Saturday, 25 February 2012

A diary of a journey to Syria and Beirut in April 2007

Friday, March 30, 2007

I am off to Istanbul this afternoon by night train en route to Damascus which according to the BBC is 'on the tourist map.' Damn. My life's mission is to separate myself from tourists and other normal people. 

The train left Bucharest's Gara de Nord at 12.30 in the afternoon, took over an hour to reach the Bulgarian border and more than two to cross it. The Turkish border involved waiting in several queues in the station at 2 am in the rain. A nice self-possessed girl going to Jerusalem overland and going up to Oxford to read Arabic. A literal and draining French-Canadian boy who kept asking for information of a lowering kind about the countries we were passing through. How despicable travellers are.

Saturday, March 31

Awoke to grey uneventful Turkish countryside. 16½ years after my last visit by train. The Golden Horn was hidden by a stationary train when we arrived at the station and it was gently drizzling.

Paulius’s flat with a splendid view but a cold grey day. A vulgar-looking 8-storey cruise ship in the centre of his view, The Free Carnival.

Walking. Market. Touristy hamam, its hot room not hot enough, too many people like a field hospital after a disastrous battle.

Dinner. Diet forgotten. A carouse

Tuesday 3 April


The cave where St. Peter preached as written in Acts. Pope Paul VI was there and I have a plenary indulgence for going there. Met Chuck and his girl, Americans living in Damascus, studying at the American University there which flourishes despite the State Departments long-standing advice to US citizens that Syria is dangerous. (It is not at all.)

A very hurried look at some marvellous mosaics in the town museum and then I missed my bus again.

I was put on a Damascus bus and after an hour standing in a queue on the Turkish frontier post and a melee on the Syrian side I was deposited at the side of the road. A few moments later some big dusky men in suits appeared from nowhere. ‘Damascus?’ I asked and they agreed this was the place. In a short while a dolmuş arrived and we all got in. I gave my 50 pound note = $1 and was given change. Such fun squeezed in.

Aleppo indescribable, ancient, down-at-heel, Ottoman, filled with women in veils and men wearing skirts and tea-towels on their heads, the real thing, the Orient at last. What I had hoped Turkey would be but what it is not. The life that was once in Greece and in Bucharest. Dusty, noisy, much traffic (old cheap cars). Asking the way to the Hotel Baron which I knew was full and finally I made it to the most charming old hotel and there I found a room from the manager (he had one of those beautiful fruity Syrian-British voices like Farouk’s). No $40 rooms left and he gave me the presidential suite for $70 where I later learnt President Assad snr had stayed in 1970. Laurence or even Agatha Christie would have impressed me more.

Heavenly dirty decrepit traffic-choked. The Ottoman Empire which at Safronbolu is a museum here exists as it really was. The life that once spread beyond Bucharest to the Carpathians and Belgrade. Here travel is an adventure. The old town genuine and not touristy where the town does its shopping sans supermarket. There are still wonderful adventures left.

Wonderful meal at wonderful restaurant. Arab ladies sitting next to me. I prevented myself disliking the lower-middle class English couple who then sat at the other table.

Wednesday 4 April

Mr Walid who has been leading tours for 40 years. The manager who is charming and warns me to knock him down by at least 30%.

The hotel is so shabby my suite rather wonderful but very down-at-heel and this is a renovated room.

Very basic breakfast in dingy room where I am very happy. So 1930s and colonial.

My guide M. takes me on a very interesting tour of caravanserais and mosques. He is an archaeologist and learned. Lunch in a good restaurant. An afternoon alone wandering.

M. who married at 18 and has 3 children brought his 44 year-old German girlfriend with him tonight and one year younger than me she looked like a grandmother which she is old enough to be.

Whirling dervishes in the evening. A guide book I borrowed said these performances were very rare but now they are very frequent and only for tourists. As well as the religious whirling we saw some other dances and I felt this had lost its innocence. An audience of Germans in their 50s watched, dressed as people in their 50s dress nowadays, i.e. like overgrown children.

Dinner. M. says the young Assad is much more liberal than his father and is respected although his appointment was not fair. ‘We are a republic not a monarchy.’ Other people in the party have their power-bases and ‘There is a red line he may not cross.’ M said ‘we killed’ his elder and nastier brother.

Thursday 5 April

Sick badly from eating that damnable raw lamb M. ordered. It tasted horrible too.

