Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Collection of Random Observations About Romania That Are Too Underdeveloped to Merit Unique Blog Entries

From Kiev, Ukraine; Bucharest, Romania
  • According to a librarian at a high school in Râmnicu Vâlcea, it is difficult to catch kids plagiarizing reports from the internet because the students generally steal reports written in English and then translate them, thus "laundering" the theft.

  • Increasing numbers of Romanian college students are finding that their degrees are useless outside of their own country, so more and more of them are applying for scholarships in the United States and other countries, which is likely contributing to the growing "brain drain" issue in Romania.

  • Communist traditions still survive: in Râmnicu Vâlcea you can mail an international package only on Wednesday, and from only one particular post office.

  • If you go to a restaurant you're more likely to observe Romanians drinking there than eating and drinking, presumably because it's cheaper to eat at home (but it's nice to go out for a drink).

  • Romanian advertising firms are scarce. Romanians interested in advertising and marketing generally go to other countries. My theory behind this is that after 1989 foreign companies swooped into Romania, and those companies tap their own countries' advertising firms for their marketing needs. TV commercials in Romania are generally generic, Euro commercials, the sort where there is either no speaking, speakers speak off camera, or the lines are dubbed. Unless there are Romanian-made products worth marketing on a large scale within the country, there will not be a demand for Romanian marketing firms.

  • Sighişoara makes a perfect Valentine's Day vacation spot. In addition to being beautiful and boasting many charming hotels, there is a strong "red" theme (red curtains, red candles on tables, etc.). The Valentine's Day connection is accidental, stemming from the fact that the city is Vlad Ţepeş's birthplace, hence a heavy "Dracula" theme that emphasizes all things (blood) red.

  • In a restaurant with candles on tables, with all things being equal (size of tables, number of chairs at tables, and time of placement of candles on tables), the "best" table should be the one with the shortest candle.

  • Racial profiling of gypsies is the norm. When one tried boarding a bus I was on, the driver asked him to produce his ticket (I was not asked to show mine). It worked, since the gypsy did not have a ticket. I guess the question is: Were any non-gypsies on the bus traveling without tickets?

  • The tendency for ATM machines to dispense large bills that no merchant wants to break must be a technique invented by Ukrainians and Romanians to help quickly ID tourists.

  • Iron Maiden is more popular in Romania (and other European countries) today than I remember them being when I was a teenager. Does Iron Maiden have a signature song?

  • Romanians are crazy about pretzels. In Iasi every morning there was a line for pretzels at every place that sold them.

  • Romanians are also crazy about pizza. In some cities literally every other restaurant advertises itself as a "pizzerie."

  • Romanians love old Italian pop music, which plays in many restaurants.

  • Romanians consider a trip to Paris to be an important pilgrimage, since France and Romania were so strongly linked culturally before communism.

  • Embroidered on luggage carried by a Baia Mare couple on train: "A Series of Wiebao Tradelling Bags and Knatsacks."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lost Opportunity in Romania

Talk to any Romanian, or at least any of the many Romanians I have talked with, and all will tell you that Romania is a land of lost opportunities. The reason for the loss of those opportunities, most believe, is corruption, which has long been an issue in Romania. The Romanian people believe that their politicians are feathering their own nests rather than investing in the future of the country. Romanians believe that any politician can be--and is--bought, and so nothing improves.

The clearest lost opportunity is in agriculture. It is clearest because the problem can be glimpsed during any intercity train ride.

Romania is blessed with large spreads of fertile land. Farming techniques are charmingly antiquated; shepherds still stand watch over their flocks, sometimes resting one booted foot against the other while leaning on a walking stick. Horse-drawn wagons are a normal sight; carriage wheels criss-cross the tracks of rabbits in the snow.

Which raises an obvious question: Where are the tractors? The seeders? The harvesters and other tools familiar to all FarmVille players?

