the face of the Earth since Da Vinci - and even he would have been considerably overloaded by the volume of science and technology at our command in the 20th century.

So clearly, He was a rare breed. His wife, Elena, the so-called internationally renowned academic (who proved several times that she could not even read properly), was also a powerhouse of ideas. Glass cabinets in every school and library were filled with books published by her in many languages, these works having received many never-heard-of prizes from heck-knows-what international bodies. Or astral projections rather. We later did find out how emissaries of the two Genii were paying printing houses in the West to produce these books. The diplomas and prizes in somewhat decent quality were printed locally...

During a 'work visit', if you had these two Giants in the same place handing out precious advice, then you could really change the world. The nuclear power plant at Cernavoda, a clear showpiece of mastering even such difficult area of technology, was designed and supervised by the Canadians. One day, the intellectual Giants descended to check on how the early stages of construction were unfolding. What we only learnt from the obvious delays of the work and Radio Free Europe news was that the precious leader gave instructions to alter the design. He could not understand why the heck anybody would need such thick concrete walls, clearly a criminal waste - and instructed the local work force to continue with radically reduced amounts of materials.

Few weeks later the Canadian inspectors landed in Bucharest, were taken to what by then became a trial ground for interesting aspects of chaos theory, manifesting themselves on huge scale...and witnessed the outcome. Promptly got back on a plane and made it clear, that they will not have anything to do with the project, until it is re-built again according to the original design. The part we did hear on local TV though, was that they were deliberately sabotaging us, causing delay by essentially trying to enforce international rules that were meant to prohibit a good part of the country turning into a radioactive wasteland...

We were quite worried about my first cousin, as his national service brought him close to the capital where major construction projects decided to take a wobbling and lethargic walk from design sheets towards reality. The army, as usual, had to give a helping hand. He, together with who knows how many soldiers, spent most of his ‘defence of the realm’ period with driving enormous trucks, carrying the excavated soil from the surreal building site where Ceausescu was shaping his other grand dream: the Danube-Black Sea canal. Countless lads died during the construction work, as untrained men and 18-19 year old boys handled machinery they had no training for.

Still, in the end, there he was. We got my cousin back alive, very skinny and visibly aged, but with his sense of humour unchained again. Ceausescu few years later got his way too shallow canal, but after very few years it became unusable for any larger ship, due to sedimentation...

Monday, 22 October 2007

9. Metal - Part 2

Then we had hi-tech factories producing computers that, from the viewpoint of their system architecture and sheer size, belonged to the early era of washing machines...

Some giants produced household electronics, several car factories produced affordable cars - and like with any other product spat out by the mechanised beasts, the Regime wished to export them. As a sign of their quality, often the export attempts have failed even when the buyers were expected to be 'fellow' communist countries. One glimpse into the quality problems was provided by news through the grapevine. They couldn't initially get the Romanian-made Dacia cars to be accepted by China. The test the cars were submitted to was very simple: two cars had their doors taken off and swapped between the cars. Well, would have been swapped if they fit - but as each component was hammered and bent individually into shape or its intended place by people using basic tools at various stages of the production line, 'helping' the machines, no two cars were alike. At least one had the great feeling of ending up with a personalised, unique instance of a product. So the proud tags saying 'Made in Romania' were a glorified version of a more accurate 'Botched in...' or 'Thrown together in...'.

Somehow the pride in our industrial might did not conflict with the principle of imitating 'western' technology. Poorly imitating.

Nobody knows the full picture, but for example, from the factory making all sorts of electrical thingies where my Dad worked, a few chosen people on very good terms with the Party were sent to various close-by capitalist countries to have some futile meetings. Then as the key task, they brought back some products from those decadent industries we wished to imitate... Irons, heaters, car radios, portable Hi-Fi systems were all disassembled and reverse-engineered, in order to figure out some cheap way of imitating them.

For my Dad, the not so funny aspect of all this was the task of actually designing the high-pressure plastic injection moulds, so that whatever was ejected from these managed to imitate the handle of an iron, for instance. Now the capitalist decadent engineer designed the original thing, about to be copied by the communist revolutionaries, on a computer with state-of-the-art 3D modelling. My Dad worked out the shape, plotted it with geometric approximations and instructions on how to turn it into reality, on A0-sized paper, with pencils that for me had magical codes of 1H and 2H and 1B marking their softness or hardness. I remember him many times coming home, cursing the smooth curves and convoluted surfaces of the objects he had to analyse...

Then once the geometry and the technological aspects of actually making those plastic objects were sorted out, the nightmare of the plastics came... Often the revolutionary managers in those factories forgot, that with all the power of our chemical industry led by the apparently internationally renowned chemical scientist and luminary Elena Ceausescu, we simply did not possess the advanced plastics that would allowed one to produce certain objects with desperately needed, exact mechanical properties or even similar looking surface finish. The mishaps were tragicomic in the prototyping departments... It was very difficult for some to explain to the management that when the laws of physics find themselves applied to utterly crappy basic materials instead of state-of-the-art polymers, then the often undesirable end results are not part of some elaborate sabotage. It's just how the Universe works... even in the citadels of communist industrial might.

While all this was ongoing, we learnt over and over again in schools and high-schools that our industry is so awesome that we reached the state of affairs where 80 per cent of all goods produced by us were at the same level of quality as the decadent imperialist Western goods ... We also learnt that the remaining percentage represented goods that were of better quality. As a kid, could only laugh in a most interiorised manner at these statements, as everything from toys to household objects was falling apart in my hands. Unless of course, these were imported from the Soviet Union – tremendously over-engineered, but virtually indestructible wonders that managed to last and last.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

9. Metal - Part 1

Still, the thick grey brushstrokes painting over the map of Romania were in many ways outperformed by the megalomaniacal ventures of creating monolithic symbols of the regime's power, signs of the supremacy of the new world... These fit perfectly into the similarly absurd flights of fancy that communist countries submitted their green lands and cities to, but the local colours were fascinating...

Ceausescu wished to hastily turn a predominantly agricultural country into an industrial power. What other greater sign of power could there be, displayed in front of the eyes of a sceptical world, than the creation of immeasurable amounts of volts and tons by dark mighty giants – industrial giants stretching their muscles over many square miles and their breath over many layers of the atmosphere.

