Sunday, 26 June 2011

Shopping is the new thing but I prefer reading and walking

Like Macaulay, according to Walter Bagehot, and like my father, I suspect I do not have an experiencing nature. Last night, I was dismayed to be told separately by two friends whom I respect that they were shopping in  the 'malls' of Bucharest which are apparently thronged at 9 on a Saturday night. So it is true then that shopping is now a form of entertainment. Robin told me that it has replaced television as the British favourite form of diversion. I told my cousin years ago that I shop for one item at a time - a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste - and he said 'You don't live in the real world!' I didn't understand this especially as I lived in the old town in Bucharest as it used to be, potholes, gypsies etc. but perhaps he was right. It's life, Jim,  but not as he knew it.  I love shopping for books , but nothing else and books are the least material of material objects though collectors misunderstand this. Nothing but books and travel are worth spending money on but this shows I am still an adolescent. On the other hand shoppers according to Melanie McDonagh do not look happy while they are shopping and what an inherently selfish, ungenerous, aspirant and nervous form of pleasure it is.


God made the wicked Grocer
For a mystery and a sign,
That men might shun the awful shops
And go to inns to dine;
Where the bacon's on the rafter
And the wine is in the wood,
And God that made good laughter
Has seen that they are good.



But I approve of grocer's shops and love them in every country. Grocers' shops and public transport are the best way of knowing a country. Countries that don't have much of either are not worth knowing.  In Bucharest grocers' shops are also for some reason cheaper than the hypermarkets (dread word) as well as being five minutes away and with short queues. 


In the nineties when I came to live in Romania shops closed at 1 on Saturdays and as I scarcely ever shop I didn't know till long after everyone else that this had changed. 


Very recently I learnt that it is not just Romanians that drink beer from the bottle (not being offered a glass on a terrace made me feel how very foreign Romania is) but the British do it too (a Romanian told me everyone in the world did this in the late 90s and I smiled in disbelief). Perhaps I should have been a High Court judge before they became right-on and trendy. Only observe said Henry James but I have been away from England rather a long time. 

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Housing policy

If people didn’t want to travel the roads would be empty. If Romanians stopped ruining  lovely places with jerry built executive villas and lived in the centre maybe there would be less traffic but no-one wants to live in a (Communist) block. Why can’t the tower blocks be rebuilt instead of painted?  If people can afford to build new residential blocks at speculative prices why can’t cooperatives rebuild existing blocks? Cooperative building societies do a wonderful job in Turkey the former colonial power.

Death in the Playground of the West

Jamal, my Libyan Facebook friend has been killed in the war. I didn't know him - he was a travel agent I once dealt with when I thought I was going there, poor man. I think I may owe him money for a visa. An odd moment among the laughter and levity in Facebook, the playground of the Western world, like finding a dead body on a ride in Disneyland. 'Et in Arcardia ego.' I know because his wife became my contact on LinkedIn and she told me in reply to my enquiry. 

Some more reactionary thoughts on tomatoes


If everyone simply refused to enter shopping centres they would all fail and eventually be demolished and people could go back to shopping in markets like they did ten years ago. And why not boycott supermarkets too? I who had started shopping occasionally in supermarkets certainly shall do so. Last night I ate the kind of delicious tomatoes that were until Romania joined the EU universal in Romania. My hostess told me she bought them from a peasant at Piata Domeni which I had previously heard was the best fruit and veg market in town.  Good fruit and vegetables are now impossible to obtain in the supermarkets. Instead beautiful red tomatoes imported from Turkey without any taste at all fill the shelves fallaciously beguiling housewives (and bachelor shoppers too).


Standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'

All over the world in what historians will call the Great Boom or perhaps the Golden Age 1993-2008 people bought cars in order to be free agents and spent increasing large amounts of time sitting in traffic jams. When I first came to Bucharest one could have sat down and had a picnic in Calea Victoriei on Saturday or Sunday. Now most journeys of less than two miles are quicker on foot than by car.

What to do?

First, let's all agree that what Bucharest desperately needs are wheel clamps! A hundred thousand of them! Please. Now!