Yes, it's winter, and in winter there is not a lot of planting or harvesting to be observed. But Romanians will tell you that things don't change in spring or summer. Wikipedia has some footnoted citations about agriculture in Romania regarding the relative scarcity of tractors and the agedness of the equipment currently in use.

Romanians speak of the richness of the soil with pride, as if it were a gift from God. They feel that gift is being squandered by their politicians. It's preventing Romania from moving forward. It's sacrilege.

Some Birds Seen Between 12 and 2 PM Today in Baia Mare, Romania

From Kiev, Ukraine; Bucharest, Romania

Eurasian Bullfinch
Eurasian Jay
Eurasian Nuthatch
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Eurasian Collared Dove
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Rock Pigeon


Extra - some interesting species from days past

9 February 2010:
Hawfinch, in Sibiu

10 February 2010:
Great Cormorant and Pygmy Cormorant, in Călimăneşti

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Soundtrack to Romania, February 2010

Timbaland feat. Nelly Furtado and SoShy - Morning After Dark
Jay Ko feat. Anya - One
Residence Deejays and Frisco - Sexy Love
Lady Gaga - Bad Romance
One Republic - All the Right Moves
Iyaz - Replay
Dan Bălan - Chica Bomb
Jordin Sparks - S.O.S.
Ke$ha - Tik Tok
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Hey Joe*
Guess Who - Locul Potrivit
Cascada - Evacuate the Dancefloor

*Played in two different bars in two different cities two nights in a row. Go figure.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Romania: Non-Sweeps Week

From Kiev, Ukraine; Bucharest, Romania
Today I write from a cafe called "The Atrium" in Sibiu. Greatest hits of classical music play on the speakers. I sip on a Carlsberg. It's blue skied and sunny, with temperatures warm enough to compel me to finally ditch my tattered leather-esque jacket (stuffed into a garbage can en route to the Old Town). Sunshine reveals that the main church here has alternating colored shingles which resemble the back of some exotic species of snake (a gaboon viper, perhaps). The back of the black statue in front of the church is spotted with snowballs hurled by students who go to the school facing it. It's really beautiful. Temperatures may sail up to 10 degrees Celsius in the coming days, which means I might need to head north again soon. :-D A return to Kiev, or perhaps a visit to Estonia, which has long held my imagination. But first I must visit my friends in Iasi, something I greatly look forward to.

I am currently reading an amusing detective novel called "She Lover of Death," by a Moscow writer named Boris Akunin, which is set in 1900.

I have some interesting article ideas, and I have lined up interviews for as early as Wednesday this week. More will be revealed when I finish those pieces.

Over the past few days Cristina and I took a whirlwind tour through some of the top cities in Romania, beginning with Cluj-Napoca, then Sighisoara, and finally Sibiu. If you go only to Bucharest you have not seen the best of Romania. These three cities I mention, along with Brasov, should be your top priorities if you come out here. You cannot fail to fall in love with them. But I will always love the grimy rough-and-tumble of Bucharest and Iasi as well. What can I say? I love Romania.

As for the telenovela that is the Bank of America saga, Bank of America froze my credit card, but then unfroze it when I called in a panic after a failure to get cash at Raiffeisen Bank today. Anyway, I have my cash now. But the big news is that Bank of America may have successfully sent a replacement debit card to Bucharest, my friend Razvan informed me a few minutes ago via SMS.

I realize this entry is a basically a list of facts and places, and that my Picasa page has not been updated with the latest images either. Consider this something like a TV episode during a non-sweeps week. It's informative, it provides an update, and it allows you to stay in touch with where this character is right now. But sweeps week will be upon us soon. ;-)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Milk & Honey with Gorchitza

From Kiev, Ukraine; Bucharest, Romania

(This article ran in Kyiv Post in slightly different format; I posted this on my blog after I thought it had been "pocket vetoed" by their editors, only to learn it had been run after all!)