Recovered enough in the afternoon to walk slowly around the Christian quarter in the drizzling rain. The Syrian Orthodox church. The Armenians. The Marionites. Lots of boy scouts and girl guides and many people at Mass on Maundy Thursday afternoon. Christians after Mass seemed very European.

Beautiful veiled girls taking off their veils to look at clothes in a shop window. So feminine these Moslem girls and very pretty.

M’s woman is also sick. No dinner. I stumbled to a hamam in the medina.

A little mosque where a mother fully veiled bounced up and down in prayer and her son beside her. I wish England were as religious but I do not want this in England.

Friday 6 April 

Serjilla Crak le Chevalier. Palmyra.

Serjilla with M. , a ‘dead’ Byzantine city. Hama with its water-wheels which lift the water from one level to another and are very old. Artesian wells with donkeys which we learnt about in geography no longer exist anywhere in the world, M. told me but I later discovered that Syria still has them. He told me up to 60, 000 Muslim Brothers were killed there in 1982. I expect the real figure is much smaller and I am glad they were suppressed though not like that. The city was ruined by the fighting.

He sleeps with his clients but not with ‘dirty girls.’ But Russian dirty girls are available. What if his wife had a boyfriend?’ ‘She wouldn’t she comes from a conservative family.’ But men in those situations kill their wives and get off with 1 month. ‘Because the judge is a man and the police are men.’ Anyway it was different. If she found out she would cry for two weeks. He added ‘This isn’t from Muhammad.’

Crack de Chevalier is the most thrilling castle and vast. Perhaps the most romantic and exciting building I ever saw. Later I learnt Laurence paid over 40 visits. Our driver had been in Bucharest in the 80s and remembered the ‘madams’ with great fondness. He was very shocked as were all the Arabs I met that that I didn’t have one nor children. Luckily he couldn’t speak English.

The ruins. Wonderful. I managed one hour without thinking of myself as a test.

Some Irish boys of 40 who remembered how expensive long-haul travel was in 1989 and who stayed at the Sham Palace. Where do ‘ordinary people’ get so much money? I mourned the Ottoman Empire and national self-determination. ‘’That’s because you always had national self-determination.’ Indeed. A good point. Then we agreed that both countries were losing this in the face of immigration.

They said Petra in 2003 was without any tourists and were disappointed that they had returned.

My hotel was worth $4 not the €20 M had bargained for. My bed had fleas, a first for me, so I went elsewhere for a bed which I bargained down to $10 but was worth less. But clean. Felt proud of myself for making a scene.

Saturday 7 April Palmyra Damascus

I woke at 6 to see Palmyra but dawn had already come and it was raining so I returned to bed.

The French engineer who had brought his wife and children there from Beirut told me there was no hope in Beirut. 30 days of war with Israel destroyed hope more than 15 years of civil war.

I remember a postponed train, an Englishwoman woman waiting on the railway platform complaining about Cairo to Mum and Dad in 1972 and their horror at the discomforts she described and my wanting to go there. From here comes my dislike of Thatcherism. Now I am becoming right-wing but still dislike conventionality.

By 10 when I got there so had the coach parties. Always get a guide in future. My guide didn’t show me the underground tombs which I later was told were essential. Marvellous and beautiful and I tried to tell myself that other tourists didn’t matter. And they weren’t so very many really but it was Easter and Syria had a holiday for Easter. I am a lazy tourist perhaps because I am alone.

A bus to Damascus cost 120. Not bad. An Indian film in the coach then a British thriller with police with machine guns and black gangsters and shootouts in inner-city dereliction. No doubt somewhere behind it all and the four-letter words that I could just hear there was a Richard Hannay plot but this is London? And this is globalisation and will destroy traditional Muslim culture for which I am sorry. My sympathies go out to the fundamentalists.

Damascus, city of the world’s desire. No, that’s Constantinople. Dinner in the garden at the dingy Journalists’ Club where we could get a drink with Chuck and Kirsten and a leftish Yale graduate who told me global warning would lead to mosquitoes spreading disease around the world something of which I had heard nothing. He and I almost quarrelled about the British Empire. I said ‘we’ abolished suttee. ‘ “We”?’ he said with contempt. A dreary place but nice food and no tourists. They had to go off. I went to look for Mass in the Christian quarter and then back to bed in my horrible cold room.