And cars should be taxed more to discourage people from buying them. Petrol should be taxed higher too.  I know this is a lost cause but cheap efficient public transport which we are lucky to enjoy in Bucharest is the acceptable face of socialism. Drivers cost the community a lot - road building, urban sprawl, road deaths, pollution, gridlock, etc. etc. and should contribute more.

The answer to congestion costs very little: wheel clamps and a congestion charge to pay before you can enter inner Bucharest between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.

Instead we are increasingly living in the Romanian version of  the American dream/nightmare: people working long hours for multinational firms, suburbia, shopping centres, cars, mortgages, consumerism, expensive lawyers, sitting endlessly in traffic on the way to the gym, no time to sit on a terrace and drink beer which is in any case not good for your health. 

Meanwhile the mass of taxpayers dream of buying a car. These poorly-paid employees support the great majority of Romanians who are not employed, pay for the thefts of the political class and the Romanian oligarchs and pay for outrageously overpriced roadworks that take years to edge a few miles.  


Sunday, 19 June 2011

A Cold War within the Cold War - Romanian exceptionalism





A review of With Friends Like These by Larry Watts



The recent past is a forgotten country. The Cold War now seems a
period as remote as the Thirty Years War, John le Carré’s novels
almost as quaint as those of Dumas père. Those of us who grew up in
the West in the Cold War rather than studying it as history rely on
memories of information that was very partial and misleading. We now
know that the so called satellites of the USSR were very much actors
following their own scripts. Often the supposed puppets were pulling
the strings. Kim Il Sung manipulated Stalin into supporting his attack
on South Korea and Ho Chi Minh inveigled  Russia into enabling him to
defeat the South Vietnamese. Now Larry Watts’ ground-breaking,
enjoyable  and meticulously researched book, which deserves to find a
wide audience, shows that Ceausescu’s Romania posed a threat to the
USSR greater than Tito and comparable with the 1956 Hungarian
uprising, the Prague Spring and the Solidarity movement in Poland.


Eastern Europe was not the story of quislings ruling subject people
on instructions from the Kremlin. The men and one or two women (of
whom Romanians Anna Pauker and Elena Ceausescu were two of the most significant)
who ran the Communist Empire were believers who had risked death and
imprisonment from their enemies and from their communist friends
because of their beliefs. In power they combined as all politicians do
the desire for power, love of manipulation and genuine idealism, to
which they added a ruthless devotion to their grim cause and a
fanatical conviction that they understood the direction of history
which seemed to them scientific but we clearly see to be essentially religious.



Of course Marx and Lenin were wrong. Class is not the
driver of history, nor even are economic interests. Nations command
far more allegiance even from socialists than social classes. Behind
the monolithic appearance of the Soviet Bloc the disappearance
of national differences of course did not happen. What is remarkable
is the degree to which the conflicts between neighbouring countries in
Eastern Europe before 1945 continued seamlessly after the Communists came
to power. The most arresting example is Hungary, until 1918 the most
reactionary country in Europe west of Czarist Russia. There in 1919 in
the vacuum left by the disappearance of the Hapsburg Empire the arch
conservative antisemitic army and civil service enlisted as supporters
of the Bolshevik revolution of Bela Kun a.k.a. Aaron Cohen.
The Hungarian gentile middle class saw in Bolshevik Russia the only
hope  of preserving Greater Hungary, in particular Hungarian
possession of Transylvania and the Banat, which had been occupied
after the armistice by Romania. Kun’s regime hoped the Russian Red 
Army would break through Romanian lines into the Bucovina and link 
up with the Hungarian Red Army. Instead, the Romanian army occupied
Budapest and overthrew the Communists.

Larry Watts's book explains that in the 1944-46 history repeated itself and
the supporters and gendarmes of the Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy
who had distinguished themselves in Hungarian occupied
Transylvania with great brutality, reinvented themselves as Communist
officials and ‘people’s police’. Stalin encouraged Hungarians to hope
that Transylvania would become a  separate country  or divided between
Romania and Hungary. He played off Hungary and Romania against each
other in the same way that Hitler had done.