Gorchitza Live Project's 2008 debut album included several infectious pop house songs ("One True Message," "Time is Right"). Their funk-tastic "Final Cut" has been tearing up the Ukrainian pop chart in recent weeks, and the group is currently wrapping up work on their sophomore album. On 22 January they debuted some terrific material from the forthcoming album at the grand opening of club Crystal Hall.

After years of listening to Gorchitza from an ocean away, I found myself late for a Kiev cafe rendez-vous with the band. I stumbled up to the table where singer Allois and manager Andrey were waiting for me. I was wheezing and coughing from running the final blocks in the subero temperatures. Andrey suggested warm milk and honey to sooth my ragged throat, and when I had finally caught my breath we proceeded to discuss all things "mustard" (that's "Gorchitza" translated into English).

Gorchitza's principal composer got started as many musicians do--by noodling around. "When I was 19 I worked as a sound engineer at a little provincial radio station," Alexey explains. "The editor room was empty in evenings, so I liked to glue films in loops and to play a synthesizer."

Singer Allois was singing in a club when Andrey stumbled across her. "I was really shocked because I called immediately from that club to Alexey and said, 'We found her! We found her!' "

Judging by publicity photos posted to their MySpace and Facebook pages, Allois and Alexey are the core of Gorchitza. In the studio they also receive additional input from guitarist Oktav. In concert the live group often adds a drummer and bassist.

I asked Allois why she sings in English when most Ukrainian groups stick to Ukrainian or Russian?

"It's natural," Allois says. "I listen to music which is written by English-language singers, so English sounds much better and more suitable for writing songs."

After Allois pens her lyrics she sends them to a friend in London to proof-read, "because I might not know some rules; some specific things about English."

The influence of more westerly European and American music is strong. "I prefer British music," Alexey explains. "I am also fond of the French sound and American hip-hop." Hearing I was from Atlanta, Allois praised Atlanta singer Gaelle, whose solo album Transient has been on heavy rotation on her iPod.

But if you are a Ukrainian group that writes its name in Roman letters instead of Cyrrilic, sings English-language lyrics, and draws most of its influences from west of Ukraine's borders, doesn't this alienate you from Ukrainian fans?

"We can't be famous in this country because people don't understand what we are singing about," Allois says pessimistically.

"Our problem here [in Ukraine] is that we are not recognized as a Ukrainian band," manager Andrey says. "People always tell us, 'Are you singing the song? No, it's not you! It's a kind of famous European band, and you're just doing a cover!' "

But Andrey sees a positive side to focusing on international success. "When Ukrainians are abroad--students who go to London or students who go to Paris--and they talk about the country and the music from the country, they play CDs of us. For them we are a symbol of pride."

Romanian dance producers made the switch from Romanian-language lyrics to English ones over the course of the last ten years, which has yielded phenomenal international chart success for such artists as Inna and Morandi. Is Gorchitza attempting to blaze the same sort of path for Ukrainian dance artists?

"It's not so simple," Andrey says. He notes the tremendous amount of time it takes to coordinate various aspects of an international music career (lining up release dates in different countries to coincide with different festival dates). "It only works together. We cannot put 'Time is Right' into iTunes and then come to America two years after. It doesn't make sense."

As is also the case with the Ukrainian movie industry, the fall of the Soviet Union has seen the dismantling of much of the infrastructure for Ukrainian music distribution (which remained in Moscow). Now Ukraine is attempting to build a new music network within its own borders. It's a difficult process. Gorchitza has been very thankful for the fact that Russians are enthusiastic about their music, and have seen a fruitful partnership emerge with Russian music promoters in recent months.

We conducted the interview shortly after the first round of presidential elections, so I asked about their interest in the politics.

"We are not interested at all," Andrey says. "We are living in it, and it's a pretty awful situation. I never voted in my life. I am 32 and I never voted.

"It's not so interesting when you are living here. It's a kind of exploitation of minds. That is why politics is more popular here than music. It's a rival for us."

