Sunday 26 February 2012

100 novels everyone should read

I scored 43% in the Sunday Telegraph's list of 100 novels everyone should read. Many duds on this list: Frankenstein; Cranford; Passage to India; Miss Jean Brodie; Lord of the Rings; 100 Years of Solitude; Under the Net; Unbearable Lightness; etc., etc. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles I suppose everyone SHOULD read though it is not a great book. Sherlock Holmes is a great character and that is the best of the novels and better than any of the short stories. Thank God the pulp novel Dracula was not included. 

Thank God too The Scarlet Letter is not on this list - one of the worst written, dullest, thinnest novels I ever read. America probably needs a F.R. Leavis. Missing too are various other worthy bores that are in the canon like Vanity Fair. 

I have read all E.M. Forster's novels and some of them two or three times and I am sure he was right that he was not a great writer. Passage to India is one of his worst though not nearly as bad as the awful Maurice.  Dozens of Indian civil servants threw their copies over the side of the ships taking them back from leave and they were right, even though they belonged to the world of telegrams and anger. But P.N. Firbank's life of Forster is a great delight and Forster's philosophy - always connect - betray your country for your friend - has a warm adolescent passion that reveals his essential immaturity and which spoke to me when I was an adolescent of 26. (Is his immaturity linked to his being a homosexual or are there better novelists who were homosexual?) His atheism also somehow makes his characters thinner and flatter than had he believed in God. 

Balzac was certainly very immature. No-one over the age of 26, as Gide said, can read Balzac and I read Goriot too late (I simply loved Eugenie Grandet in my early teens). 

I always looked forward to loving Tristram Shandy. After all I had loved the Sentimental Journey by Sterne and that was just a chip off the Shandy block. But on two attempts TS withstood me. But I know the fault is mine not Sterne's. By the way, I always treasure Dr. Johnson's unprophetic remark: 'Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.'

I imagine Don Quixote, as someone said of Wagner, has great moments and truly terrible half hours. Do people read Clarissa? Should they? I must admit I did not try either. I did love  a collection of short picaresque novels from 16th century Spain.

The best on this list are The Scarlet and the Black (but Charterhouse of Parma is even better) and the 1001 Nights, which is not a novel but I suppose the longer tales are. Aladdin and Ali Baba are sublime as are most of the tales. I read Sir Charles Johnson's translation of Eugene Onegin which is very enjoyable and I recommend it  with the caveat that THERE IS NO POINT IN READING POETRY IN TRANSLATION.

And if novels in verse are allowed then the best by far are Chaucer's Troilus and Cresseyde closely followed by Don Juan by Byron.

I am ashamed I have never read Jane Eyre. I have not read Mme Bovary or War and Peace either but they are foreign and therefore not compulsory. Maybe Ulysses and Sons and Lovers are by now compulsory and I have not read either.

Which novels would I add to the list? Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which must be in my top half dozen, Humphrey Clinker which is marvellous, Emma, of course, The Nigger of the Narcissus and Typhoon which are much better than Heart of Darkness, Under Western Eyes ditto and Pushkin's novella The Captain's Daughter, which reminds me to mention a lovely novel called The Rector's Daughter, by F.M. Mayor. Also Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake, The Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford or any of her other novels except Jigsaw -  and the first novels of all, The Satyricon and The Golden Ass of Apuleius The Golden Ass is still funny, sexy and hard to put down. I doubt if the same can be said for Don Quixote or Clarissa.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Some Romanian quotations

The Romanians possess to the highest degree the capacity of receiving the blows of fate while relaxed. They fall artfully, soft and loose in every joint and muscle as only those trained in falling can be. The secret of the art of falling is, of course, not to be afraid of falling and the Romanians are not afraid, as Western people are. Long experience has taught them that each fall may result in unforeseen opportunities and that somehow they always get on their feet again.

Countess Waldeck
Athene Palace(1943)

Those who hold no position in government, spend their time in absolute idleness, or in visiting each other to kill time.....In their habitual state of inaction, brought on by a natural aversion to every serious occupation which does not immediately relate to their personal interest, both sexes, enjoying the most extensive freedom of intercourse with each other, are easily led to clandestine connexion: the matrimonial faith has become merely nominal.