He continued the vision of his predecessor, who had a city named after him: Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, a new industrial city completely built from nothing. An immense steel plant in Galati produced huge amounts of bad quality steel, flaky aluminium in Slatina was being produced with ancient methods, rudimentary fertilisers made also in my home town... Then objects, small and large and humongous, with size ranked over functionality, quantity over quality, were produced by enormous ‘combinats’ as he called them...

In my home town, we had our own summer storm warning system. The chemical plant was built outside the city, then the city grew and tiptoed ever closer to the stinky monster huffing and puffing its bad breath onto what once were green fields near the river. After all, what better place to build plants like this, than in the valleys of green Transylvania, where anything the giants exhaled got stuck there, unless wind happened to blow from fortunate directions.

A high-school mate of mine lived close to it, in a newly built grey box in a newly established concrete desert, having exchanged his parents’ house and garden with a balcony overlooking the yellow smoke. He always laughed at the fact that any washing that his Mum hung out to dry acquired a uniform yellow tint. I don’t know what his lungs looked like inside, but I know asthma statistics rocketed after the plant was built. This was something doctors didn’t really dare to report as a direct result of the reeking giant.

So why was it such a good storm warning system? Well, at least it had one use for us... Whenever we were out fishing on the riverside, at the other end of the city, we could watch the yellow smoke leaving the high chimneys and headed back home in a hurry, if it started to float horizontally, as a sure sign of a storm about to unleash itself within hours. It also produced ammonia and autumns were marked by the razor sharp aroma drifting above the city, pushed down by weather fronts and changes in air pressure. For me a walk in town during the hours of the ‘ammonia attacks‘ usually ended up being paired with an asthma attack. It always became an attempt to survive with some sanity the often physically painful sensation of inhaling clouds of tiny razor blades. They stung and cut the insides of my nose, until they got past the poor cells I was cursing for being responsible for my sense of smell. The smell of ammonia in the morning did “smell like victory”, the dubious victory of Communist industrial revolution...

Saturday, 20 October 2007

8. Concrete - Part 3

When I went to school, my parents renovated one of the rooms in our house. It became my study room and when I went to high-school, my successfully and perfectly inherited obsession with books led to the need of buying extra bookshelves. So from that moment I, too was able to experience the hidden forces working day and night between the grains of compressed sawdust – but hey, it also stimulated creative thinking.

Behind each row of books my Dad put wooden sticks that propped the back of the shelves up, starting from the floor, in order to stop the shelves bending under weight. Otherwise they did droop to a point where they started touching the books on the shelf below... and below... and the whole thing started to look like something that survived the journey through the event horizon of a black hole and all the hurricanes of unimaginable gravitational forces at play therein.

I could never understand as a kid, how could all the magnanimous power blatantly displayed by the huge furniture factory just 20 minutes walk from our house, always spitting and roaring, perspiring steam and smoke and all sorts of smells, inhaling and exhaling clouds of workers every 8 hours in three shifts, could produce things so flimsy, so dysfunctional, so crumbling and sensitive to every air current in the house. Later I understood that this was one of many perfect, tangible, small-scale representations of the entire regime...

Castles and mansions sprinkled by a magic hand among the valleys and mountains of Transylvania, fuelling for centuries both dark stories and fairy tales, have also seen the all-devouring monster replacing the dazzling colours of the past with a here-and-now nothingness. That urban monster changed its appearance here, as if the magic of these mountains and their all-knowing forests could have had some influence even on them.

Countless castles that were not occupied by the higher echelons of the Party and not transformed into hunting lodges for Ceausescu's entourage were mostly looted after the war to mark the arrival of Communism, the era of equality... Who knows even the approximate list of furniture pieces, artworks, mosaics that disappeared.

These hills, valleys and omnipotent-looking, but so helpless mountains inspired many tales. As darker and more tangible versions of these tales, there were stories of early dim-witted party activists melting gold artefacts, destroying paintings, burning furniture. Nothing special about these stories, they happened everywhere on the advent of Communism, melting fiction and non-fiction together like those vandal bonfires...

What I do know though, is what remained of these places by the time the years, the walks, the fishing trips of my childhood and adolescence paid me an oh-so-fleeting visit in my life. The magnificent castles along the river Maros (or Mures in Romanian) were quietly crumbling carcasses by then... Some, like the one at Gernyeszeg (or Gornesti), were turned into orphanages, with furniture shaped by the minimalism of desperate poverty and ignorance... Others were used as barns, after all, they had huge empty spaces to fill up with hay. Even the mosaics have been destroyed by the pitchforks - and it was impossible to tell where intentional vandalism ended and ignorant savagery started. It is deeply ironic that these buildings, after surviving the thunderous and certainly blustery Transylvanian centuries, finally succumbed to the pitchforks of the communist co-operative...

Under an ingenious scheme further filling his Swiss bank accounts, Ceausescu was selling his German ethnic minority to West Germany for few thousand Deutschmarks per head, sums received from the West German government – in turn, he let his Germans emigrate. This meant that many villages have become unpopulated, being turned into ghost villages, some remaining there for all to see to this day. Most of them, after having had their life blood drip away towards distant lands, were ultimately removed from sight, bulldozed away with their houses, churches and graveyards.

Instead of Stalin’s sudden extermination of villages refusing to join the co-operative, we had this slowly progressing death, leaving behind in some cases (unless quickly removed by bulldozers) the desiccated bone structures of local cultures and communities...

Friday, 19 October 2007

8. Concrete - Part 2.

The forced nomads of the Socialist glory continued their life in such concrete boxes, like my uncle did. Their whole lebensraum of large rooms with tall ceilings and spacious courtyards and gardens and cosy terracotta stoves imploded into few meters by few meters of centrally heated (or kinda-almost-warmed) areas. Those boxes had plumbing that made them hear everybody else's biorhythm, had walls built and windows fitted according to the laws of a non-Euclidian Universe where parallels eventually did meet, had wiring that couldn't take the load of one electrical heater even if the fuses could. Rooms for tiny people with tiny pieces furniture...