Alexey did not join us at the cafe (his responses in this article were emailed later). He has been consumed by work on the second album. "I’m almost absorbed by this process," he writes. "I guess our band has been born only now."

Gorchitza has talent and solid tunes. The only question is whether they will find international success before they are celebrated within their own country.

The EU, Diasporas, and Conflict

Seems most of the problems in Europe and Eurasia are derived from tensions between diasporas that seek either unification with other countries or their own independence, and the governments of the countries that host them. One region that has traditionally had some issues is the one I am visiting right now: Cluj-Napoca, a Romanian city with a sizable Hungarian diaspora.

Romania's Hungarian diaspora is the result of the usual tug-of-war between Central and Eastern European countries that went on throughout the centuries. Only a couple of hours ago I heard high school kids speaking Hungarian, and this morning Cristina and I visited a Catholic church where wreathes decorated with Hungarian flags lay beneath a sculpture of the crucified Christ. To counterbalance this Hungarian-ness there is a more nationalistic fervor amongst "traditional" Romanians living in the city.

But things have been OK here in Cluj, as opposed to the much more worrying state of affairs one encounters in the Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine, and the various Eurasian countries.

The difference seems to be the EU. Cristina noted this morning that the EU makes borders less relevant. Hungarian-speaking Romanians who wish to travel from Romania to their friends and family in Hungary, or vice-versa, can do so relatively painlessly, as opposed to those who must travel from country to country outside the EU.

The difficulties of traveling to Russia are especially pronounced. Even a tourist must jump through a series of gauntlets to get in (this includes the need for an official letter of invitation from somebody within the country; hotels will write these for the tourists who plan to stay in them).

It seems that with more open borders between countries the potential for conflict between those countries would be diminished. While throwing open the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia would be foolish if done tomorrow, it seems in the long run that fluid borders could provide a safety valve for releasing pressure that has traditionally come from diasporas that, due to their present political situations, feel (or literally are) trapped within their countries.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Conversation Between Me and a Romanian Taxi Driver in Valcea

held 5 February 2010

"The song on the radio sounds familiar to me," I say to Cristina. "It might be from around 1999 or so." (I say this because it features Romanian-language lyrics, and most Romanian pop today is in English. Plus, there is something distantly familiar about the singers' voices.)

The taxi driver turns his head. "Yes. It is from 1999," he affirms.

"Maybe it's that group Andreea?" I say to him.

"The group was called Andre. With Andreea Antonescu and...." (He snaps his fingers rapidly as he tries to remember.)

"Andreea Banica?" I ask.


"Ah! Andreea Balan."

(He snaps his fingers again.) "That's right! How do you know this?"

"I fell in love with Romanian pop music back in 2000, which is a big part of why I visited Romania in 2001."

"Then maybe you can identify this song," he says, skipping to another track on his CD. It's a dance song with a long instrumental opening.

"Maybe Suie Paparude, or possibly DJ Project?"


The vocals come in.

"Ah. Is it Animal X?"

(He points his index finger in the air.) "Yes. That's incredible. Where are you from?"

"Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America."

(He shakes his head.) "Amazing."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rise of the Dominant Woman

I keep hearing of places in the world where women are pursuing higher education whereas men are sitting around drinking beer after a day at the factory. Women have fled the former East Germany in massive numbers, leaving behind an increasingly anachronistic male working class. African-American women are outpacing African-American men in their pursuit of higher education. These sorts of stories interest me because they reflect a cultural friction as well, particularly the frustration that ambitious women feel as they attempt to find men that are their equals, and the frustration experienced by men unable to evolve and who are thus increasingly marginalized.