Meanwhile the annexation of Bessarabia (now most of the Republic of Moldova)
and the Northern Bucovina (which became  part of the Ukraine) led to the arrests,
deportations and killings of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Romanians who 
found themselves living in the USSR. In addition, Khrushchev in charge of
post-war Ukraine presided over a deliberate famine which Watts says was
probably aimed at ethnic Romanians that may have killed between one and 
two hundred thousand people, while Leonid Brezhnev, First Secretary of 
the Soviet Republic of Moldavia, may have reduced the ethnic Romanian 
population there by as many as a quarter of a million.

Mutual antipathy between Russians and Romanians (the Mamalizhniki  or
polenta eaters) has long roots in conflict over territory. Russia ruled
Bessarabia (Eastern Moldavia) off and on since 1812. She occupied the rest of Romania on several occasions between 1812 and 1919. It was very feasible had it not been for the other Powers that Romania would have been incorporated in the Russian Empire as were
Georgia, Armenia and central Asia.

Communism only exacerbated things. Engels whose works had the status
of holy scripture for Marxist-Leninists had written that the Romanians
were a ‘degenerate’ people, ‘a people without history’. The revolution
said Engels would ‘annihilate’ the Romanians, wiping them ‘from the
face of the earth. And that too would be a step forward.’ Engels wrote
this in 1849, angry with the Romanians for fighting for the Emperor
against the 'progressive' forces of the Hungarian nationalist Kossuth.
From Communism to Fascism was always but a step.

Gheorghiu Dej the Communist leader of Romania from 1948 till his death
in 1965 was unique among Stalin’s satraps in not being a ‘Muscovite’, a
Communist trained during the 30s in Russia. He won favour with Moscow
for his support in helping reassert Soviet control over Hungary after
the 1956 Revolution and succeeded (one would like Watts to have
explained in more detail how) in persuading the USSR to withdraw
troops from Romania by 1958. Crucially the Romanians also managed to
roll up very extensive KGB and Hungarian spy networks (very often the two
were combined).  These included a series of Hungarian irredentist
secret societies operating in Transylvania run by the Communist
government in Hungary with KGB knowledge.

In the Warsaw Pact Organisation hastily cobbled together in 1955,
Romania from almost the beginning played the role of enfant terrible
and barrack room lawyer. Romania took an independent line, enjoying
good relations with Tito, building the Iron Gates hydroelectric plant
on the Danube without Khrushchev’s permission. In 1963 Dej told Kennedy that he did
not support Soviet missile deployments in Cuba and would never allow
Soviet missiles to be stationed on Romanians soil. The Cuban crisis
may have precipitated an effective declaration of independence in
1963 by the Romanian government who refused to increase military
budgets saying they saw no threat of aggression from the West. The
Bucharest Spring of 1964 Watts convincingly argues should be compared
to the split with Tito in 1948, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and
the Prague spring four years later.

Ceausescu was more disruptive than de Gaulle in NATO. In June 1965,
unnoticed by Western secret services, Romania was dropped from Warsaw
pact military operations. The Pentagon continued to plan on the
assumption that Romania would fight alongside her Warsaw pact partners
even though Romania’s role in the alliance was to impede Soviet
policy. Again unbeknown to the CIA, Romania became a Chinese ally
second only in importance to Albania, a position it used to help mend
fences between China and the United States. For example, Romania helped
persuade Hanoi to negotiate with Washington. In 1967 Romania refused to 
break off relations with Israel following the Six Day War while De Gaulle
aligned with the Soviet position. Romania acted as honest broker between Israel
and the Arab states and can be take some of the credit for the 1978 Camp
David agreement that led to peace between Israel and Egypt.

Ceausescu, alone of the Communist leaders, publically backed the
Prague Spring and condemned the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia.
Yet none of this was understood by the CIA who were spellbound for many
years by the disclosures of the Soviet defector Golitsyn. Golitsyn said that
Romanian independence was a KGB ruse. This Trojan horse  theory which
had been disseminated before Golitsyn continued through
the Gorbachev period. By 1990 it had become the received wisdom in the
West, after Ceausescu’s regime had been overthrown by Romanian
Gorbachevites working in league with the Kremlin and the KGB.