So the utopia of moving one’s gorgeous furniture dating back generations into these new 'homes' was replaced by the reality of a few cubic meters, severely limiting what one could salvage from a previous life. Hence the new nomads were selling old and always beautiful furniture, buying new ones made of sawdust. The new pieces coagulated under pressurised steam into various things resembling functional furniture bookshelves being the funniest ones. These bent and failed as soon as one put two books on them, had side panels which bulged when humid weather arrived and creaked and bent into avant-garde shapes when dry heat came...

My uncle, whose family was turned into such nomads, had cupboards and wardrobes which used to amuse me as a kid... The sound made by their doors and the amount of force needed to open and close them, fighting surfaces that were rubbing hard on other surfaces, continuously changed with the weather.

I really can’t complain, trying to get onto the 10th floor whenever I was visiting my uncle did wonders for my asthma. Yes, lifts did exist in these towering pinnacles of communist architecture, but only worked 10% of the time. While my asthma was still making my days miserable, my paternal Granny used to reach the top floor where her son lived before I did... despite an age difference of 60-odd years. When the lifts did work, then these often needed certain human help. Either a finger pressing against a sensor or an electrical contact... or bodyweight leaning against the door or some metallic panel, pushing something, who cared what, out of or into some shape, allowing some wiring to function.

Then off we went with the speed of a snail that contracted rabies, elevated ourselves to the tenth floor. More often than not the lights inside the lift did not work, as the neon tube or the lightbulb was being regularly stolen by people. So before the days of sensuously lit LCD panels and backlit buttons, we relied on fingertips and visual memorisation to end up on the right floor. Pre-dating certain horror blockbusters, we had our own little experience of strange sounds and movements during the dark ascents to hopefully correct heights. Who could have complained that going to see my uncle was a boring journey?

The blockflats built in the so-called Tudor quarters (no, not named after an illustrious royal dynasty, but after a dubious Romanian ‘hero’ still open to interpretation to this day...) were notoriously numbered in the most chaotic fashion.

Well, actually, there was a logic to them, but that logic was different from any sane person’s logic. Our urban myths therefore contained sections on how people literally got lost and ended up with hypothermia during bitching cold winters while looking for a certain blockflat on a certain street. Parts of the numbering sequence turned round, took an exit left, continued orthogonally on a different street’s one side, then disappeared, continued along another route, looping back eventually to the street it started on. Those numbering schemes survive happily into the present, and cabbies with a certain masochistic inclination sometimes find them interesting.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

8. Concrete - Part 1

While physically starving the population in the drive to build the new (hungrier and hungrier) society, the most tangible and visible activity was focused on the homes. The old, far from crumbling, always spacious and cosy houses were replaced with bland, stacked, impersonal boxes of concrete.

In every city the demolition, followed by the building of grey uniformity, moved along mysterious and unpredictable paths, like waves of sand and dust shifted by the winds of socialist megalomania. The same strange winds uprooted the inhabitants of old houses and deposited them somewhere nearby in newly built grey boxes, completing one more stage in the grand plan of homogenising the population. This homogenisation did not extend to the higher-up layers of the Party who either constructed new villas or evicted inhabitants of existing ones that dated back to the heyday of the local aristocracy.

I saw whole areas of my home town disappear gradually, devoured by the bionic huffing and puffing, brick-devouring, concrete rectangular monotony-excreting monsters...

Even historical houses and buildings, unless listed as monuments, were food for these monsters that sometimes glanced at a cluster of houses trembling in their shadow, altered their feeding route, then changed their mind as a result of chaotic bureaucratic processes which took place in their brain - and for some reason let those houses for a while continue their anxious guesswork about their own future.

At least our historical city centre mostly managed to escape the rapid advances of the new, the bad, and the ugly... Other cities and towns were not so fortunate, especially in Transylvania – where there was an extra political agenda. Buildings of the past were Hungarian buildings of a Hungarian past, so it was even more important to erase these... But in the same manner the Regime did to Romanian culture what it did to minorities like us... Bucharest, which was still known in the 1930s as 'little Paris', with its heart-achingly charming, atmospheric streets and palaces of the Romanian aristocracy, had been turned into grey patterned desolation.

Our house survived several tidal waves of glorious re-building... and just when the perimeter of the expanding concrete desert reached the end of our street, the regime ended. We already had the plans from the authorities, knew where we will be relocated and my parents were planning already the exodus, but then history suddenly intervened in December 1989.

If a house was nationalised in the past, then its former owners or current occupiers received a short notice and were relocated to already built parts of the concrete wastelands. If the house, like in our case, was still owned by the people who lived there, then they benefited from a longer notice period and a symbolic compensation which was laughable ... and then relocated.

When I was 12, had the chance of meeting a dear old lady and then spending a few years listening to her, as he taught me wonderful English as elegant as the lady herself. She, while radiating the gentle scent of past eras that could only be fondly remembered by her and only imagined by me based on some antiques in her flat, taught me a language far removed from the concrete monotony in which she lived.

She was one of three sisters, all direct descendents from the grand Zichy family of Counts, who have contemplated during their life before Communism the interiors of beautiful palaces. She remained in Transylvania which became Romanian territory, she watched the Regime take everything from her. She wrote promptly censored letters to her sisters who, sensing after the war the approach of an even greater and longer lasting storm, fled to France and Germany. She spoke several languages fluently, she quoted the classics in original. She guarded her precious old books not sucked up by that great destructive storm, books that survived together with her in a small flat the passing of many monsters.

Even as a kid, with my growing awareness of the grander pictures hiding under the grey camouflage of Ceausescu's rapidly expanding concrete deserts, I often wondered what was it like for her to have lived through that transition, that slowly advancing cancer devouring everything. What was it like to come from a beautiful past I couldn't fully visualise, then arrive in that claustrophobic present?

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

7. School - Part 5

The daily walks to the richly decorated, most recent wing of the Bolyai high-school, built in the same glorious secessionist style as the main buildings in the city centre, were taking me under arches created by rows of friendly trees, past the medieval city walls and the gothic church... No longer walking among dire blockflats, no longer making my way through layers of grey in order to reach the school hiding near a day market.