Easter Sunday 8 April

Woke early and found a Catholic Mass and regretted the absence of Latin as I always do. Nineteenth-century church airy and white. Christian girls in tight trousers. But two or three in mantillas. Expensive-cheap look, lots of lipstick. Graham Greene.

Got better room with much haggling. Mediocre lunch in Christian quarter. The Old Town. S Ananaias’s house. Mutually schismatic churches.

Art deco grimy houses a bit like Bucharest. Far far fewer veils than in Aleppo.

The taxi-driver told me I was ‘gentil’ and meant it and I was flattered. I want to be liked.

Buffet alone and very good indeed in the Cham (pronounced sham) Palace although the Irish boys were not happy staying there. 'The Cham is a sham.'

Easter Monday, April 9 2007

i admire the Muslim world and am also appalled by it. The strange thing is that I find myself saddened that they are bound to lose their struggle against Paris Hilton consumerist inanity. But I don’t want this world of theirs transplanted into Yorkshire. But I am 50 years too late on that one. I was disappointed that the Christians here seem very Western and to have embraced modernity but am having dinner tonight with one and shall learn more. The girls beautiful but in Aleppo mostly veiled often fully.

Muslims are consumerist but they manage to do without our relentlessly triviality..

I could live happily in Syria had I not settled in Romania. Not much market for headhunters though.

Why do American voices in the internet cafe so grate?

Do they represent the modern world made banal flesh?

It is for Christians to confront modernity, not to succumb to it. Pop culture and MTV are threats to us as to Muslims. Is this true? Anyway, this is Senex talking.

Walid. I can now read character and liked him better than my other two guides. But we did Damascus very quickly between 11 and 3.30 including time in the museum. Usually his guides linger longer in the palace he shows them. He was shocked my man in Palmyra didn't shows me the underground tombs. He showed me a magnificent one in the museum. And a marvellous synagogue from the 2nd century with wonderful murals of Moses

The mosque. A religious edifice first for Baal. Like the one in Palmyra

The street called straight which I already knew.

I said some prayers to St. Paul.

A sudden realisation. Islamic militancy will not provoke a Christian backlash but strengthen secularism. Just as AIDS didn't create a backlash.

The shops in the souk. This town is very different from Aleppo and much more western. I read that since they were allowed to use the internet a few years ago after Assad snr died a new world opened for young people. But in Aleppo the internet runs very slowly in the very few internet cafes which are poorly patronised.

Monday night. Daoud in Elissar a charming man who turns out to be Nawaf’s brother-in-law. Agrees that Syrian Christians resemble Greeks. His best friend is a Muslim who doesn't drink. Syrian girls much better characters than Romanians who are false and materialistic. Syria is like Romania 10 years ago.

Tuesday Beirut

Woke at 7 and was tired all day. Decided to move hotels. Wanted a bed with springs and a bath with a plug.

A driver greeted me as I entered the station with 'Beirut?' and I was sitting in the front seat of a big taxi between the driver and a Lebanese Christian lady who'd been visiting her dead sister's children and was glad to be returning home. An imam in flowing robes his wife and children beside me.

The mountains. Mt. Lebanon. 2 and half hours for $5. The lady said it should have been $4.

The Beirut Central District, sealed off by soldiers, rebuilt, eerie, devoted to tourists but there were almost none. Sad.

A club sandwich en plein air. The orthodox cathedral and a mosque. All felt brand new although the marvellous iconostasis wasn't.

A non-place.

Soldiers bearing guns everywhere. And tent cities, I suppose with refugees from the south.

The National Museum is simply marvellous. Extraordinary roman funerary monuments. Mosaics.

The pigeon rocks. The Mediterranean. A man with blood streaming from his face standing on the edge talking to police. I wondered if it was blood or ink. It looked very bright. Of course it was blood. People stood around on the esplanade and one awful man was laughing, thinking that was the appropriate response.

A Starbucks overlooking the Med, an awful cup of ‘coffee of the week’ handed to me with several requests to enjoy it and the day

For some reason I was reminded of the dullness of an English seaside resort from my 70s childhood. But very much bigger and completely western. The girls pretty and very chic and North London. The whole place felt like North London by the sea. St John’s Wood perhaps, mixed with Bournemouth.

At last a lively street full of shops. A woman in a bookshop told me Beirutis were ‘fed up.’ She looked fed up. I tactlessly said the downtown seemed like a tomb. ‘Poor downtown.’