Other legends were circulated according to which Kadar and Gomulka
followed independent lines whereas both were always loyal to Moscow.
General Jarulselski and Urho Kekkonen long-time President of Finland
were Soviet agents. Tito was far more amenable to the Soviets than
Romania and unlike Romania bought Soviet military equipment. He
allowed the Russians to fly over Yugoslav aerospace and use land
transport routes and Yugoslav ports for transshipping arms to Soviet
clients in the Middle East.

Watts tells us that on several occasions between 1968 and 1971 Russia
planned to invade Romania and Honecker of East Germany was told as
late as the end of 1973 that Brezhnev had approved an invasion. Russia
was emboldened by the relative nonchalance with which the Western bloc
has reacted to the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Had an
invasion of Romania been received in the same way, Russia intended to
march into Yugoslavia. In August 1968, the Romanian Communist Party
expected an invasion by the USSR and voted almost unanimously to
fight, though as Ceausescu admitted without hope of success. The Stasi.
 the East German secret service reclassified Romania as an enemy state
at this time. The Americans unaware of what was going on were anxious
to avoid being drawn into a conflict. So was Tito, who had good reason
to fear that Yugoslavia would be invaded after Romania. In August 1968
Tito turned to Great Britain for help, using Sir Fitzroy Maclean as an
intermediary, in the event of a Soviet invasion of Romania. MI6
unlike the CIA knew that a Russian invasion was on the cards. Harold
Wilson discussed with Michael Stewart and Denis Healey the idea of
sending crack troops to fight alongside partisans as in the Second
World War. 1968 not 1963 was probably the moment when Cold War
came closest to becoming hot.

Ceausescu’s famous speech from the balcony of the Central Committee
building on 23rd August 1968 had won him national support but
Nagy and Dubcek had had equal popular backing. Why did the Russians
and their allies not invade? For a number of reasons. Because in
Romania, unlike in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, they no longer had a
sufficiently extensive intelligence network enabling them to
know what was going on in the party or the armed forces or clients in
top positions who could request a Soviet intervention, because
Ceausescu and his colleagues unlike the Czechs would have fought and
because they had assumed national control over their armed forces
which were prepared a military response against an invader from any
direction. The fact that the US, Britain, and perhaps most explicitly,
Socialist giant China had weighed in to deter a Soviet move no doubt
played their role. 



Courted by the Carter Administration in the late 70s
Watts argues that Ceausescu was free in the late 1970s to have led Romania
into a non-aligned position similar to that of Yugoslavia and to have 
competed with Tito for American favours. Instead he decided to create 
an autarchic national communist state, independent of Moscow and
Washington, a path that led him to the firing squad in Tirgoviste on
Christmas Day, 1989.


©Paul Wood 2011

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Balkan Journey












Friday 7 August 2009


In England the great train robber Ronnie Biggs slips away from prison.  A figure from my 1960s childhood, playing in the street,  along with Georgie Best, Bernadette Devlin, Henry Kissinger, the  Viet Cong and Cilla Black.


The drive to from Bucharest to Vratza, four pretty hours . A wonderful hotel,  the Chaika Hotel, found by me in a few moments on the net coast €25 a double room overlooking the Vratcata Gorge.  Leaving Patrick in the hotel, I walk through the gorge as darkness falls. Feel proud of myself. Good food.



Saturday


Walking. Lunch. Drive to Sofia. Not via the mountain road. We miss it. I point it out. Patrick doggedly refuses to believe it is the road.


Sofia. Dullsville. Sunshine. Quiet and hot on a Saturday evening in August. 


The Hotel Anel. I thought from listening to Tony  that other people thought nothing of paying €60 a night for a five star hotel but Patrick who does not like to give himself presents is dismayed and I consider expensive places corrupt.


The mosque. The man wants me to wear flip-flops which I decline grateful for the feel of sock on carpet. What kind of Muslims are these? Attractive, empty except for one white foreigner praying energetically, head down and bottom up.


Too much food in a very dimly lit pizza terrace near the mosque full of 20-somethings talking loudly in the dark. 