Instead of a minimalist building, I could sit among grandiose architecture dreamt up by the genius that was Bernady, who created the famous look of the city centre at the beginning of the 20th century. Instead of a row of miserable blocklats, I had now a park surrounded by historical buildings, among them, the vast library of count Teleki, with books collected from all over the world throughout his life, a white building hosting first editions of Kepler’s Celestial Mechanics, works by Galilei, ancient manuscripts in Hungarian, calendars and maps from the Far East... I also had in that park, facing the main school entrance only used for festive occasions, the grey marble statue of Farkas Bolyai, the father, the maths teacher whose spirit was still contained safely among the walls of the older wings... and Janos Bolyai, the son, pupil of Gauss, inventor of the geometry that bears his name. Among these vestiges, mementos of a luminous Hungarian past, it was easy to feel safer than on the grey streets displaying the might of the here-and-now.

Instead of the abysmally maintained toilets reeking of very organic smells, detectable from the other end of the dark grey corridors, now I had sanctuaries with virtually immaculate tiles and decorated wooden doors... Instead of the dusty courtyard slouching near an immense furniture factory spewing smoke all the time, had a vast playground encircled by age-old walls, framed by a temple of physical education, always leaking into the courtyard the noise of joyous basketball games and the grunts of workouts.

It was a vastly different world, with teachers possessing PhD degrees in various fields, making sure that kids leaving this high-school, aiming for the best Universities of the country, would have a very good chance of getting through those entrance exams with flying colours.

Of course there were aberrations. Of course there were teachers, who we labelled ‘unsafe’ by us and who, as a ritual not performed by any of their colleagues, made us stand up in the morning and sing the national anthem. Thinking back, they were either brainwashed and believed in what they were doing within the tight frame of the Regime-imposed ceremonies and rituals, or... had some trouble with the Regime and tried to show to some keen ears and eyes that they were good boys. One could never tell and judgments materialised quickly in teenage minds...

Others, who had the misfortune of having taught philosophy and other such dangerous humanist subjects, ‘obsoleted’ by the Regime due to the threat of such subjects making pupils think outside their small box, were turned into teachers of genetically mutated subjects like communist political economy. I still recall the phrases in those books, sentences we had to regurgitate precisely when asked, strings of words one could not remember how they started by the time our eyes crawled all the way to the final punctuation mark. The talent, with which professional bullshiters wrote convoluted phrases with zero actual content, was admirable – pity we had to learn, actually more precisely, memorise their output.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

7. School - Part 4

The buildings themselves also need to be remembered, but only my high-school deserves fond memories. My first school, just called ‘General School No. 7’, absorbing masses of kids every day from nearby residential areas, was a sorry little thing. A bland monoblock with square windows and ostinato-like repetitions of rectangular patterns, only saved a bit by some yellow paint alternating with the whitish-grey architectural brain death dominating its overall physical attire.

The courtyard behind it was reasonably large, after all, it had to be able to accommodate the hundreds of tiny bodies boiling or shivering, depending on the weather, while standing and listening to some communist blah-blah coming from a rudimentary speaker system connected to the lips of the headmaster and the local Party activists. Inside, the classrooms, filled with old wooden benches, so criminally non-ergonomic that they would have made osteopaths very rich in any market economy, were also an exercise in communist minimalism: only contained the portrait, the blackboard, the benches and the communist emblem... with maybe, on occasion, some propaganda quotes dangling on the white walls. In order to save electricity and ruin our eyes, every second lightbulb or neon tube was taken out in the late ‘70s.

Some teachers, with a laboratory at their command, managed to make the interior infinitely more enjoyable and intriguing... Loved the biology and chemistry classes, oh and the physics lab was pure pleasure for the eyes and curious minds... Walls covered with wood and glass cabinets, shelves upon shelves filled with strange metal and crystal and plastic objects, waiting for somebody to lift them onto a desk, give them a nudge, give them life... so that they can render intricate hidden laws of the Universe visible and tangible for us.

As I was visibly passionate about maths and physics, while doing oddly well in humanist subjects, too (hence violating the boundary between rigid categories of pupils with ‘real’ or ‘humanist’ inclination), it was fairly obvious to me and my parents that I should attempt getting into the most solid high-school in Transylvania, internationally renowned for its history and continued standards in the realm of maths and physics. Only snag was that the Farkas Bolyai high-school I aimed for, with almost 500 years of history and having had the father of the inventor of non-Euclidian geometry teaching maths there in the 19th century, was fiendishly difficult to get admitted into. The entrance examination meant that for each available place, there will be at least 4-6 pupils competing... but the rewards for going through years of preparation, gruelling three-day long examination rounds, were unimaginable.

Managed to get in with a self-confidence boosting high mark, so suddenly that enormous building on the top of a hill, ten minutes walk away from my home became my everyday reality – putting an end to wondering about what goes on inside that enigmatic, mythical edifice with enormous gates and two feet thick walls...

The differences it brought into my life were gradually discovered over the four years I spent there. The vast corridors with tall ceilings, rich decorations, the imposing staircases, spacious classrooms with landscape-wide blackboards, laboratories heavy with experimental gadgets collected on their shelves over a few centuries, long reverberating acoustic spaces bouncing our voice between the mighty high walls of the gymnasium, old fading portraits of teachers and pupils from vintage years... it was a different world from my old school left behind together with my early teenage years, when I turned 15.

Monday, 15 October 2007

7. School - Part 3

Just that in order to learn about, or be pointed toward such majestic truths and non-ideological facts, I had to first get through the school gates. The Newtonian mechanics of this task were very simple, same as the getting to the school, a short walk away from our home. That simple mechanical process was sometimes hindered by heavy winters assaulting our senses with temperatures below -20 degrees centigrade. Having reached the school gates, the equations of forces governing my movements became increasingly complex. Hair length had to be within the standard limit, necktie had to be present, uniform had to be impeccable... list just grew and grew every year.

We had model pupils 'volunteered' by teachers to become for that week one of the nano-dictators guarding the school gates. Not only we could get turned back by a tiny dictator exacting his temporary powers and marked as absent until we returned to class, but if we did this in a recurrent fashion, then it was escalated to unpleasantries involving parents and Scary People in suits explaining that all this could be seen as a rebellious disregard of our model society's model rules. Hair longer than one centimetre was an act of rebellion threatening to bring down all that solid unreality, together with its scary suited people. And those portraits. Oh if only...