William Wilkinson
An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820)

I think that if Romania came one day by a miracle to get rid of all its sins and the faults of its leading political class and if, as if by magic, it gave up its selfishness, intrigue, corruption, incompetence and its scorn for the masses, still, even in that situation, this country could not make good progress if our political personalities did not get rid of their lack of seriousness.
Mihail Manoilescu
Memoirs (1927)

So exorbitant was this demand as virtually to amount to all the herds of Wallachia. The collectors were ordered to levy the increased tax within the brief space of ten days, and employed very severe measures, not stopping short of torture. When at last despairing protests were made before the palace - in itself a most unusual event - the prince [Constantin Hangerli] appeared at a window and called out angrily, 'Pay the taxes and you won't be killed'.

....An emissary was sent from the Porte to Bucarest, accompanied by a tall negro executioner. Forcing his way into the palace and into the very presence of the hospodar, he produced a firman of the sultan and ordered the negro to strangle the wretched Hangerli then and there, before the eyes of his terrified guards (1 March 1799).When some of the boiars rushed in, they found the prince's head had been hacked off, and the room was deluged with blood.

R.W Seton-Watson
A History of the Roumanians (1934)

Religion in Romania means something entirely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries.

Eugene Ionesco

The Paris of the Balkans, apart from an economizing on electricity of an evening that does not exactly make it a Ville Lumiere, represents, as one proceeds in a south-easterly direction, a further, and profane, emanation of the gradual decline of the image of the City, capital of France and of the nineteenth century, and indeed of Europe.

Claudio Magris
Danube (1986)

As a collective personality, the Romanians are Oriental in their souls although Latin on the surface. Their patience is almost unending but they are quick to explode in argument; they are peace-loving yet would disintegrate without controversy. They are passive but strong in their resistance; spontaneously adaptable, still difficult t influence. They are romantic but never escape from reality.
They are charming yet cruel in their ridicule, warmly emotional but calculating, generous yet concentrate on the ‘main chance.’ They are opportunistic but lose interest after they have gained the advantage; they seize the moment, still adopt the long view.

Donald Dunham

In the Balkans, upon the passing of the Christian régime to the Turks, the old system was preserved under the new masters without any essential change. But in Roumania the recognition of Turkish suzerainty by the princes of Moldavia and Wallachia did not connote a curtailment of their authority. These princes continued as the natural protectors of the Oriental Church, with the patriarchs of Antiochia, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople ranging themsleves under their guidance. As the crowned heads of all Orthodoxy, they ruled unhampered by any immixture of Turkish authority, then limited to the fortresses of the Danube which were considered the possessions of the Sultans. Thus is explained why Turkish pashas commanded at Buda, but never in the Roumanian capitals, where the cross remained at the pinnacle of the political organization. And yet, historians continue to group the Romanians with the "Balkan Christians" who broke their fetters and became free at about the same time, as though Romanian freedom had ever been interrupted during the nearly five hundred years of vassalage under the Sultans.

Nicolae Iorga

Men of experience assert that Bukharest is a wickeder city than Budapest, and that is saying a great deal.
Around the Black Sea (1911)
William Curtis

The riders are all very gallant and debonair; the ladies sparkle like jewels; languid beauties recline in their cars and survey the scene between half-closed eyelids.
In Gypsy Camp and Royal Palace (1924)
Emil Hoppe

In much knowledge there is also much grief.
Queen Marie of Romania

I believe that in the history of art and of thought there has always been at every living moment of culture a "will to renewal." This is not the prerogative of the last decade only. All history is  nothing but a succession of "crises" -- of rupture, repudiation and resistance. When there is no "crisis," there is stagnation, petrifaction and death. All thought, all art is aggressive.
Eugen Ionesco

Speech and silence. We feel safer with a madman who talks than with one who cannot open his mouth.