I felt at 6 a desire to be 'home' and found another shared taxi again without trouble in the sinister bus stn/taxi rank. A charming newly married girl in a veil with a sweet smile and a speech impediment.


The old town. Following 'Monuments of Syria’ by Ross Burns whose scholarly prose belied the fact that the author is an Australian although I tried to imagine the burr. A very good lunch at Elissar, a famous old restaurant in the Christian quarter. I put myself in mind of Jerome's father in A Shocking Accident though I wasn't wearing an unsuitable dark suit but my olive jacket with a crème handkerchief in the pocket

Dinner in the evening was in a back street near my hotel which I found was a little bit of old Damascus not demolished, $1 for something tasty and far too large made of chick peas and sauce. Trees, dusty little street.

Thursday April 12

This morning I felt a sudden whim to stay a bit longer though I had been regretting being here too long. Like a parent letting go of a child I told myself to follow my instinct and my instinct said stay another day or two and for a second time I changed my ticket for free.

Wandered. A Turkish bath. My 3rd and all very different. The 1st in Istanbul touristy hurried and not very hot. the one in Aleppo where the old man took 15 minutes to get the steam to come out of the pipe. This one excellent but the hot room was scalding hot and most of us couldn't bear to enter. A massage which I was glad was brief.

A wonderful khan nearby, black and white tiles.

Cow’s head with lemon between the teeth

Food handled with bare hands everywhere like in 50s England.

This is how the Balkans was.

Everyone is shocked here that I have no wife no girlfriend and no children. Ahead of me stretches my path to the grave alone I suppose.

I felt very foolish to live without a woman as I waited for Rami. He and his lovely girlfriend took me to the pub at the Sheraton which R perceives as an oasis of Westernness. I'd have preferred anywhere else but there we are. Mostly Arabs. The movers and shakers I suppose come here. Syria is infinitely more corrupt than Romania. Emails and letters get opened. They reckon Tunisia and Syria are the two important markets that Europe wants. I doubt this. Places of immense poverty in the old town. ‘You’d be surprised’ The girl was so charming and talkative and totally western it seemed. She comes from Aleppo where everyone knows everything about everyone but here in Damascus she is free.

Friday April 13

Hassan Tom's guide took me to a modern Orthodox monastery and to Maalula one of the 4 villages in the world where they speak sometimes Aramaic. I heard a sweet young Catholic girl called Mary (thus, NOT Miriam) recite the Pater Noster in Aramaic and felt very happy to be among my own people and my own sweet religion. I want to read Lane Fox. At last I find the Syrians, mentioned in the Pears Cyclopedia section on heresies. Nestorians, Jacobites etc

A book title I know well from my adolescence in second-hand bookshops nagged at me: A Journey to the Monasteries of the Levant. Wonderful, inviting title. (My anti-Catholic cousin Geraldine to whom I mentiojned this, to my astonishment, obviously thought the title repellent.)

Hussein makes a good case for the anti-Israeli a position. I suspect this is becoming the right-on cause like South Africa was in the 80s and once Tsarist Russia. Syrians respect suicide bombers. Assad snr was never as bad as Saddam. 'Please don’t misunderstand what I am going to say. Saddam was a very, very bad man. But, I don’t like to say this,the Iraqis need a leader like Saddam.' This could well be right to a degree. Alas. alas.

Hussein has children and quoted Mahomet: marriage is half of religion. ‘I agree with him on that’ I said and then wondered if this remark would offend him. Why don’t I believe in the Christian view of marriage, that marriage is about children and that a family should be perhaps as Joanna said ‘a church’?

There are 4 million Iraqi refugees here and many more come each day. Did he say 3,000 a day? Driving up prices which hits the poor who can't afford meat at the best of times

I think that the orthodox in not resisting dictators like Ceausescu have more in common with early Christians than the Catholic Church with its political pronouncements. I think that a religion that commands stoning is vile and the old idea of an eye for an eye. But why does the Old Testament do so if it is indeed inspired? And Our Lord said he came to fulfil the law. Can someone please explain?

I feel my limbs stiffen. Every Syrian assumes there is ‘a she’ in my life. Admittedly they just want to sell me jewellery but they have a point.

I saw something in one of the churches. Wish I could remember it. In English. Do not care for praise. Do not judge other people. 