We feared the gatekeepers, then our turn came, had to exercise our dictatorial powers for one week, had the opportunity to learn how to practice the hypocrisy of complete role change from victim to victimiser and vice-versa. Some revelled in it, their chance to be nano-Gods for a while, and maybe scoring some good points with the head teacher by pointing out how many real or intentionally misjudged cases of long hair they sent home that day or that week. And if we couldn't give a toss, if we and our fellow 'on duty' mini-Stalins let everyone through on a cold morning, then we feared the teachers asking us why...

As a severely asthmatic kid, saturated with every chemical that 1970s Romanian medicine could throw at allergies, recurrent bronchitis, tonsillitis, sinus problems and in milder cases, just constant colds brought on by an immune system suppressed and also fed up with the cocktails poured into me, my worries about such reprimands or the absence of a tie were far outweighed by my concerns regarding standing from 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM at the gates in cold autumns, colder winters, without catching yet again something that would knock me out for at least a week.

As a sheer contrast to current levels of discipline in the classroom (or rather, total lack of...), teachers were unconditionally respected. It didn’t matter that one teacher’s husband was in the higher circles of the Army and that she used this fact as a platform for her pseudo-patriotic speeches. It didn’t matter that another one was useless and incompetent to a degree where fourth grade kids could catch her out on various silly things during a physics lesson. Teachers simply triggered an onset of deafening silence as soon as they opened the door... everything in the classroom becoming suddenly motionless, all heads looking toward the door that, with its creaking, promised fifty minutes of random Q&A sessions, marking of answers, good or bad or just new things voiced and shown, old things told and demonstrated and demanded to be remembered... Some kids with certain comic genes used to hang around a bit after the break, intensively doing nothing on the corridors, then after things settled a bit and before teachers’ shoes became audible on the concrete stairs, they opened the door, enjoying the sudden silent stillness that overtook the classroom.

Then the laughter, a mixture of relief and acknowledgement of their budding, still kinda primitive, but undeniably effective comical talents... Then the real menace arrived, wielding the large catalogue of pupils, being able to write in there, with a quite non-magical ballpoint pen, marks bringing euphoria or deep angst to us... Budding comedians handed over the scene to budding actors explaining the cosmological reasons for not having had their homework done... also budding opportunists had their chances, always first to jump for wetting the sponge for the teacher, before he or she started to lay down white marks on the blackboard, running out onto the corridor, finding a tap, running back with the dripping sponge and hoping they score some points...

Saturday, 13 October 2007

7. School - Part 2

At 8AM, the school was in... Days filled with wonderful travels of the mind, using as route planner only some chalk on an antediluvian blackboard, only some voices, some hand gestures... and sometimes, a small amount of fascinating kit in a physics or chemistry lab. I am grateful for the desperate shortcomings of those mini-worlds shut up between bland concrete walls.

In the absence of well-equipped state-of-the-art classrooms and labs, in the presence of ideology meant to suppress far-reaching thoughts, we learnt to imagine things. To visualise ancient battles, with all the details of the dust clouds stirred up by heels of human, semi-human or downright Godly creatures in wonderful armour... To picture clouds of electrons going through a glass tube and somehow, magically, giving us white light.

My favourite music teacher used to bring old LPs, played them on an ancient Polish-made turntable, illustrated abstract musical theories... I recall her games, playing pieces from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, making us guess which tableau tiptoeing out of the crackling, battered wooden box was being depicted by which piece... and lending us classical recordings and music books as rewards. I remember ‘winning’ a Hungarian-language biographical novel on the life of J.S. Bach and begging her to show me at least snippets of the pieces described there. I wanted to know what his organ pieces sounded like, after reading about him having walked as a boy across Germany just to hear the age-old Buxtehude play the organ...

She sent us to special 'educational' concerts, where many of us genuinely loved watching and listening grownups playing with invisible engines in the huge reverberating garage of what the city's concert hall temporarily became, as the local Philharmonic on Sunday mornings deconstructed a light Mozart or Haydn piece, showed us the components hovering in the air, just the notes from the violins, then violas, then something else and something else and then... magic!... assembled the sometimes strangely shaped sonic parts with the magical tools at the musicians' disposal, following invisible drawings and sketches made in the air by the tip of the conductor's baton... and voilà!... there was suddenly a familiar tune, the huge musical engine assembled from its myriad parts, purring away nicely, smoothly, obediently, the well-lubricated notes gliding over soft rhythms, in all their playful complexity of invisible cogs perfectly fitting and held together by intricate laws we so genuinely ended up loving.

Abstract concepts, counterpoints and harmonies and chord resolutions became tangible there, they had shape and taste... and oh, yes, they had body.

The conductor happened to be the husband of one of my Mum's colleagues – and I often played chess or considerably more childish games with the son, so knew as an absolute fact that his father spent many hours thinking up new playful ways to make us feel the taste of a chord, the colour of a counterpoint. He thought of matching the musical program to the seasons, carry the heat of the sunshine, the odour of the spring rain, the crisp sounds of the snow under our feet into the concert hall. He thought of picking children's stories and fairy tales and some bits from the 1001 Nights... and illustrating them with pieces ranging from baroque to contemporary.

Friday, 12 October 2007

7. School - Part 1

I recall the kaleidoscope-like crystal clusters of the school days during the Regime which, in its quest for the perfect-looking hallucinations of its present and future, got so terribly desperate in altering its past & present.

Altering its past was easy, many times over and over, with a truly post-modern mixture of fiction, regurgitated non-fiction, all wrapped in ideology. A shifting sand of regularly revised and re-written history, with landmines of dangerous dogmas.
Most of the time the only new books that turned up in that foul-smelling store room of my school were on history and literature.

Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology... these were waiting for our minds on the pages of always old books, after all, they immunised themselves with their pages filled with diagrams and magical symbols grouping themselves into equations. Immunised, if not against the total changes of our understanding of the Universe, not against all the dogmas, but at least those recent communist ones.

But literature was full of re-interpreted poets and writers, writing innocent or powerful or dangerous things, falling prey to the censors’ often psychiatrically interesting insights. It turned out that some poets wrote things that had either intentionally hidden meaning, or just resonated in ways that led to mental associations people were not meant to have. Or maybe the contemporary writer was perfectly fine, but said something or acted in ways that clashed with the ideology, in which case the author and all his works vanished, traces of his existence erased, schoolbooks altered and re-printed, magically, over the few hot months of summer. At least this meant new shiny literature books in the mouldy store room...