Emil Cioran

What will be the physiognomy of painting, of
  poetry, of music, in a hundred years? No one
  can tell. As after the fall of Athens, of
  Rome, a long pause will intervene, caused by
  the exhaustion of consciousness itself.
  Humanity, to rejoin the past, must invent a
  second naiveté, without which the arts can
  never begin again. 
Emil Cioran

The Trouble with Being Born

In certain men, everything, absolutely  everything, derives from physiology: their
  body is their mind, their mind is their body. 
Emil Cioran

The Trouble with Being Born

This little blind creature, only a few days old, turning its head every which way in search of something or other, this naked skull, this initial baldness, this tiny monkey that has sojourned for months in a latrine and that soon, forgetting its origins, will spit on the galaxies. 
Emil Cioran
Drawn and Quartered

  Paradise was unendurable, otherwise the first
  man would have adapted to it; this world is no
  less so, since here we regret paradise or
  anticipate another one. What to do? where to
  go? Do nothing and go nowhere, easy enough. 
 Emil Cioran
The Trouble with Being Born

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.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The good people are wrong again, this time about Syria

Once again as so often the nice people and the experts are laughably mistaken. Russia is right to fear what will follow the fall of Assad and and sees herself as defending Middle Eastern Christians. The choice seems a victory for Assad's horrible regime or a long war ending up with a Sunni regime and not many Christians or Druze left. I at one point hoped for the fall of the House of Assad but I learnt from experience. The fall of Mubarak has made things worse, probably ditto Gaddafi. We are seeing the end of the Christian Middle East. 

But the Assad regime will fall, now or at some point. I rejoice that I visited Syria in 2007 before the deluge.

Jonathan Littell's descriptions in the Guardian today of the way in which the army tortures opponents of the government I found unbearable to read. I suspect that the rebels are probably using equally gruesome methods too. I am in no position to judge what is going on but the press accounts from Syria are astonishingly partial in both senses of the word. Once more we hear only one side. This story and this give a glimpse of what is really going on, which the press and the British and French governments  are ignoring. To stoke up a civil war by military intervention at this moment would be insane folly but it seems on the cards. Why should not Iran and Russia intervene if Great Britain and France do?

Sunday 19 February 2012

The strange charm of dereliction

This completely irresponsible article was first published in the Bucharest Daily News in November 2005.

"Bucharest has a lot to do in order to become a city worthy of the status of a European capital.' This headmasterly admonishment was made by Jonathan Scheele, the soft-spoken British civil servant who heads the European Commission Delegation in Romania, at last week's "Investment Opportunities in Bucharest" conference.

Am I alone in dreading the day when Bucharest becomes worthy of the status of a European capital? To my mind it's the nicest European capital because it is unworthy of Mr Scheele's esteem. What other capital in Europe is nearly so unself-conscious, so unlike the rest, so full of energy and shadows and yes so un-European, despite the spawning malls, hypermarkets, highly paid foreign consultants and other horrors of democracy? I know the streets become unfordable rivers when it rains. I know I should be pleased when the potholes and the broken pavements are renewed with EU pre-accession funding but I am not. Irresponsibly I am elated by a beauty I find in the dereliction and have been since my first visit in 1990.

The wooden Ottoman Bucharest of 1830 where the men wore turbans and kaftans was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century in stucco and brick, its architects paying homage to Paris and an imaginary Orient at the same time. Later came Art Deco buildings that are unequalled anywhere in Europe. Bucharest was up to the minute in architectural terms before the war and ahead of for example Paris herself. But the faux-French surface of Carol I's Bucharest has been badly cracked over the last sixty years.

Nothing in this city apart from a score of churches is old but those parts that escaped the 1980s rebuilding feel more than half as old as time. I haven't passed the Museum of Archaeology for a couple of years but then behind its padlocked iron gates half-lost amid tall grass stood a long row of Roman tombs and statues, protected from the rain by a rotting eave. It seemed to me whenever I passed as if the Museum itself were becoming an archeological object and I were the archeologist stumbling across it for the first time.

