Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en - and vampires - in Romania

Hallowe'en is an ancient Catholic tradition but now just an excuse to make money and for American cultural imperialism. But whatever you think of it, it has an apostrophe in it, people.

This is what I wrote last year about Hallowe'en in Romania.

This, on the subject of real-life vampires, of whom I have known two or three in Romania, might also be of interest.

Catholics celebrate the unknown saints in heaven on All Saints' Day, November 1. The Secklers in Harghita and Covasna, who are Catholics, on this day dress the tombs of their family members and gather at them with candles - it is a very big occasion. On the eve of All Saints - Hallowe'en - the souls of the dead who are in Purgatory are said by tradition to haunt the earth.

This explains Hallowe'en's Catholic origins and why Protestants don't like it.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

A weekend in the Secklerland



No-one knows what these paintings on the church tower at Csikrakos (Racu) mean. The tower is said to have been built in 1080 though no-one is sure. The most recent theory is that the paintings derive from the pre-Christian religion of the Hungarians and their close cousins the Secklers. Without examining the evidence one just knows this explanation is

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Why we live abroad

The heart is the undiscovered country. You travel to a foreign country to discover your unconscious mind.

Laurence Durrell said you have two birthplaces. The place where you are born and the place where you learn about life. For me an adolescent of 36 my second birthplace was Bucharest.

For some people who do not put their feet on the ground and take part in life there can be a transparent sheath between themselves and life. They are tourists all the time, in their home town or when they are travelling. Perhaps I am one of these people. I felt throughout my four years at Cambridge that I was a tourist there. In London where my contemporaries were pursuing paths to money and love I walked around with an acute overwhelmingly passion for the city which you can only feel if you grew up in Southnd-on-Sea. 

Philip Guedala said of Michael Arlen’s characters they walk down Jermyn St with such an acute sense of its being Jermyn St that one almost suspects them of being in London for the day. Perhaps this is how I have lived in Bucharest in the last twelve years. Perhaps this is why I like being a foreigner here rather than feeling a foreigner in my own country. How awful to feel at home somewhere. Does anyone feel at home anywhere? Does anyone interesting? Perhaps grown-ups do. Perhaps that is one definition of being grown-up.

If as Malcolm Muggeridge said sex is the mysticism of materialism, then this can also be true of travel too. And not particularly the beach holiday kind of travel so much as the more adventurous travel. Travel agents sell dreams. Only books and travel have the qualities of dreams and for the young only dreams are real. Reality is a terribly dull thing. When one gets older life acquires a texture and begins at last to one’s surprise to feel real, which means like a novel. About the same time novels seem less interesting. For some people perhaps travel does too?

When I came to live in Bucharest in 1998 I felt that I was a character in a novel by Joseph Conrad in the South Seas in the 19th century. The foreigners who had floated here after the revolution who could have been creations of Conrad in ironic mode. Bucharest had changed a lot between 1990 when I first visited and 1998 when I came to live here but it seemed extremely far away from the western world and it seemed in some ways still living in if not a nineteenth century novel then the early 50s at any rate. Later I refined it to 1959 . When I flew back I felt for a few hours like a character from star trek materializing slowly on another planet. 

Romania was last of all the former Communist countries to become globalised, except for Belarus and possibly Albania but seems infinitely more like everywhere else. At the same time the western world, once known as the civilised world, seems a concept which is time limited. And the idea of Romania has changed because countries mean much less than they did before the internet and cheap travel. 

Will Romania still exist in fifty years? One economist I know doubts if anyone will still speak Romanian in fifty years time. What is the point of the language?

Travel books are like all literary genres from another age, when abroad had another meaning . When John Paget wrote almost no-one among his readers, all people who paid income tax and a tiny fraction of the English population had been to Hungary or heard of Transylvania. For a long time travel was expensive and difficult and travel writing was information for the curious and a story with the writer as protagonist. And funny foreigners. All foreigners for the most liberal Englishmen were very faintly comic until some moment some time after we joined what was then called the Common Market. Now they are something to help us choose where to go on holiday, to prepare for holidays and to compare notes afterwards. And writers create the country they write about. Arabia is about Wilfred Thesiger. Delhi is now about Sam Miller and William Dalrymple a literary construct. 