Oh, and history... now that really needed reprints, as it was full of battlefields of ideas and principles, facts seen through the imperfect looking glass of chronicle-writers, eternally destined for re-interpretation and in our case, heavy censorship.

Then literature and history was combined, the Regime's best censors-cum-inventors coming up with new histories, new chronicles. A regime, which was incapable of altering its future (as it became apparent on 22 December 1989...) and constructed a painstakingly put together fake tableau of its present, has managed to effortlessly reshape its past.

In fourth grade, we learnt one thing. While re-iterating again history in more in-depth manner in eighth grade, things changed on the pages of recently revised replacements of old battered schoolbooks. Then in high-school, again inventive metamorphosis happened. Minds too young to understand the 'why', swam in the ever-changing currents of the 'what'. Very sensitive chapters, like those related to the 'moving' of Transylvania from Hungary to Romania, WW2 and the role of the Party in it were continuously re-written, with majestic inventions unfolding over many convincingly absurd pages.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

6. Breath - Part 6

Ceausescu’s alternative Universe was a place where subjective reality reigned. If you didn’t know about something, it did not exist. Oh, if only germs were subject to ideological branding of their little lethal DNA strands... as mental health was also a concern for the Regime.

Certain psychiatric diagnoses were banned. Unless they were dangerous, schizophrenics were kept in jobs and my Dad’s colleague, who was suffering random episodes, used to casually re-arrange the office furniture in quite violent way and switch equally casually between personalities. But his condition did not exist... Only if he killed someone, then he would have been taken to the psychiatric hospital on the hills. Ah, always scenic positions designated for these buildings... this one was near the City Zoo, in a beautiful forest.

Depression also ruined lives and we sometimes heard about suicides after years and years spent by a person being terminally miserable, but it wasn’t really diagnosed or treated in any way. It was something for Ms. Ellie Ewing in the Dallas series to suffer from, while musing over whether she drills on her dead husband’s land for petrol or not. Not we... we were a positive society building a luminous world. Well, when electricity happened not to be cut off for several hours.

Evil, having roamed those mountains and plains for a long time, has evolved and had no reason to hide in the dark. It was walking around defiantly and immune to any beam of light created by photons or reason. This Evil was rational and well planned, even if it led to chaotic-looking everyday manifestations or downright tragicomic situations for its own entertainment.

This rational planning meant that my paternal Granny, suffering from stomach cancer and misdiagnosed for many months as spinal column-induced pain, had to wait several extra tens of minutes for the ambulance whenever she needed one. The ambulance station was close to us, five minute walk, one minute drive - but anybody above the age of 60 was of lower priority. Even if paramedics had nothing else to do, they had to delay help. Old people were a burden and by the way, they saw what the world before the War was like, before the Communists arrived as a liberating force...

My Granny never had the ambulance reach her in less than 20-25 minutes, my Mum never had to wait more than five - and if one hadn’t heard the real reasons from doctors who shared few bizarre facts with trusted patients, one would have put it down as some paranoid conclusion arising from a simple statistical quirk.

Stalin executed his soldiers who saw the West. Ceausescu made sure, slowly, comfortably, without breaking an administrative sweat, that the ‘old’ generation had increased chances of expiring. Together with them, the memories of an old and softer reality would hopefully die gradually – leaving us with the metallic rough edges of the only reality perceivable by us, the one created by the Regime.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

6. Breath - Part 5.

Even humble germs with just a strand of DNA that had no protein groups designated for encoding imperialistic views, organisms with simple metabolisms that took over someone’s healthy cells without any particularly capitalist attack on one’s immune system, were all subject to ideological scrutiny.

The germs, poor little things, knew just good old methods tried and proven since the days when politicians only existed as some more ambitious, primitive single-cell organisms (well, some things never change...). But even these germs were branded as subversive imperialists. Well, not all, as the majority were happily converted to Communist dogmas, but some remained dangerously subversive. Certain diseases and conditions could not exist in the glorious society we were building, they were the diseases of the West.

So HIV could not exist. The AIDS it caused, could not exist. Any doctor who dared to report some strange, but oh-so characteristic set of symptoms in patients, faced the Securitate and had sudden non-biological hell in his life unleashed by his/her defiance of the edicts issued from ‘high up’. If any doctor got his/her hands on test kits for certain banned diseases and then reported positive results, was in even bigger trouble because this was seen as an act undermining the system.

Would you watch some patient die, no matter how young, from something that was perfectly matching descriptions only those few banned diseases had? Would you fake the medical reports, making them talk about degenerative pneumonia and mysterious organ failures and other nonsense?... Or you’d open your mouth and while you watched them die, at least you would try to do something for being able to diagnose those conditions officially? Latter would have meant you and maybe your family, too sliding into misery you did not want to (or often could not) imagine.

Blood for transfusions could not be tested for those germs. While for example HIV cases were very rare, one had to hope that the blood one received during an operation was something that would keep one alive rather than kill him later. Again, hope. What else? Prayers maybe, but then God would have had to bend Ceausescu’s reality into a less lethal shape and there wasn’t much evidence of that happening – until the 1989 big bang.

By then, the numbers of HIV positive kids rocketed... A few doctors, who held the Hippocratic oath and their moral survival higher than their own physical and economic wellbeing, have tested for it and made reports that got aired anonymously on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America... Doesn’t matter how those figures were bloated by those underground media entities, the facts remained: deadly winds have been blowing, but people in position to notice it could not say anything. And above all, could not do anything.

6. Breath - Part 4.

The one and only thing I loved, among all those things they kept prescribing me, was swimming. It was physical effort, paradoxically recommended against all other bans signed by the same doctors. It was meant to positively help thoracic muscles to strengthen, but I was advised to take a puff of magic substance as preventative measure before every swim. Even so, as my lung capacity was shot, no matter how much I loved swimming I had to take breaks even if my arms and tiny muscles could still propel me in the water. I simply had no air and had to come out of the pool to catch my breath - but at least it was the normal feeling of being out of breath, not a visit from that obese monster planning to accommodate itself on my chest to read his copy of ‘Sadism Weekly’.