The decrepit fin de siecle villas and filthy Art Deco masterpieces are becoming one by one a real estate broker's dream of avarice as they are painted and varnished to look the way they originally looked. But for me at least the ramshackle way the streets look now, especially under a melancholy November sky, has a greater beauty than when they are new and shiny.

The old town when I moved there five years ago was not a museum but a slum and the one part of Bucharest where you felt you were in the Near East. The gypsies were part of the reason but it went deeper than than. Now especially that it has been pedestrianised it is on the way to being a complex of restaurants and antique shops. When Bucharest starts receiving tourists in numbers it will go the unauthentic way of the historic centre in every other European capital.

Dirty, disreputable, frivolous but gloomy, full of laughter and misery, mercenary and mystical, improvised, exasperating and serendipitous, Bucharest is a city which either repels you or steals your heart. The ubiquitous and completely unofficial kiosks, which made a Bengali friend of mine compare Bucharest to Dacca, have been eliminated at Mr. Basescu's command. So have the packs of occasionally ferocious stray dogs but it will be fifteen or twenty years before Bucharest ceases to feel Third World. When it does will it have become almost as dull as Athens? Very possibly but let us hope if Bucharest must emulate European cities she can become not Athens but Naples.

But one problem cannot wait fifteen years and cannot be romanticised away. The gridlock in the centre of the city gets worse at a tempo so fast that the deterioration can be observed on a weekly basis. Road-widening and road-building unless very sensitive to the city's architectural heritage will destroy Bucharest's semi-rustic character. What after all is the northern stretch of Calea Victoriei than a country lane? Luckily the solution to the traffic problem is easy. Charge motorists for entering the city centre between 8-6 weekdays and encourage Bucuresteni back to their city's excellent public transport system. It worked in London and would work here. Does any politician have the courage to adopt this idea? Mr. Scheele, what do you say?

An Englishman and two Romanians in Rome

Rome with my wonderful recruitment consultants Raluca and Ondina on a works outing. Very hot in early October. A lovely driver who takes us by Mercedes for the cost of a shuttle and explains things in broken English, working as we should I tell them from love. Not for money.

Many American tourists. Unlined faces like elderly babies. Do I feel more loathing for them than for British tourists? No. British are much more objectionable. Australians too everywhere and also rousing my ire  but less so then British or Americans.

The girls go to the hotel and the driver takes me to St Peter’s where after a 25 minute queue I hear High Mass in Latin (Novo Ordo). The men in suits push you into line very sharply. Thirty bishops? Wearing purple anyway. Scores of priests in green. As always I wonder why the Latin Mass is not available except in such a terribly few places. Not in Romania at all, nor in Ireland.

Being in Rome is like walking into a series of paintings by Old Masters.

The next day we went to the Vatican. The Museums. Nero’s vast bath. An enchanting guide half Irish half (black) Zimbabwean called Patrice whom I chat to who is writing. The Sistine Chapel. Like Niagara Falls it is slightly smaller than I had expected. A huge throng of coach parties in the Museum. The tomb in the nave of King James III King Charles III and King Henry IX of Great Britain and Ireland (the Old and Young Pretender and his brother the last Stuart Pretender) by Canova. So moving. Tears well.

We get lost which is the only way you see things. The girls queue to climb to the cupola something which holds no appeal to me but in the end I looking for them climb it and they do not. The first rule of tourism: do not climb things. 280 claustrophobic steps with no turning back. And just a view at the top.

But Rome is heaven. Like a big box of chocolates. We spent six hours in Vatican which was far too short. 

I got out of the Coliseum with the girls but this was a mistake. This is a team building. Plus they saw the Forum with an archaeologist guide. I would have liked that. I walked and walked and discovered marvels. Like being in heaven. Like an endless box of chocolates. The Canova museum which is also a coffee shop. The beauty of overcast streets and in the rain.