Judging and stigmatising is sometimes necessary but it is exactly about substituting political ideas which are about violence for the power of love.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

In a bookshop in Istanbul airport I found two books for foreigners living in Turkey. The introduction to one said the writer had been one of few foreigners in 1998 when she came but after 2002 very large numbers came. Thus will it be in Romania. The world has changed forever.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Romania the eternal (and fascinating) adolescent

Another article that appeared in Vivid in 2004. Romanians have come along way since 2004 and no longer seem like children of a larger growth to well-disposed foreigners:

Romania the eternal (and fascinating) adolescent

The psychology of nations is not intellectually out of fashion in Romania in the way that it has been for the last sixty years in the West. Romanians, usually their own severest critics, talk at length and often with cruel accuracy about their national character and question the reasons why so much of Romanian society appears to be dysfunctional. On the other hand, foreigners who have the luck to live and work in Romania are often enchanted and exasperated in turn, or simultaneously, by what seems to them a curiously childlike quality in Romanians (in common with other central and eastern Europeans but to a more pronounced degree), even when they are taking part in activities that are far from innocent.

In a superficial sense adolescence is over much more quickly in Romania than in the Anglo-Saxon world where baby boomers squeeze themselves into jeans at sixty. At twenty or twenty-one the Romanian is a young adult earning his living, even if still at university, and surviving in a tough and dangerous world. Older people are treated with respect in a part of the world where the generation gap was never heard of and each generation follows fairly closely in the path of its parents. Important figures in business and politics seem rarely to talk to people under fifty. Yet at a deeper level Romanians seem, at least to outsiders, in some ways children of a larger growth.

One reason is that life in the West changed out of all recognition under the impact of sudden and unprecedented economic growth and technological advance in the fifty year period in which Romania was frozen in time under communism. Life in the West was once much less pressured, slower, simpler, more human and more innocent. Watch a British film from the 1930s or 40s and you will recognise a lot. Bolshevism’s final achievement, while destroying so much that was priceless, was to act as the only conservative force strong enough to put a brake on progress and preserve a traditional way of life which with astonishing rapidity was destroyed forever in the market economies.

But another reason is that for fifty years initiative and freedom of thought in Romania was crushed. And the Communists were only the last and worst in a long line of bad rulers. The Communist tyranny, bear in mind, extended from the central committee to every factory and office in the country. In psychological terms the result is comparable to the trauma inflicted on a child who is not allowed to detach himself from his abusive parents and to mature. He remains a perpetual adolescent. In Jungian terms we can speak of the phenomenon of the puer aeternus, the eternal boy, of whom the classic literary example is Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.

The psychologist Jeffrey Satinover has described the puer aeternus as “characterized on the one hand by a poor adjustment to quotidian demands, a failure to set stable goals and to make lasting achievements in accord with these goals, yet, on the other hand, it is also characterized by noble idealism, a fertile imagination, spiritual insight and frequently, too, by remarkable talent.” Professor Satinover went on to refer to a “refusal to take the difficult path of adaptation, or work. The grandiose fantasy is preferred to the modest accomplishment.”

If this parallel holds true, Romanians are in a sense perpetual (and fascinating) adolescents traumatised by a disrupted and painful history who dislike and scorn authority, break rules without a qualm of conscience but at the same time are sorely afraid of punishment. Leaders (adults) are idealised and expected to solve all the problems, demonised when they (always) fail to do so. The puer is obsessively interested in how he appears to outsiders because he lacks a solid sense of identity. He is passionate, artistic and warm-hearted but often impractical, passive, shirking responsibility, seeking to shift blame, preferring nostalgia or fantasy to reality on which he has a tenuous grasp.

Such psychoanalytical comparisons are beguiling but should not be pressed too far of course. The puer aeternus is  un vrai naïf and here the parallel with Romanians might seem to break down, for Romanians are nothing if not cynical. On the other hand  children who are the victims of prolonged abuse become highly suspicious and unable to trust others. Romanians often combine naiveté and cynicism in a way that foreigners don’t easily understand. Maybe that’s the secret of the present Government’s high ratings in the opinion polls.

Romania’s  orphans (in fact a misnomer since few of the institutionalised children are orphans) are, entirely due to pressure from opinion abroad, a political story that never goes away. They may well play a large part in postponing Romania’s admission to the European Union. In a front page cartoon in a leading newspaper a weary Romanian complains: ‘Why do they keep talking about orphans? We Romanians are all orphans.’ And so indeed they are. The Romanian-American writer Andrei Codrescu in a speech in 1991 put it this way. ‘Romania is a country of abandoned children, literal children and grown-up children, abandoned by its own leadership, abandoned by the West and psychologically by its own citizens.’