And countries are an idea which is changing. And the word foreign is changing too. Will Romania be a country in fifty years time or a part of a big non-country called Europe? Countries are about traditions and therefore anachronistic. And about excluding foreigners which seems xenophobic and discriminatory. And about violence in the past the future sometimes in the present. And about languages but languages are being subverted by English. Countries are a difficult concept in the post-modern post-Marxist world.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Our Man in Havana

This was first published in Vivid in 2004.


Life in Bucharest has been transformed since the bloody events of December 1989 but three large apartments in a 1960s block in Mihai Eminescu have escaped the changes. Marked only by a discreet  flag and a yawning squaddie on guard they house the Cuban Embassy, a serene place where nothing much has altered since Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania were friendly socialist countries. I was received there recently with

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The strange charm of dereliction


I published this deeply irresponsible article in the Bucharest Daily News back in 2005 and it was and is a cri de coeur. Someone pointed out that it was printed next to a worthy article calling for more investment in infrastructure, by my friend, Dan Visoiu. It is a synopsis in one page of the book I am writing about the Paris of the East.
"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 satanic 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 ago 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 archaeological object and I were the archaeologist stumbling across it for the first time.

Image result for Museum of Archaeology "Vasile Pārvan"



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 kiosks which made a Bangladeshi friend of mine compare Bucharest to Dakar 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?


Saturday, 19 October 2013

The sexual revolution in Iran, Romania and Northern Ireland


This is a very interesting article on sex in Iran, by Afshin Shahi in Foreign Policy. It shows how very Westernised Persians are, thanks, I suppose, to the Shahs. 
It reminds me too that the sexual revolution in the 1960s permeated the Iron Curtain and reached even faraway Bucharest. Though other aspects of the 1960s social revolution did not, for which I am pretty thankful. 
It may be too that sex before marriage is a political gesture in Iran. Irish Catholic girls in the 1980s told me Ulster Protestant girls slept around because they read The Sun and, as Unionists, wanted to resemble girls on the mainland.

A wise thing on the subject of the sexual revolution was said by Dorothy Day, the Communist activist who converted to Catholicism. 
The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. This is not reverence for life, it is a great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution that they think they are furthering.
This seems to me to be true and to apply, among other things, to homosexual marriage.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Ireland, a poor, half-witted, gypsy relative of England

I just came across this brilliant remark about Ireland by Hugh Trevor-Roper, thanks to Henry Hopgood-Phillips. I love it though though I know Trevor-Roper was that most objectionable thing, a Protestant atheist.
'Through all our history she clings to us, a poor, half-witted, gypsy relative, defying our improvement, spoiling our appearances, exposing our pretences, an irredeemable, irrepressible slut, dirty when we are most clean, superstitious when we are most rational, protesting when we are most complacent, and when we are most prosaic, inspired'.

Romanians at work


This article first appeared in Vivid magazine in 2003 and the world it describes has changed enormously, but not completely beyond recognition. 

Romanians have spent thirteen difficult years of transition “encamped like bewilderedtravellers in a garish  and unrestful hotel” in the phrase of Joseph

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

'That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time'

John Stuart Mill

That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.

Ronald Firbank 


`O, help me heaven,' she prayed,`to be decorative and to do right.'

'The life of nations, no less than the life of men, is lived largely in the imagination'


Roger Scruton
The fact is that the people of Europe are losing their homelands, and therefore losing their place in the world. I don’t envisage the Tiber one day foaming with much blood, nor do I see it blushing as the voice of the muezzin sounds from the former cathedral of St. Peter. But the city through which the Tiber flows will one day cease to be Italian, and all the expectations of its former residents, whether political, social, cultural, or personal, will suffer a violent upheaval, with results every bit as interesting as those that Powell prophesied. 


Charles Moore

All this [mass immigration] need not be a total disaster. It is possible, though hard, to forge a United Kingdom made up of many ethnicities. Leaders like Mr Cameron are right to try to insist on common standards and better rules, rather than to despair. But whatever it