Sunday, Sofia


The dark (pastel coloured actually) satanic mall in the middle of Sofia doesn’t make me very nostalgic for Communism. That’s far in the past now. I tell myself it makes people happy. Finally with difficulty after I from boredom bought a striped tie in an extraordinary mint green (only Americans wear striped ties I know) we find the exit from Sofia  for Macedonia. 


Kyustendil. Little town near the border with a beautiful derelict mosque. The guidebook says there is no longer a significant Muslim population here no doubt veiling all sorts of human tragedies. Sunshine. Quiet. Balkan. The profound Bulgaria. The great calm of small towns in Eastern Europe.



Just over the border is the monastery of St. Joachim Osogovsky, near Kriva Palanka, Macedonia’s most attractive monastery. In fact there are two twin monasteries, on the Macedonian side of the border perched on a hill, just like one I visited in Syria where the villagers  spoke Aramaic. One is old. Many Macedonian Mass-goers pilgrims, day trippers. Very pretty road through mountains. The journey from Sofia to Skopje took three and a half hours not the seven which it took me when I went by bus including much time on a mountain top waiting while customs officers on both sides went through our luggage piece by piece (I as an Englishman was spared this). by bus. Rain torrential. Skopje.


Much though not all of Skopje was destroyed in an earthquake in the 60s and rebuilt not in a Communist style but in the same style as Winchester would have been rebuilt had it been destroyed in the 60s. The result is that it is charming but a bit like Hornchurch. And what is so wrong with Hornchurch after all?


That great cafe in the centre which Philippe took me to.


The dingy, strange hotel with character, the Jadran, which I discovered last time and found again, with its mock Arab facade.  Setting for a ghost story. By Le Fanu perhaps. Empty sitting rooms on each floor with splendid wainscoting. One has an ironing board in a corner forgotten. Ottoman Empire’s dying gasp. A pastiche built in the lost 1920s before Tito and the horrors of modernity.


Monday Skopje


Woke in the strange room with its ceiling 20 foot high and the chandelier at 5.40 = 6.40 Bulgarian time and escaped and finally found refuge in a hotel where I ate breakfast. The only thing about Patrick that interests me is his inner life and that to a limited degree. And my pride does not want me to be his friend. I am exciting. He is not. So say I. He would disagree about my being exciting, I know, nor if he thought me exciting would he have wanted me as a friend.


Hot. The Muslim town north of the river and I saw many things I didn’t see with Philippe. The bazaar. Tea and lemonade served in cafes for tiny prices. Very very like a small town in Turkey but less spruce than say Antioch?  The cars driving at 10 mph reminded me of Aleppo. Utterly un-European and enchantingly so. We saw three beautiful mosques. There were others but Patrick told me his appetite for mosques is not unbounded. Mine is.


The drive to Ohrid is very beautiful – we took the scenic route but it is hard to remember scenery especially writing this up six days later.


Tetovo the capital of the Albanian region, traffic choked and unexceptional. We did not get out but carried on.


A number of lakes. We lunched overlooking one. Too much very beautiful scenery and too many hair pin bends. Finally Lake Ohrid. Little places on the lake where people rent rooms cheaply looked fun a bit like the fringe of Constanta. The jolly and comfortable hotel for €35. Seemed a great price but now I recall the 80s when I didn’t travel one could stay in the centre of Madrid for £1, Istanbul in a three star hotel for £4.


My first impression was that it would be more vulgar than I had expected and Patrick said it reminded him of the Romanian seaside at which I protested. He wisely said that late afternoon was when resorts were at their worst people coming back dishevelled and sunburnt. Patrick said is it so bad to see people being happy?


Excellent table by the lake in a good restaurant watching the reflection of the lights of the town in the lake. It reminded me of Amasra very much.

Some beautiful women of twenty. A blonde and brunette nymph laughing.


Tuesday Ohrid


Patrick said we should spend the day alone until dinner and this was an immense liberation.


Three cappuccinos a cheese and ham pancake and I reread Mark Marzower on the Balkans. A wonderful essay. History like great paintings and good jokes reveals a hidden meaning in the universe.


The long promenade.


The St Sophia church with the best C 11 wall paintings in the world outside the St Sophia church in Kiev. Where I have also been though I do not recollect any wall paintings

.

Relaxed. Unintellectual. Not too warm. I shall return.