I finally found the companion I needed in the Capitoline Museums’ bookshop, Christopher Hibbert’s middlebrow pot-boiler Rome: The Biography of a City which I read on the plane with delight. Like all middle aged men (?) I do most o f my reading on planes. How I at twenty or twenty-five despised that sort of book. My father read Hibbert I remember. Now  I look into the shop windows and see my father’s face looking back (but considerably fatter) and Hibbert is just what I want. At least though I have not yet started to read military history. 

And such a book I intend to write about Bucharest  - but very much better!

Except that though it had much about Boswell in Rome it had nothing on King Charles III, the Young Pretender or his brother and heir, Cardinal York, King Henry IX. For some reason the melancholy and insubstantial shade of King Henry IX is always in my thoughts in Rome rather than Caesar or Virgil. I wonder if I identify with him, an exile, like me.

Goethe said he only began to live when he visited Rome and I fear that I got there too later to be intoxicated with the place. But it is I suppose the most wonderful city in the world? Yes it is.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Romanian women, a very large subject

All my women friends, even those who love me, hated this article which appeared in Vivid in 2004 but I reproduce it anyway for what it is worth. It describes an era that has vanished and was not intended to offend Romanian women whom I esteem vastly. There is no group of people I would less like to offend:

Schopenhauer in one of his deplorably misogynistic aphorisms said that ‘Any two men in the same trade feel an antagonism born of professional rivalry. All women feel an antagonism for all other women because all women belong to the same trade.’

I remember one morning at the age of twelve laughing loudly when a schoolfriend surreptitiously read this out to me from a penguin Schopenhauer stolen from his elder brother. I think that only once in the years between that moment in the mid-1970s and leaving England to live in Romania did I have the courage to repeat the remark to a woman friend. She was a close friend, Cambridge-educated but no bluestocking and the diametrical opposite of a feminist. She received it in a tolerant but disapproving way, much more frown than smile. But in the six years I have lived in Bucharest I have quoted this line to quite a few Romanian women of different social classes, political opinions and worldviews and never failed to obtain a gleeful laugh, more often than not followed by the comment ‘It’s true.’ In fact I have come slowly, because I am rather naïf, to see that it is true. At least it is somewhat true in Romania and in most of the world, excepting the richest countries, and it was somewhat true there, even in cold, damp England, until at most a generation or so ago.

The differences between the sexual politics of Romania and the Anglo-Saxon nations  provide a great amount of fairly innocent pleasure for watchers of the Romanian expat scene. It is odd that they have not yet provided the backdrop for comic novels and film scripts. The source of material seems inextinguishable but the dangers of embarking on an analysis of the subject are formidable.

The most fundamental reason for the differences is linguistic of course. All profound issues, it seems nowadays, derive from semantics. Having no gender helps make English the easiest language in the world to learn but it fails to instil in the adolescent Anglophone the existentially different natures of men and women. Perhaps this is much of the reason for the sexlessness of the English-speaking world about which Europeans sometimes complain.  And what hope do we have of breaking this pattern when we think that it dates back to some prehistoric psychological-linguistic national trauma in the fifth century when Old English became cast adrift from Old Friesian and Old Gothic. From this we reach to the state of affairs where it has become orthodoxy to believe that the differences between men and women are more the products of social conditioning than innate, where men and women are considered by opinion-formers to be different in the way that say the English and the French are different rather than in the way that Martians and earthlings are different. This is the narrative which is taught in North America. On the other hand, what hope has modern American feminism of making inroads in a country like Romania where demonstrative pronouns have eight different feminine cases?

The American journalist Countess Waldeck, who was in Bucharest in 1940 and 1941 and was fascinated by Romanian women, said that, after centuries of Ottoman rule, ‘They still have something of the harem about them.’ The Countess’s history is a little out because, as Romanians insistently point out, most of present-day Romania was never directly ruled by the Sublime Porte, but she had a good eye. Romania is, as it has always been, a country where the men have the power. Women usually exercise power through influencing men rather than directly. The exceptions to this rule are the multinational companies where women and men advance on merit but even in multinational companies, in Romania as in every country, political power struggles are as important as ability in advancing ones career.