Only in the last hundred years has a massive shift begun to occur regarding the power of women, not just on a societal level, but on an evolutionary one. For the vast majority of our history (and our pre-history), men have dominated women simply because men generally possessed greater physical strength. Even the Renaissance and "The Age of Reason" were also ages of war where a country's number of fighting men and the brute strength of those men determined the fate of that country. And women remained politically subjugated through the end of the 19th century; intellectualism rose, but sexist beliefs took longer to overturn.

Only in the 20th century in the most democratically-advanced societies did women begin to vote and to enjoy equal access to education in any fields that intrigued them. Sexism remained--and still remains--to this day (it will forever be a fact of life; wherever there are differences there are prejudices), but access to opportunity has seen a tremendous rise in women doctors, lawyers, and other high-earning professionals whose station in life was determined by their pursuit of post-graduate education.

Only in the last few years have we entered a world where mental capability is all that matters and where strength no longer determines gender dominance in our species. It seems women in industrialized countries, including the United States ("As of 2008, women accounted for 59 percent of all students enrolling in graduate schools for the first time"), are more quickly rising up to take advantage of the opportunity.

While many standard benchmarks, like America's lack of a woman president, remain unmet, I wonder if we are rapidly moving into a world where women will dominate? And why do so many men, including myself, find it difficult to make the move into higher education that so many women are taking?

thoughts in Râmnicu Vâlcea, România

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Valcea, Romania

Cristina and I left Bucharest in order to spend some down time in Valcea, the small town Cristina grew up. It's a comfortable three hour bus ride from the capital. Highlights today included a hike up a hill overlooking the city, a visit to a motel bar that has remained unchanged since communist times (except for the telenovele playing on the nice TV sitting on the bar), a walk through Cristina's old high school, and a tremendous multi-course lunch with beer that set us back only $20.

Cristina's apartment (actually her parents' apartment, but her parents live in America now) has some very nice communist-era touches, including a shelf full of old books. Among these is a fascinating 1970s encyclopedia of home-making for the stylish Romanian woman. This book is full of photographs of trendy furniture that real Romanians during that time period could not possibly have been able to afford (Cristina suspects that the book was a translation of a Western European book, and that the photos of apartments and fashionable models are from other countries).

I also like the old radio/record player on the porch, which includes pre-settings for Belgrade, Moscow, Ljubljana, and Vilnius radio stations.

Bank of America Incompetence Continued

They sent me a new debit card to Romania, but they failed to include the last digit of the zip code. So they are sending me yet another debit card.

Because I suspected zip codes are not as important in Bucharest, which has a different address system, I asked them to not cancel the other card, but to send a back-up as well to the same (but corrected) address. But they cannot do this; policy states one must cancel one card before sending another. So, I would not be surprised if the now-canceled card arrives tomorrow in Bucharest, while I sit and wait for another 5 to 7 business days.

One would think that VISA-911, their emergency card services number, would be for exactly the sort of situation I am in. But VISA-911 has been useless. They cannot issue a debit card by Fed-Ex without authorization from Bank of America. So if you call them and ask for a card to be sent to you, they will tell you to call Bank of America and have BoA then get back in contact with them.

And today, VISA-911 denied me emergency cash. I was disqualified because I changed my address recently (due to my moving out of apartment). For security reasons, I am told, one must have been at one's current address for 90 days.

First thing I will do when I return to America: sue Bank of America.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Review of the One Step Independence Square Hostel in Kiev, Ukraine

From Kiev, Ukraine
A fellow guest told me he was offered a 50% discount to write a positive review of the hostel. I was offered no such discount myself, so I will say what I will. The hostel was very clean, the staff was responsive, and the wi-fi was a great convenience. Some of the guests were disturbed by the proprietor's fondness for taking showers with the bathroom door open, his habit of shouting out the names of his employees ad nauseam, and his tendency to wander around the premises clad only in extremely tiny underwear, but perhaps these were simply misunderstood tokens of Ukrainian hospitality.

(In truth, I have it on good authority that this is the best hostel in Kiev, so be sure to consider it if you find yourself in that city.)