The Muslim quarter with mosques and a market which might be called the bazaar. A British lower middle class voice heard for a moment. An Englishman does not travel abroad to meet Englishmen.


We ate at a dull restaurant of Patrick’s choosing on a road not on the lake.


Wednesday Ohrid


I can scarcely jog any distance. Climbed some of the way to the top of the castle. The small very old churches are closed. A bit like Nesebar before Nesebar was ruined by tourism and synthetic new old buildings.


Patrick and I  get very lost looking for the crossing into Albania. Bad maps and we lacked the courage of our convictions. And Patrick always gets lost for psychological reasons that I do not understand. But we found some places on the Macedonian Western shore of the lake before the border which seemed wonderful. Little villages. The armed 19 year old soldiers guarding a disused border crossing to Albania.  An air of the Cold War within the Cold War between Tito and Hozha. An isolated hotel where they spoke German. Getting lost is the beginning of wisdom or at least of genuine travel.


The mountain crossing and suddenly immense heat. How I wish I had not unselfishly suggested we take Patrick’s old car, the bright red SUV which looks like a Southend hairdresser’s babe hoover but has no air conditioning. Very hot indeed. Amazing scenery much more like from a Clint Eastwood film. Wild. The badlands. A road better than I expected. Pretty reasonable. Deserted country.


Berat. Slummy hot higgledy-piggledy. Down at heel. Eastern. Oh I love it said Patrick and my opinion of him suddenly changed fundamentally. The first time I ever heard him express enthusiasm for something?

The main street at 6 p.m. lined with dusty trees where a dozen ATMs didn’t work for either of us until one released money for me. A kind of corso where young girls walk and families and old couples sometimes with grandchildren slowly. Outside the cheap cafes under the dusty trees sit men of various ages from twenty to sixty smoking and looking. A very curious scene which I want someone to explain. Like the corso in Dubrovnik where girls saunter with friends to be looked at?


[I have been told since by Kim Hakkenberg and Bill Cash that this is common in Romanian provincial towns where it is called the promenada.]


None of this seems post communist but third world. Patrick does not agree with third world, thinks it looks  more affluent than he expected but I do not understand why. All of Albania makes one think that like somewhere in Asia, in some ways Communism brought a kind of progress much as I would very much prefer what went before.


I called my sister to share the scene with her the very opposite of what she I think would like. I ddint want to make her jealous and perhaps I slightly wanted to remind myself that my tastes are not those of Middle England.


In Berat I like Albania much more than ever before. This is life but not as we know it. This is the Albania I was looking for.


An Ottoman hill-town like Gijrokastra but with much more life. Three mosques. A river running through the town.


I found a good hotel the Malibu Club with AC and a good view and breakfast for €25.


An indifferent dinner, Turkish food, kababs not cooked with love,  in a roof restaurant with a great view overlooking the river.


Thursday Berat


An epiphany as I drew back the curtains and remembered the unexpected view of the bridge across the river and the Ottoman wooden buildings on the other side crawling up the hill. Then I got cross trying to put Carmen in touch with Nir using Facebook and the HTC. Excellent breakfast wonderful olives the best I ever tasted. The guide book said Berat is famous for its green olives and the fame is deserved. I sat for two hours loving the scene from the roof garden of the hotel. 


Hot beyond words, a Middle Eastern heat. The harem built when Northanger Abbey was finished. The inevitable and enjoyable ethnographical museum (the one in Bucharest across the road from my office i was guiltily aware I had never visited and I repaired the omission when I returned).


The coastal road. Hairpin bends but the road has been remade since last year. I saw no deserted beaches (but I remembered them from last year) and someone told me for those you need a boat. The guidebook said that most coves now had a hotel and a single hotel would have been great but we could not find even that.


A road off to the left and the coast and Patrick unlike most drivers is keen to explore. Twenty minutes of rough unmade road and red soil and very sharp hair pin bends and finally a cove with four or five bars on the beach built from straw like the illegal beach bars in Vama Veche in Romania. A cheap hotel which was full. And we found a camping site where for €9 we got a tent with ground sheet and sleeping bag and breakfast and a decent supper. A piece of ground lit by coloured bulbs on strings full of people of twenty bursting with youth and good spirits. A blonde girl with amazing dimples seraphic with happiness and life.