The medical exemptions helped me at least in having a good reason for avoiding certain communist ‘homage’ marathons... They also saved me from compulsory National Service... Latter was quite interesting, as the requirement for escaping being drafted was to produce an asthma attack under supervision, while staying in a military hospital for a few weeks. Even if this requirement were satisfied, we have not heard of anybody escaping from the maelstrom of the military machine that was sucking in anybody able to walk on two legs, then proceeded to sometimes either kill or in fortunate cases, hospitalise him when the underlying medical condition took over his body. So the chances of me being drafted with even severe asthma were pretty much 100%. It happened to all the kids my age in the closely monitored group of most severe cases, regardless of how many doctors wrote notes on top of the often 8’’ thick medical files each of these kids had since their early years...

But back to healthcare... The vision for the health system was as grand as all of Ceausescu visions. Only in my home town, apart from specialist clinics, they built several polyclinics... These were veritable industrial establishment where, on a conveyor belt, they could do any test and consultation within hours or in worst case, a few days.

The one built on the hillside, next to the shooting ground where we practiced in school the defence of the realm and also next to the new cemetery, was notorious for its labyrinthine internal layout. People for years kept getting lost and we successfully managed to do that several times with my Mum.

The cemetery kept expanding, so by the time I was 14 years old and visited that polyclinic for some analyses, the graves were a couple of hundred yards away from the back of the T-shaped polyclinic building, exactly the part where intensive care and A&E departments had wards on the ground and first floors. I kept wondering, what was it like for those people to look out on the window, admiring the graveyard... One school kid joke (well, among school kids with health problems needing a visit to the upper floors on the same side of the building) was that maybe those poor souls can even pick their place in the graveyard, while the Communist healthcare slowly kills them.

Funnily, the ability to do quick analyses and hence have results back fast was counter-acted by the overall chaos that governed the system. Maintenance of equipment was abysmal and this didn’t just mean hi-tech equipment... It started from something as basic as a sink.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

6. Breath - Part 3.

Finally, when I was 10 years old, we found a doctor who was for some reason allowed to travel in the West a lot. He managed to get his hands on heaps of interesting stuff, so one day, during my guinea pig phase, he showed me red spots on my forearm after a skin prick test... Finally, somebody told us that yes, there is a logic to all of this.

So kid, stay away from house dust, flowers and feathers... If autumnal humid weather comes, don’t walk too fast, don’t run, don’t be a kid, just take care and have the inhaler and the pills and some water on you. Don’t use the Berotec inhaler too soon, as it does things to your heart and it is also addictive...

My Mum laughed on hearing the latter. She assured him, as I recall exactly (maybe because it boosted my self-perception of this little bundle of macho endurance I was), that with this kid there wouldn’t be any problems with over-reliance on the drug. I would endure it for at least an hour and if the asthma attack was still using my chest as a sofa, then I would consider using the inhaler.

I inherited Hope, yes, with capitals, from my Mum... I can’t explain any other reason for a kid torturing himself for tens of minutes while it was clearly getting worse, without applying that little can of magic substance that after a couple of puffs made the heavy monster sitting on me lift his fat arse and run away.

So kept hoping, that maybe it all goes away in 20-30 minutes on its own, let’s start with the pill and then see... When I grew up, this self-torturing variant of Hope came handy for so many other things located outside my body, but equally absurd and unpredictable... things that were pressing and squeezing not my chest, but my mind and soul.

Used to be called in for week-long trials in hospital, when some new drug was fetched via some magic networking by some doctor specialising in asthma. Things like Intal were first tried on us in the whole county - a small group of kids having to administer it and tick boxes on long sheets about how we felt during the coming few months as we continued treatment at home.

The only thing that ever produced long-term results, was the still controversial desensitisation. The same doctor who did the skin prick test on me in 1981 embarked on a two-year long journey with me and a few other serious cases... So by the time I was 13, noticed that after the long series of injections, I could stay indoors when my Dad was vacuum-cleaning the house. I could walks past trees and flowers in the spring, could also sleep on feather pillows for the first time in my life. The allergies were gone, all that remained was a random, annoying habit of producing milder asthma attacks without any clear trigger, sometimes wet weather, sometimes a weather front, maybe fog, maybe just laughing and exerting my lungs too much while watching a film...

Comedies, that helped my escapism from Ceausescu’s parallel Universe I was stuck in, used to trigger the attacks in cinemas, so I always had the inhaler on me... So I could laugh with a peace of mind... using potent chemicals not to induce, but to allow happy laughter.

This stubborn, seemingly also effort-related mess meant that in primary school and throughout high-school I was medically exempt from any physical effort... So stayed frail and tiny, an asthmatic misery on two legs, pale and with a stance like a question mark that was kicked up the backside, as my GP used to describe it.

I only realised later that some ad-hoc treatments prescribed with the best knowledge Romanian medicine was allowed to possess were downright stupid... A growing kid submitted to many weeks of steroid pills, for instance – it not only suppressed allergies that were triggering my asthma attacks, but also made me catch every cold and had virtually non-stop tonsillitis. My GP decided against taking my tonsils out, as he felt that those things helped a little bit with my immune system. So I still have them...

Monday, 8 October 2007

6. Breath - Part 2

And before finally somebody prescribed potent inhalers imported from the elusive ‘West’, my Dad used to lift me up and walk around in the room with me, talking to me. We used to look out through the window as if we have just discovered how all those leaves have changed position and numbers in the wind... When I actually started to turn blue and clearly looked like I was beyond just severe discomfort, when it really started to starve my body of oxygen, then it was time to give up, call an ambulance – the bringer of the cortisone shot...

Once the whole mare caught me while we were at the the mountain resort of Tusnad, as recommended by doctors. Sea and mountains, opposites of our land, were seen as the natural cure for the condition. The Black Sea was too far away from us, so the Carpathian mountains around Transylvania were the closer and easier answer. Just that before allergy tests arrived in our small world we didn’t have a clear pattern of what triggers the attacks... Unfortunately for me, they had luscious duck feather pillows in the motel we stayed at ... and guess what, there I was, blue again, age seven, skinny and hence fortunately light, in a mountain village with only one sleeping doctor but not one phone in the motel... So my Dad lifted me and managed to run half a kilometre with me to the doctor, woke him up... and tada, I received my hydrocortisone shot that solved everything for a while.