In another sense too Romania is orphaned. Since the demise of Communism other former Soviet colonies have found Western countries to act as economic partners-mentors: Austria supports and invests in Hungary and its other ex-Communist neighbours: the Baltic States and Poland have Scandinavia; even wretched Albania has Italy. The Romanians have no-one, for surely the Greeks and Turks do not fulfill this role. They have only the EU whom Romanians look on as a rich and benevolent distant relative who will adopt them and thereby solve all their problems. Lady Nicholson’s career as a backbencher in the British Parliament was pretty undistinguished but as the European Parliament’s Rapporteur the hectoring style and meddlesomeness which grated in England the 1990s is what Romania now requires. Whether or not she is right in her opposition to foreign adoptions, how statesmanlike and how adult a figure she cuts among the Ministers and officials whom she harries. On balance, how lucky, did they but know it, Romanians are to have her.

Romanians are the enfants terrible of Europe and if they succeed in joining the European Union in 2007 they will do so as the licensed problem children, expected to lag behind the others and embarrass the grown ups. Real children who have been ill-treated and neglected very often grow up to be child abusers. In Romania generations of cynical and self-interested leaders have taught succeeding generations to misuse power. Romanians hope that foreigners, like wise and beneficent grown-ups,  will step in to make things better but what is needed to break the cycle is moral regeneration from within. Discouragingly, the only movement in recent Romanian history that sought to achieve this daunting task was the Iron Guard, the pre-war mystical-fascist movement who proposed a cure for corruption worse than the disease.

Romanians at work

I published this in 2004 in Vivid and very much has changed in Romanian companies since then but not everything. Some people were kind about it. The compliment I prized was from Ruxandra Onofrei who said, 'It's very good but I wish it hadn't been written by a foreigner.'

Romanians have spent thirteen difficult years of transition “encamped like bewildered travellers in a garish  and unrestful hotel” in the phrase of Joseph Conrad describing another period of change. In these years, the most hopeful development has been the work not of politicians but of foreign companies. The great achievement of the multinationals that have entered the Romanian market since 1990, and more especially since the pivotal elections of 1996 when the ex-Communists left office, is their role in educating a large section of the Romanian generation in their 20s and early 30s.

But every foreign firm (and its foreign managers) rightly adapt themselves to the Romanian way of life. Romanian human resources are products of today’s Romania and every firm here whether local or international has a Romanian way of doing business. What does this mean?

Because Romania had the good or ill fortune to escape the Reformation and the Eighteenth Century enlightenment and because it was industrialised only at the diktat of Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej in the 1950s, it retains an essentially pre-industrial social structure. The family is the essential element of Romanian society and as a kind of extension of the family the Romanian in his childhood, teens and early adulthood takes his or her place in a clan of friends who support each other. Beyond this, skeins of relationships make up client systems a little like those in ancient Rome. Outside the family and the network of friends, outsiders tend often to be viewed with distrust and suspicion. Dr Johnson’s aphorism referring to another conservative, agrarian society applies equally to the Romanians. ‘The Irish are a very fair people, sir. They never speak well of one another.’ The profoundly religious Romanians have in common with the Irish an acute awareness of original sin.

In the office, copies of these clan systems are reproduced in miniature. Relations in business and at work are always about human relationships, which is one of the things that make doing business and living in Romania so delightful to foreigners used to more impersonal environments. It is also, incidentally, why politics in this country, as in eighteenth-century England, is about factions rather than political principles. The distinction between work and leisure, between private life and business life, is less clear-cut than in the West, beyond ‘the Iron Curtain of the mind’. The corollary is that if Romanian colleagues do not strike up friendships with each other (in a few cases, it has been rumoured, even love affairs) either spontaneously or for motives of self-interest, they very often get on badly with each other. Not for nothing are many training companies earning good incomes from providing team-building exercises. Unfortunately, the best training often has only limited effectiveness because it is based on Western models that transpose badly to Balkans. Romania is in many respects the Orient  dreaming that it is France.