Friday Jar


I was very tired but did not sleep for hours, my first night in a tent.

A good cappuccino on an isolated beach in Albania. Then another and a third. The man selling them to me warned me two was too much.

Sea as clear as water in a wash basin. Every stone as clear at the bottom as if seen through a window. Too lacking puff to jog. I swam, read Kaplan.

The road to Saranda, in places a potholed track last year,  has just been remade. Saranda itself chic colourful. Like where? Like a setting for a Lesley Charteris novel I thought. Like the South of France thought Patrick. Yes.

Great meal at that place overlooking the  sea where I lunched last year: octopus risotto. Some lovely Albanian faces. One in particular intelligent clear-sighted and womanly belonged to a 15 year-old.


The long drive back. Through winding roads among cold damp mountains of North West Greece no doubt as Patrick said full of stories of gods and nymphs. Deserted and very beautiful.


A little town before the motorway called Napoli pop. 5,000 (thank heaven for Wikipedia on the HTC) where I drank a Greek coffee and ate divine baklava from the shop across the street. Patrick asked me not to buy baklava and eat it in the cafe. I asked the waitress if I might and she said yes of course. I still wish you hadn’t done it said Patrick. The best meal of the holiday.


Long drive. Salonica. Walking around negotiating with hotels at close to midnight. I found a 4 star hotel yards from the waterfront for €60 which was more than Patrick wanted to pay. Good to know that Tony Gray is not the standard for spending money on hotel rooms but this was a good deal and I prevailed.


Saturday 15, Salonica revisited


Salonica has this time a certain charm. When were you last here asked the girl in reception. Seven years ago I realised with a start. It has changed a lot in the last seven years. So have I for the worse said I. No doubt Salonica has changed for the better.


No-one in Greece speaks a Slav language she says. She thinks the Jews who built the hotel in 1926 were forced to leave because of problems between Jews and Greeks.


Lunch in a place called Sidirokastro, which Wikipedia on my HTC told me was in Bulgaria 1912-1918.  The conveniences of the 21st century. I see that little towns in Greece and Turkey are very similar. Full of bright shops and cafes and plastic advertising. Modern. Rebuilt in the 70s. If Macedonia is really Bulgaria, Bulgaria is not very different from Greece. And Greece and Turkey are still the same place. We eat chicken rissotto made with tinned peas and carrots.


Shooting through the mountains of Bulgaria on the motorway then turn off. The Rila monastery as night was falling extraordinary wooden galleries painted white and read. Unlike anything in Romania or elsewhere. The heart of Bulgaria. Empty. We only have a short while before the place closes. Boris III’s tomb. Sculpted on the tomb he looked like a Mosleyite.


After a very long search we find a  hotel that smells of antiseptic like a clean WC. €30 for a suite. Empty sterile room with balcony. Crashed.


Patrick saw that the ads for DJs in Jar includes DJs from Macedonia and thinks this is the future without ethnic hatred. He still thinks he says that decency kindness and gentleness will conquer terrorism. I think ethnic groups live together at best without liking each other and thus is human nature. The world is being remade by liberals who think human nature basically good.  Perhaps they are unusually good themselves.


Sunday, 16 August 2009 Rila


Rila. The monastery burnt down in the 1840s and was rebuilt. Very atmospheric with high arcades which reminded me of the Great Mosque at Damascus. But I still felt cheated – only Victorian. Swiz in Molesworth’s lingo. A coach party of British at 10.30. Bulgaria is no longer obscure. This is however ersatz the real Bulgaria which survived only via the Church. Suddenly I forgot my Metternichianism and became a Bulgarian nationalist. How wonderful that they threw off the Muslim yoke after 500 years.


Long journey home broken by uninspired late lunch at a hotel in Ruse, the Bulgarian river port on the Danube.


Hot sunny motionless Sunday afternoon in Ruse. I tell Patrick: all of us spent our adolescence in Ruse. Patrick: Some of us spent us adulthoods in Ruse.




©Paul Wood 2011