I never talked about the psychobabble side of this, but I’m sure it does something to a kid, after all, I lived in great fear of my own body. Hated it. Not due to some stupid image problem induced by Calvin Klein male underwear adverts – I wish I had the contemporary childhood or teenage angst about looks and weight and oh yes, muscles. It was a lot simpler in my case, simply feared and hated my body, full stop. The bastard could just randomly turn me into a sweaty, quivering, panicking and above all, desperately wheezing bundle of two tiny lungs and one mind closing in on itself. After all, it was trying to hide inside my skull from the fear then discomfort then physical pain unleashed on it by some ribs and two small pink bags filled with trapped air. Yes, I definitely hated my body.

I can not describe, well, could try since we are here, the feeling of an asthma attack of that proportion going away. It was as if a very heavy monster with a huge arse is standing up slowly, leaving my chest that he used as a comfortable sofa for minutes or hours, fidgeting randomly... That precious feeling of slowly taking deeper and deeper breaths, pushing out the trapped air and replacing it with life... Sometimes my ribs were still hurting the next day, what I know now as intercostals all screwed up by the effort... But hey, I was breathing again.

It really was physical pleasure. I kept saying to my parents that it was really like some door was opening up inside me. When it all got back to normal, with some reminiscent odd sounds and the pain in my chest and sides and back, it was Heaven.

When all this grand mess was finally diagnosed as asthma, doctors finally gave us some pills and later an inhaler to try them whenever that monster jumped on my chest in school or on the street. Some steroid-based pills helped, but as they slowly kicked in whenever I needed them, I used to take a very slow walk home while my breathing got worse and worse. Schoolmates and teachers said, while watching some of my asthma attacks grabbing me before the happy possession of inhalers came into my life, that I had a very strong will... This would have made me feel proud if it were related to anything else than enduring these attacks...

Our doctors had nothing logical to offer, the local specialists were decades behind the ‘Western’ knowledge – apart from some medicines they managed to get their hands on and try. Still, they had no overall picture on what was happening to me... or whether it would ever get better. I really only cared about whether they can help me not go through the mental and above all, physical torture of the random attacks.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

6. Breath - Part 1

My asthma, first diagnosed at the age of four, certainly allowed me to get a good insight into the inner workings of the Romanian health service.

The presence of a chemical plant in our town probably had something to do with asthma statistics as they seemed to sharply rocket in 70s... but at least I didn’t really care about any particular reasons when I was fighting for breath. I had the dubious honour of being among the five most serious cases in the county, and kept being selected for experimental treatments of new drugs brought in from the West from time to time.

I don’t think there is any other more organic act than air being inhaled and exhaled... and maybe nothing scares a kid more than not being able to do that.
Well, to be precise, it was all about not being able to exhale, gradually filling up like a balloon with trapped air, my sides hurting, every rib wanting to bend more and more, taking small gulps of air, trying to exhale it in painful squeezes, hoping that there is at least the same tiny quantity of air next time making it successfully into my lungs, but that amount of precious air kept decreasing and decreasing ...

Gosh at least it caught me at home ... now I hear my wheezing sounds like a very broken bagpipe or some screwed up vacuum cleaner when will it either stop completely and just be done with this shit forever it lasts sometimes tens of minutes sometimes a few hours and would I dare I can I wait that long this time can a body suffocate itself is it that stupid probably is don’t get scared makes it worse you know very well it squeezes that damn chest more getting so sweaty my shirt is stuck to my body as if I need anything more to confine and grab and squeeze my chest this is so stupid I would do anything anything in the world to have one deep breath again please do something I really don’t care just end this one way or the other...

And before finally somebody prescribed potent inhalers imported from the elusive ‘West’, my Dad used to lift me up and walk around in the room with me, talking to me.

We used to look out through the window as if we have just discovered how all those leaves have changed position and numbers in the wind... When I actually started to turn blue and clearly looked like I was beyond just severe discomfort, when it really started to starve my body of oxygen, then it was time to give up, call an ambulance – the bringer of the cortisone shot...

Saturday, 6 October 2007

5. Praise - Part 3

During the forced exhibitions of simulated gratitude and joy, certain chapters of physics and anatomy have been ignored again... For example, what signals did an eight years old brain receive from the body when latter was standing still in 11 degrees centigrade on a November morning for several hours? We were not allowed to leave and break the geometric patterns constructed in His honour while other parts of the big picture were rehearsed or tweaked.

The white nylon pioneer shirts worn by us probably looked great against the green backdrop of the hillside or in the stadium where we were brought to. We were to become pixels in yet another humungous picture of joy and happiness, of pure gratitude felt for our Leader.

No wonder, my parents had enough of every such pixelisation having been followed by a period of illness, I lying in bed for a week or more with fever and bronchitis that decided to steer towards random asthma attacks whenever it felt like it. It all made me sound like a biological version of a smaller bagpipe, sometimes escalating itself to levels needing cortisone injections in order to stop me from turning blue. We just had to find a doctor who was brave enough to sign medical papers based on my considerable (and physically hard to carry) medical file, telling “to whom it may concern” that this child was exempt from being turned into slowly frozen or gradually overheated pixel in some glorious picture.

So I could stay in school or at home- but often, we still received evening visits from the head teacher or some other opportunist wishing to either talk to my parents and/or check in on me. I remember some of the lovely schoolmates even who, maybe due to a total lack of understanding of what world they were living in (or an already matured good understanding of not only that world, but also how they could score points in it), could say things like "why, he was looking fine yesterday"... Then it took hours for my parents to explain that yes, this is a chronic condition triggered by a huge list of things, many of those occurring in predictable succession during the process of my body being used as a tiny dot in a huge picture in mid-August or early November...

Sometimes, our grudging, bare minimum of we-are-here-and-have-to-be-here-but-don’t-expect-euphoria cheering wasn’t enough. There were comments from teachers doing the rallies out of genuine conviction (how does an educated person become so brainwashed?) or opportunism, comments on how hard we should have applauded or waved or shouted. Technology was there to help, not just in the TV studios mixing the scenes together with recorded tsunami waves of applause and cheering. It also helped on the streets where, among the trees lining the main route He always took through our city, there were speakers blasting the same sound waves, turning our increasingly lethargic act into a veritable tour de force.