The view among foreign businessmen is that Romanian women, as a  broad generalisation, make better employees, are harder working, more flexible and quicker to adapt to the new post-December mentality than their male contemporaries. In some sectors (the Big Four accountancy firms are an example) women greatly outnumber men and often advance further. Successful women have told me that even in these companies a glass ceiling exists preventing them reaching the top but the truth is that it is too early to tell. There are many examples of women who have reached the top of international firms in Romania. As the cohort of Romanian males recruited in the 1990s when the multinationals first set up shop makes way for a generation reared in the multinational environment the numbers of women at the top will increase. In Romanian companies it is otherwise and in politics women are often expected to perform a secondary and  decorative role. One reason amongst many for this is, I am told, that Romanian men do not like to accept bribes from women.

Successful career women will advance in this country, as in France or Italy, without sacrificing their femininity. On the other hand, in some sectors more than others, especially in advertising, journalism and television but also in banks and law firms, most of all in politics, flirtations and pragmatic office affairs are also for some a means of career development.  Sexual harassment is a fact of life in this country but like all swords it is a double-edged one. By no means are women only harassed, never harassing. There are one or two career women who have also been grandes horizontales, products of an upbringing in the 1980s when all survival required innumerable barter arrangements and in which bribery, a perennial feature of life in Romania, flourished as never before. It is essential to understand the importance in a very poor country with an ubiquitous secret police of spying, prostitution, bribery and blackmail. When the Romanian history of our days comes to be written (I have sometimes played with the idea of writing it myself) the wise historian will choose as his title, shall we say, ‘Romania in Transition : 1978 -2010’ (from the defection Ion Mihai Pacepa, Head of the Securitate, to the date of accession to the EU). The continuities between the 1980s and now are as interesting as the changes. Neither can be understood except in relation to the other.

The way in which the international sexual revolution percolated the Iron Curtain, even under Ceausescu’s sexually puritanical version of Marxism- Leninism, with abortion and contraception illegal, would also make an interesting theme for a Ph.D. thesis.  But it was only after 1989 that the revolution became public and it was a very different kind of sexual revolution from the one that took place in the West in the 60s and 70s. Women were now allowed openly to have as many love affairs as they chose before marriage but sexual relations  remained as they always had been power relations and power remained with men.

Whatever happens in the boardroom, at home Romanian women’s role is a traditional one although the difficulties of combining a twenty-first century career pattern with a 1930s domestic life are made easier because, as in the 1930s, servants are plentiful and cheap. Perhaps we should not sympathise too much with the travails of the successful professional woman. More deserving of sympathy are the able young women trying to find their first job. If they want to be journalists for example they may well be propositioned at every interview. Or let us sympathise with the young women who leave school at eighteen and take dead-end jobs on  starvation wages. Or the ones who prefer to exchange the poverty of Romania for the poverty that awaits them abroad amongst the hundreds of thousands of Romanians who struggle abroad to make ends meet in menial, often illegal, work, finding the means to survive and to send money home to their families. Their remittances are the main source of direct foreign investment in Romania in the Age of Transition.

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.

Return of the natives

An article published in Vivid in 2005. There are far more repats in Romania nowadays. EU accession the internet and budget flights have annihilated distance.

As the Cold War recedes into the far distance, a tidal wave of emigration moves westwards from the former Soviet bloc  and  the creativity and destructiveness of capitalism brutally transform the Romanian way of life, Romanians who return home after have lived and worked abroad become increasingly numerous. Even in the political world, dominated though it will be for the foreseeable future by hard-faced men  who did well out of  Communism, the Minister of Finance, Mihai Tanasescu and Teodor Stolojan, the leader of the National Liberal party,  have benefited from working for the World Bank in Washington where Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana was for many years Ambassador. President Iliescu’s studies at Moscow University in the early 1950s, in comparison, do not really cut it.

Repatriate Romanians have almost always learnt a great deal abroad (in the Romanian expression, ‘through the air’) although they have not always forgotten enough. Some things are hard-wired into Romanians at a very early age. But though a few repats returned to outgraft those who stayed at home, the majority come back wanting to do things in a transparent way and make their careers by hard work rather than influence peddling, baksheesh or blackmail.