Managers in the modern sense of the word were few before Communism, society was semi-feudal and positions in the civil service, the law and the armed forces were much more prestigious than going into trade.  Many business leaders were Jews, Germans, Hungarians or expatriates. Management came in with Communism and managers expected to be obeyed unthinkingly. Today Romania, like other post-Communist societies, remains a hierarchical and deferential society that would gladden the heart of Edmund Burke and present-day Romanian management style still owes very much to the 1980s model, despite valiant efforts to introduce new ways of working. Managers are expected by their subordinates to make the decisions and take the responsibility when those decisions turn out to be wrong. When a subordinate makes mistakes he can expect to be bawled out by his chief but too often will not be shown how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Sometimes this can be for the good and sufficient reason that the manager himself does not know how to do so. The idea that all are working together in a common enterprise and that the boss has the comfortable chair and the big desk simply because he has more experience to share with his colleagues is one that is gaining acceptance only slowly.

Before starting doing business in Romania five years ago I thought connections were things plugs went into. I quickly learnt better. Before the Revolution jobs were filled by personal connections, pile. In very many companies, both Romanian and foreign-owned, they still are. Rather like in nineteenth century English novels or indeed like in England forty years ago before the classless meritocracy challenged the old boy networks. Jobs are also kept by personal connections. A well-qualified candidate who enters a firm without personal connections, as the result of answering a job advert or being sourced by a recruiter, is vulnerable unless or until he builds his own connections. His weaknesses will be immediately identified by his peers and ruthlessly used against him. On the other hand, the more capable he is the less popular he may be with weaker colleagues. One jaundiced foreign businessman with very long experience in Romania told me, unfairly, ‘In business, Romanians show no gratitude and no mercy.’

The wiser foreign manager has a very clear idea of the office politics that make many Romanian workplaces soap-operas comparable with the Latin American serials that are the staple of Acasa, complete with intrigue, passion and betrayal. The less well-informed foreign manager can sometimes be a kind of roi fainéant manipulated by Romanian colleagues.

The cohort of Romanians born after 1965 that is being educated within the good multinationals is the great source of hope for Romania. However, while the majority is learning the values of transparency and the work ethic along with technical expertise and western know-how, some young professionals have a philosophical outlook than can best be described as baroque. Baroque in the sense that they observe the forms they learn at work but ignore the spirit, absorb the technical expertise and up-to-the-minute management-speak but continue to do business in the old ways. Whether the future holds more FNIs and Bancorexes or the long-awaited economic upturn finally rewrites the script of Romanian history depends in part on which of these two schools of thought wins out.

Geniuses are socially inept?

I wonder if the three most interesting people I may have met in my thirteen years in Bucharest were three actors I met by chance acting in a Steven Seagal film ( he is different from Stephen Spielberg) and staying in the Hilton. They delighted me. They did everything my mother told me one shouldn't do. They showed off like peacocks, poured out words and were funny and profound. Actors I saw have to be acute observers of human beings and therefore human nature.

We had dinner every night for a week. 

I just came across in my diary something one of them said to me:
‎"I've known three people I've considered geniuses, including Berkoff, and all three were completely socially inept."

I find this very reassuring but of course almost all socially inept people are not geniuses. Not even close. I am put in mind of the lines from a Peter Cook  and Dudley Moore  film which in my late 20s were my favourite joke.

Dud: You are a loony.
Pete: They called Galileo a loony.
Dud: Yeh and they also called a lot of loonies loonies.

One of the actors suddenly announced one evening, in a magnificent voice: 'The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. But that's the way to bet.' Pressed he thought it might be Damon Runyon and it sounds like Runyon.

I told him I envied him being an actor and he replied 'Well, it can be a very precarious life.' 'That's why I envy you.' 'YES!' he cried. 

Actresses someone said happen in the best regulated families. I would be very pleased if a son or daughter of mine went on the stage. Less risky than accountancy or law.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Geriatric Dentistry in Eastern European Counties

I am an omnivorous reader and I once thumbed through a copy of this very rare book in a shop in the Charing Cross Rd. Its title was so uninviting that it was irresistible:

Any man can read Dionysius of Halicarnassus - it takes a true bookman to read Geriatric Dentistry in Eastern Europe.

pls write YOUR TOP OF MIND THINGS about Romania

pls write YOUR TOP OF MIND THINGS about Romania here

Someone asked this in April 2006 - was it Craig Turp? - and this was my spontaneous response. I would not answer in this way now. Romania has matured and so have I. 