What makes them return? The reasons differ from case to case: homesickness; patriotism; a realisation that life in Romania is more fulfilling and fun than in more developed countries; a desire to have a higher standard of living by living in the cheapest capital in Europe; a desire to be close to family or loved ones. The list is endless. One Romanian told me ‘I wanted to come back because when I bought my loaf of bread in the morning I wanted to know what the shop assistant thought of me.’ Some people return to help their country in her hour of need, some because they prefer to be bigger fish in a smaller pond than to swim with the sharks on, say, Wall St.

Whatever the reasons, their Romanian colleagues who did not have the chance to live abroad often take a cold-eyed view of returnees. One businesswoman who came back after a successful career in the USA told me “Romanians treat foreigners like gods among men but we are simply resented. Everyone thinks ‘I could be where they are if only I’d had their luck’”Repats have to earn respect. With that lack of charity when examining motives which seems to be characteristically Romanian, repats are often thought to have returned home ‘because they have failed.’ This in turn is one of the reasons that dissuade Romanians from returning, the national obsessive fear of losing face.

But the Romania to which repats return can seem, if they have been away several years, like a foreign country. Having learnt to think in a different way, returning they often feel like emigrants all over again. They feel a culture gap between them and those who did not leave and this gap is widened if they enjoy higher salaries or larger career prospects. On the other hand, many very capable people who come back find it very difficult to obtain jobs at any salary, because they are considered over-qualified for every position for which they apply. They also feel in danger of falling between two stools, of being betwixt and between the first and second worlds.

One American professional who has worked in Romania for many years and who has worked alongside repats says they often suffer from what he calls “Self-inflicted crossbreed-edness.  Not enough western experience (in mowing lawns, waiting tables, and trying to pick up American chicks, which is how I picked up half of what I currently know) to rival a standard issue, USC or Syracuse graduate; too much in terms of salary expectations for the local market.  They can't "wing it" here. They don't even know what it is to "wing it."  That's what I do every day -- call instantly on years of experiences, meetings, and discussions to massage a reasonable answer out of the current situation.  That's where I make my money, not in the specific answers to silly questions. They’re also crippled by their Romanian education in that they NEED to have/hear the correct answer.  It's all "no, that's wrong because . . . " They don't know how to have a constructive debate with other smart people, to toss ideas back and forth, "what if"'s, and "do you mean that"s, to sculpt a sound approach from other people's ideas.”

Whatever their qualities and faults, repatriates will undoubtedly play an invaluable role in bridging the culture gap which exists between locals and foreign investors or professionals. It is impossible to deny that the gap still exists and is still wide. Even more valuable in some ways are the sons and daughters of earlier emigrants, who return to the country their parents left to find themselves and their ethnic identity or to take part in the greater opportunities and challenges that a developing economy offers. In the words of an American Romanian parentage who worked in Bucharest for some years before returning to New York, “Why stay in New York and become a very small cog in a very large and well-run machine, when you can come to Romania and attempt to become part of this new society? The idea is not to be a big fish in a small pond, but to build your own pond and be the first fish to take advantage of it.

Some foreign employers dislike employing repats on the ground that the resentments they provoke among colleagues outweigh their usefulness but this view is short-sighted, provided that the repat in question is strong enough to merit the position he is given.   Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of foreign managers in Bucharest is in decline (real estate brokers who are best placed to judge certainly claim this). Although when the eternally fascinating economic upturn materialises the number of foreigners may revive, hard-headed reasons dictate that repats are the future. They are often cheaper than foreigners and have huge advantages over them if they have comparable skills and a Western mentality. Language skills are only the start. Inevitably, even the canniest foreigner cannot hope to understand more than a little about Romania, and that little takes considerable time to learn.

So in the next thirty years repats will take leading positions in business, the arts, education and eventually in politics. The readiness of Romanians to return home in numbers will both be a sign that Romania is moving forward and a powerful catalyst for her to do so.

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.