Oriental, sophisticated, decadent, intriguing, Balkan, Frenchified, profoundly old-fashioned, life-enhancing. Poetic, never boring, not yet homogenised, mystical, ironic, chaotic, superficial and profound, serendipitous, paradoxical, inscrutable

Still, Romania is a wonderful country still in very many ways more civilised than England. It is too late for the best fruit and vegetables you ever tasted and shopping centres and mortgages are here but Romanian girls this very day are walk through the streets under 10 inches of snow with boots with 4 inch high heels. People takes the existence of God for granted like the sun rising each morning and sinking each evening. Homosexuality is considered rather shocking despite the efforts of the EU to stop them doing so. Priests and poets are right-wing. People have read books and are proud of their country's history. Everyone flirts.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

How Romania might have avoided Communism: Herbert Hoover speaks from the grave

Herbert Hoover speaks from the grave to argue in a scholarly work of history that American involvement in the Second World War was a disastrous blunder for which his successor Franklin Roosevelt is to be blamed and that Britain should also have avoided war. Romanians who without exception blame FDR and Churchill (completely unfairly) for Yalta will take Hoover's side. 

This is incredibly interesting but it has hardly been reviewed. A 100 page fragment of Macaulay’s projected  History of France got far more attention in the papers when it was published in 1974. One of the very few reviews of Hoover’s book is here.

Had France and England not gone to war far fewer people are likely to have died, although I suspect that Russia (whom all well informed people expected to fall in a couple of months) might still have defeated Germany. I loathe and despise Sir Oswald Mosley but I think he may have been right on one single thing, that going to war to preserve the balance of power in Europe was a mistake all along - in the Napoleonic Wars, in 1914 and in 1939. 

I have always suspected that Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not the hero he is portrayed as being but a Bad Thing but I have never studied his administration in any detail.  I would like to know more about Hoover who was a progressive Republican not at all like Calvin Coolidge (but Coolidge also deserves rehabilitation I imagine - after all a leader who does nothing is always to be admired).

I more and more begin to think that the Anglo-French guarantees to Poland and Romania in 1939 were  a mistake and Britain and France should have formed an alliance to defend themselves and let Eastern Europe go. But a very hard one to judge indeed. If FDR deliberately provoked Pearl Harbor he was the greatest villain unhanged and yet without Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA Europe would have been either dominated by Stalin or Hitler. Counter-factual speculation is frowned on but Romanians who bitterly blame Roosevelt and Churchill for Yalta will probably side with Hoover. In any case as AJP Taylor said:

In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six and a half million Poles were killed. Which was better—to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole? 
(A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), xxxvii.)

It is completely wrong of Romanians to blame Churchill and Roosevelt for Yalta, as if anything we agreed at Yalta would have helped Romania. After all, Stalin and Churchill split Hungary 50%-50% and Hungary became a Russian satellite. Unless we specifically blame Churchill and Roosevelt for the disastrous decision to invade Sicily not Greece. It would make more sense for Romanians to blame Britain and France for going to war in 1939. But Romania wanted that worthless guarantee from us.

Victors write history and Russia Britain and America won. This is why Marxism is still respectable and fascism (no longer a threat) is purest evil. We in the West lived in a bipolar world and however much we knew Communism was evil we could not be absolutely certain, while the USSR was a superpower, that history would 'prove' us right. The USSR was  a vast power and historians deeply respect power. Had Hitler won the historians would write very differently about him.

We went to war to protect the power and independence of the British Empire and save Eastern Europe and we failed completely, at hideous cost.

On V.E. Day the diarist (and MP for my unglamorous home town) Sir Henry (‘Chips’) Channon threw a very grand party in his house, 5 Belgrave Square. The guests included exiled royalty and the cream of Society and he said to a young heiress, ‘This is what be were fighting for’. To which she replied, ‘Oh, are all these people Poles?’ 

Poland was crucified for fifty years and the England of Chips Channon, hierarchical, imperial, self-confident, decent, vaguely Christian, male dominated, sans welfare state, hideously white, is now one with Nineveh and Babylon. Perhaps it was the best outcome possible, perhaps not.

WHAT have Winnie the Pooh and Catherine the Great got in common?

I just remembered, after many years, what is still my favourite joke of all time. 

WHAT have Winnie the Pooh and Catherine the Great got in common?

The same middle name.

The second funniest joke is:

How many surrealist painters does it take to change a light bulb?


Just one more ancient, early 80s, lightbulb joke:

How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed