Well, here we are - the kids still feverish and miserable, the mother in a state of perpetual exhaustion, the father 32,000 feet in the air and some 2.5 hours from Newark.
I wish him much fun on his visit, because he deserves it. However, I'm afraid this blog will be rather boring for some days, at least until the children are feeling better. David's fever spiked again, Alan's fever just returned and is getting higher as I'm typing this. The good news is, I'm still healthy. :-)
Oops, I hear David crying. Off I go.
A good article about the slow process of justice in the Balkans. (Via Amygdala.) It's about the Hague Tribunal and its side effects on Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.
(Unfortunately it's the New York Times Review of Books, which moves their articles into a subscription-only archive after a week or two. So if you're going to read it, read it now.)
I was a bit hesitant when I saw it was by Tim Judah, because I've disagreed with some stuff he's written in the past; I think he was a bit soft on the Serbs. But this piece is very even-handed.
I do have some quibbles. I think he gives an exaggerated impression of the importance of Hague indictments in the collapse of Serbia's coalition government. A lot of those guys hated each others' guts from the beginning. They were a ramshackle alliance with nothing in common but overthrowing Milosevic, and some of them not even that. So the Hague played a rather small role in pushing them over the edge.
(On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the Hague indictments played a role in the death of Prime Minister Djindjic. But then, Djindjic was killed by people who had gotten very used to having their own way, and very ready to use violence when they didn't get it. So if it hadn't have been that, likely it would have been something else.)
I also think Judah's a little too easy on Carla del Ponte. Although she's been the regular subject of adulatory profiles in the British and European media, I've been distinctly underwhelmed by her tactical effectiveness as a prosecutor.
Mind you, I find her statement that she warned the Serbian government about upcoming indictments -- but to no effect -- altogether plausible. Mr. Micawber had nothing on the DOS coalition. With a few notable exceptions (Dinkic, Vlahovic) they spent three years living from day to day.
Anyhow. For what it's worth, I think that the Hague tribunal is indeed a lot of trouble. It's inconvenient, is doing a lot of political collateral damage (including harm to the innocent and not-so-guilty), is not very efficient, and is costing much more money than it should.
But, yes, I still I think it's worth it. On a moral level, to try for justice imperfectly is stilll better than not trying for justice at all. On a practical level, it's establishing a vastly useful precedent. (Okay, re-establishing it, but Nuremberg was a while ago and I don't think one set of war crimes trials every 50 years is unreasonable.)
And also, it's going to make it harder -- not impossible; it's never impossible; but harder -- for the various factions to write their own little histories and so to justify the next round.
Or so I can hope.
Just after 4:00 in the morning, December 27: I am driving the rental car slowly along the road between Ostheim and Stockheim. The night is very dark, moonless and cloudy, but it's a lovely wide smooth German road and, three hours before dawn on the Saturday after Christmas, there's not another car out for miles.
In Ostheim the Christmas lights are out and there's no movement except at the little bakery, which is an island of light and activity. In Stockheim, four kilometers away, there's not even that; the whole town sits silent and dark.
In the back seat: David, five and a half months old. He's in his little moonsuit, dressed so heavily that he couldn't move if he wanted to. He was whimpering when I loaded him into the car, but he fell silent once the engine started, and now there's no sound from the back except an occasional faint sucking on the pacifier. And after a while, that slows and then stops.
At long last, my baby boy is sleeping.
Both kids were up most of the night with fever and coughing. So we took it in shifts: Claudia slept from 10 to about 3, then I was able to sleep from 5:30 to around 11 am. Putting David in the car was a last desperate attempt to get him to sleep, please, sleep; and it worked. For a while.
In the morning Claudia and her mother, Anne-Marie, took the babies to the doctor. They have a virus. He gave us a febrifuge and some medicine for the cough, and told us to check back in three days if they were't doing better.
So, today was a sick baby day. Two sick children. Me and Claudia, her parents, her two brothers: six adults: it wasn't too many. Dear God, how do single parents survive?
The medicine seems to help, anyhow. Bracing for another night.
More in a bit.
"To the first woman of the country, the homage of the entire country,
As star stands beside star in the eternal arch of heaven,
Beside the Great Man she watches over
Romania’s path to glory."
(Poem published in Scientia, the Communist Party newspaper, on the occasion of Elena Ceausescu receiving the Socialist Star of Romania, 1981)
"You shoot them and throw them in the basement. Not a single one should come out alive."
(Elena Ceausescu, giving orders regarding the handling of the Timisoara protestors. From a stenographic record of the meeting of the Political Executive Committee of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, 17 December 1989)
No history of the fall of Ceausescu would be complete without an entry for Elena. She was Ceausescu´s wife, but she was also a power in her own right. By the late 1980s, she was Deputy Party Secretary, the de facto second in command of Romania, and may have been in some ways more powerful than Ceasescu himself.
Today is the day after Christmas, sometimes called Boxing Day, though not by anyone I know since my dear grandmother passed away.
Here in Germany everything is closed. But then, almost everything in Germany is only open five and a half days per week anyhow. You never saw a country in such painful need of a 7-11. Belgrade and Bucharest are both more shopper-friendly than Germany.
Anyhow. Yesterday was grey, sunless, bitter cold, and dreary. Today is grey, sunless, just warm enough to turn the snow to slush, and dreary. I do like Ostheim but a little of this goes a long way.
Alan has suddenly come down with a fever. Emphasis on suddenly, emphasis on down. He was fine this morning. Feverish and listless by noon. Early afternoon he vomited extravagantly and his fever spiked at... well we don't have a thermometer on hand, but: high. Right now his fever has gone down a bit and he's sleeping restlessly, curled up in Claudia's arms on the couch.
If you're still following the Ceausescu story (is anybody actually reading this stuff?), you'll know that I wanted to post the final episode -- Ceausescu's trial and execution -- on Christmas day, fourteen years precisely after it happened. Whoops, not gonna happen. Looks like it'll be fourteen years and a few days; sorry.
More in a bit.
We're in Germany and we're okay.
The snow in Bucharest turned into a no-kidding blizzard, with 20 cm (8 inches) on the ground and heavy gusting winds by the time we reached the airport. Our plane boarded about an hour late, and then sat on the ground for nearly two hours. We got de-iced twice, and for a while it looked like we might not go at all.
But we did, and here we are.
Germans do their presents on Christmas Eve, by the way. So we got to see Alan's BIG eyes as he looked at the illuminated and decorated tree with the presents piled all around it...
Dinner was a wonderful turkey with all sorts of trimmings, followed by lots of beer and wine. If we hadn't been so tired, we would have stayed up a lot longer. As it was, we made an early evening of it... but it was still very, very nice.
And so to bed.
Meanwhile, all over Romania, people were dying.
Of all the mysterious episodes in Romania's Revolution, this one remains the most painfully mysterious of all. Beginning on the evening of December 22 -- as the Ceausescus were being taken into custody by the military, and a new group calling itself the National Salvation Front was claiming power -- some unknown individuals began killing people all over Romania.
The "assassins" struck from a distance, with high-powered automatic weapons. They fired into crowds and buildings full of people. They may also have set some buildings on fire -- this part is unclear. But with gunfire alone, they killed dozens of people all over Romania that first evening.
The next day, it got worse.
Writing this from the small internet cafe at the Otopeni Airport in Bucharest. We've had some 15 cm of snow last night - enough to disable almost all traffic and dress Bucharest in a nice, Christmas-y coat of white. Our driver showed up by foot - he had to leave the car on the main road since Strada Bruxelles wasn't cleared and there was no getting through. We shlepped our bags and kids to the intersection and off we went. Slowly.
We reached the airport without major problems and so far, our flight to Frankfurt is announced as "on time" -- but remember that we are in Romania where being late is fashionable, and the plane was supposed to leave, like, now. So this is another experience in patience. Or something.
Anyway. We just wanted to wish you all Merry Christmas, since it's unlikely that we'll be able to post later today. Wherever you are, enjoy those days and let's hope they are peaceful and restful (the latter being a wish especially for all those parents out there).
Yesterday I was downtown at Piatsa Universitatii. It was a grey day, cold and damp. But the booksellers were out, as usual.
There are about a dozen of them, their tables stretched along a couple of hundred meters west of the Piatsa along Bulevar Elisabet. They sell secondhand paperbacks and hardcovers, and textbooks, and old maps and magazines. Unfortunately, almost all of it is in Romanian; but it's still a nice place to spend half an hour.
And occasionally one finds something in English.
This time it was a book called The Dangers of Distorting History. It was a hardback, obviously a collection of historical essays by Romanian historians.
I had a sinking feeling as soon as I picked it up: in appearance and format, it was all too familiar. It looked exactly like one of the collections of nationalist history essays that I'd seen in Serbia: ugly hardback books full of badly written articles badly translated, with titles like "Bosnia: The True Story" or "Economic Motivations for the NATO Aggression Against Serbia".
And sure enough. It was a collection of nationalist Romanian essays, dating from 1987.
December 22 was the day that Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife got into a helicopter. When they left the ground, he was still in some sense President of Romania. When they landed, he was a fugitive with three days left to live.
On the morning of December 22, Ceausescu tried to make another speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building. This time, however, he wasn't able to finish. Too many people in the crowd knew about -- or had been part of -- the beatings and killings of the previous day. He was shouted down, and eventually had to retreat inside the building. A bit later, he and Elena entered the helicopter and it took off from the roof.
Interestingly, a few people in the crowd had camcorders. It can't have been too easy to get a camcorder in Romania in 1989, but there they were. So there is some footage available of this episode. Some of it has been collected in a German documentary film, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be easily available. (Maybe we'll try to find it in Germany next week.)
So there is footage of the helicopter lifting off from the roof; and then, a bit later, of the crowd pushing into the building. As deafening cheers rock the square, we see people joyously throwing books and papers off of the balcony where Ceausescu had been standing a few minutes before.
It must have been a great moment.
It's possible to identify with unusual precision the exact moment that the bubble popped, the ship hit the iceberg, and the Ceausescu regime tipped over the edge and fell, crumbling and flaming, into the abyss.
It was on the afternoon of December 21, 1989; and it came about eight minutes into Ceausescu's speech before an enormous crowd, assembled in the center of Bucharest around what had once been the royal palace. Hecklers in the crowd suddenly began to interrupt the speech with cries of "Timisoara!" and "Down with Ceausescu!" And Ceausescu, hearing them... hesitated; he stumbled, lost the thread of his speech, looked confused.
And after that, it was all over except for the shooting.
This episode is justly famous. But there are a couple of mysteries about it.
First, it's completely unclear why Ceaucescu chose to make this very public appearance. He didn't have to, after all. He could simply have ordered the Securitate to finish the job in Timisoara. Perhaps he wanted to show the world that the workers of Romania supported him... but surely it would have been safer and more sensible to do this after the rebellion had been crushed.
Did someone encourage him to take this risky step? Nobody seems to know. And while (I say again) I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories, it is an odd omission.
Second, the timing of the speech itself is interesting. Apparently, it was originally planned for the morning, in Piatsa Gheorgiu Dej. So a large number of workers -- I keep hearing the figure 100,000, though it's hard to believe -- workers carefully hand-picked for their loyalty and reliability, were taken from their workplaces in and around Bucharest and bussed to the Piatsa. There they would be given placards and banners, and told which songs to sing and so forth.
But when they got there, they were told that it had been cancelled. So they went back to work...
...where, a bit later, they were told that the speech would happen after all; but at noon, and in Piatsa Republicii.
December 20, 1989 was a relatively quiet day in Romania. It would be the last quiet day Romania would have for a while.
Quiet doesn't mean calm, of course. In Timisoara, the Army was still in the streets, though not shooting anyone. The protestors -- rebels, now, really -- were talking to government representatives who had been sent from Bucharest. The rebels were asking for Ceausescu's resignation and free elections. The government representatives had orders to keep talking, and to stall for a day or two.
There were small demonstrations in a few other cities, but the uprising hadn't really spread nationwide yet.
(Most Romanians had a vague idea that something was going on. "Suddenly we were told that we could not gather outdoors in groups of larger than three people," said a woman who was living in Ploesti then. "People said there were tanks outside the city, and we could see that the police and militia were very excited and nervous. But we didn't really know yet what it was all about.")
December 19, 1989.
"The United States condemns the brutal use of police force by the Romanian Government against protesters in Timisoara and other cities. According to various reports, dozens and perhaps hundreds were killed by Romanian security forces. The Romanian Government has sealed Romania's borders and imposed a blackout of news and information."
That was President George Bush's Press Secretary, Marlon Fitzwater, speaking at 11 in the morning in Washington. By that time it was already 6 in the evening in Romania, and another bloody day in Timisoara was drawing to a close. The protestors had carried the day, though -- they had proclaimed a general strike and, despite being fired upon by the Securitate, had managed to bring all business in the city to a halt.
They didn't know it, but they were going to get a break for a couple of days. President Ceausescu had just flown back from Teheran. He was planning to crush the "hooligans" and "fascists" in Timisoara, but it was going to take a little while to assemble the necessary forces. Meanwhile he went on TV and appealed directly to the Romanian people not to support the "international and terrorist actions by imperialist circles and foreign espionage agencies" designed to "provoke disorder and destroy the institutions" of the country. This had exactly the opposite effect: it alerted the nation that something important was going on.
That night a group of the protestors met inside Timisoara's City Hall. With dozens dead, tanks in the street and the city at a standstill, they realized that this had gone far beyond a mere protest. It was, they decided, a revolution.
Or was it?
This has nothing whatsoever to do with Romania, the Balkans or the Danube. But I had to laugh out loud today, over this piece of news.
Well, the NY Times article doesn't mention that one reason the court ruled in favor of his parole was the "unlikelihood of repeating his crime".
The anniversary of the Romanian Revolution is coming, so I think I'll do a post or two commenting on it. The official anniversary is December 21; but the protests started on the 12th, and they didn't shoot the Ceausescus until the 25th.
The protests? Well, that's a long story. Short version: there were some minor protests in the city of Timisoara (in western Romania, near where Romania, Serbia and Hungary come together). Some ineffective attempts to suppress these proved worse than useless, because they sparked off much more massive protests, city-wide. The city was closed and the Army was ordered in; but some Army units refused to fire on their own people.
Only some. Some went right ahead and started shooting. But in a Communist military, even this half-hearted and partial mutiny was cause for serious concern. "Why didn't they shoot?" cried Ceausescu when he heard about it.
So the dreaded secret police, the Securitate, were sent in to do the job. On December 17, 1989, as the largest and most violent protests yet broke out, the Securitate began gunning people down in the streets of Timisoara.
It was then that Ceausescu flew off for a visit to Teheran, Iran.
I also met Father Teoctist Arapasu, Romania's Patriarch. Well, we shook hands and exchanged nods, though we didn't actually talk. He was very impressive in his Patriarchal robes.
When I got home and googled him, I was amazed to find that Fr. Teoctist was born in 1915. He's 88 years old! What's surprising about this is that he really, really doesn't look it. I wouldn't have guessed he was a day past 75. He was moving right along, shaking hands and working the crowd, still perfectly quick on his feet. Pretty impressive for a guy who's almost 90.
Teoctist is another guy with an interesting story. He became Patriarch under Ceausescu, and worked quite closely with the Communist authorities: he served as a deputy in the National Assembly, acquiesced in the government's destruction of "inappropriate" churches, and was a key member of the Ceausescu-sponsored National Peace Committee. And when the first demonstrations against Ceausescu began, he sent the dictator a telegram of support.
I've been moaning over Alan's hair for weeks now. Doug doesn't want me to cut it but I see my boy growing a mullet. A mullet! Of all things!
However, since Doug simply loves Alan's blonde mane, I'm not touching it. Yet. (OK, so I trimmed the bits of hair he scorched while trying to blow out a candle. But that's all.)
Yesterday, Doug got support from unexpected quarters: We heard about a Romanian custom that says not to cut a boy's hair until he's 2 years old.
So I shook hands with Prime Minister Nastase last night.
Granted, it was in a big room with about 200 other people, and at least half of them shook his hand before the evening was complete. On the other hand, I also shook hands with the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church and Prince Paul of the former royal family. So overall it was a pretty successful evening hand-shaking-wise.
Nastase was younger and smoother than I thought he'd be. Later I googled up his official biography, and was surprised to realize he's only 53. So he was only 39 when Ceausescu went to the wall. The same age I am now, actually. And he had the same job: international attorney. Go figure.
Back before 1989, Nastase was a good Party member and a loyal member of the ancien regime. Then, after things changed, he was a member of the National Salvation Front. It would take a while to explain just what that means, so for now I'll just say it's complicated and I'll do a post on it one day. He was foreign minister for a while, in opposition for a while, his party merged with another party and now he's Prime Minister. Pretty typical for a post-Communist leader in Eastern Europe, actually.
Romanian Christmas traditions are surprisingly similar to those in Germany, actually. Advent wreaths, presents on Christmas Eve, the decorating... all seems very home-y to me. There are two traditions which we don't have, though: the pig and the carollers.
First, the pig. It's traditional to slaughter a pig for Christmas. Our maid told us of the 170-kilo pig they slaughtered in her home village near Bucharest last week and this morning, I saw two men carrying a dead pig into one of our neighbor's house. The pig of our maid was so fat, it couldn't walk the last couple months of its life. What a fate.
In any case, the pigs are slaughtered and butchered and turned into ham, bacon and sausages. It's dubbed a rural tradition but with all the pigs I've seen lately, I think it's a true Romanian Christmas thing.
The other tradition are the colindatori (carollers). Groups of people -- mostly men in my limited experience -- go from house to house in the Christmas season and sing Christmas carols. And boy, do they sing beautifully. For some days now, they've either come to our door or to the neighbors, so we always get to hear the carollers sing in the evening. It's incredibly wonderful. Here's a site where you can listen to the instrumentals of those carols -- now imagine this sung a capella by good male singers. Hmm. Nice.
Yes, you're supposed to pay them. But I think it's nice enough even with that mundane aspect.
The view from the east bank of the Danube, in Budapest, is one of the noblest sights in Europe.
Picture the American Capitol building lifted up on top of a steep hill. Then, off a little to one side, put a cathedral. Run a river along the base of the hill; then cross the river with two beautiful suspension bridges. Along the base of the hill, under the Capitol and the Cathedral, put a long line of lovely old townhouses.
Then wait for a cold winter night and light the whole thing up.
It's lovely, and I was really looking forward to seeing it again. On the evening after my conference was finished, I threw on my overcoat and headed for the Esplanade.
But I was missing a key piece of information. I didn't know that, after dark, the Esplanade becomes the main drag for Budapest's prostitutes.
The ladies walk up and down, in little groups of two or three, each patrolling one stretch of the esplanade. And, let me tell you: on a chilly December evening when the tourist trade is slow, a solitary man attracts a lot of attention.
Time to update our blogroll. Here are some more blogs that we (at least occasionally) read, and recommend.
We'll start with The Head Heeb, the blog of our friend Jonathan Edelstein. Jonathan brings together news from all over the world, including a lot of places that you don't usually get news from. If you'd like to know the political situation in the Comoros Islands or Equatorial Guinea, the Head Heeb has the scoop. And much more besides.
Tacitus is a blog about, mostly, war and politics. It has (in American political terms) a fairly conservative orientation. There's often interesting discussion in the comments threads.
Obsidian Wings is a spinoff from Tacitus, founded a few weeks ago by my old friend Moe Lane. It's a group blog of three bloggers. Moe is conservative, Katherine is liberal, and von isn't sure where he stands. This blog is still coming together, but it looks very promising.
Uncertain Principles is another conservative blog, this one with a libertarian point of view. Jim Henley has a unique and interesting perspective.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Normblog is the blog of Norman Geras, a British Marxist. I never had a very high opinion of Marxists, and living in Serbia and Romania did nothing to change that. But Norm is an interesting fellow, and his blog is worth a read.
What the hell, here's another one: Harry's Place. Harry is a British Socialist Worker, which is different from a British Marxist in some way that I don't entirely understand. But his blog is pretty good, too.
Bored with politics? Jump into something much more interesting: law! The Volokh Conspiracy is a blog about American law, legal philosophy, and, yes, some politics.
Another mixed blog -- politics, economics, science fiction, whatever takes his fancy -- is Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Electrolite. I often disagree with Patrick, but he's a good writer who provides lots of interesting cites and links.
Language Hat is a blog about linguistics. Both of us find it very interesting.
For something really different, there's The Three-Toed Sloth. The Sloth posts only when he feels like it, appropriately enough, and honestly I don't understand about half of what he's saying. But some of his stuff is just amazing.
Finally, Randy McDonald's Livejournal will give you an idea of what it's like to be a young university student in that strange land, Canada.
Poor Ovid. We'll never know why exactly he was banned to Tomis. Officially, it was because his ars amatoria -- his "Seduction for Dummies" book -- upset Emperor Augustus. But that's unlikely since in AD 8, when Ovidius was banned to the Black Sea coast, the ars amatoria was already some years published. He hints that he saw more than was good for him and some believe that Augustus' granddaughter Iulia was involved somehow... but we'll never know for sure.
Anyway. He came to what today is Constanta, Romania, and he hated it. He was a sophisticated, educated, refined Roman and he came to a town with few other intellectuals and very bad weather. He wrote of bad food and dull conversation, of barbarians attacking the city with poisoned arrows, of his neighbors who liked to resolve problems with sword fights. But of all the unpleasantness that Ovidius encountered, he was most appalled by the religion of Zalmoxis.
A few days ago, in this post, I discussed Romania's economy and the shaky situation of Romania's currency, the leu.
Well, when I arrived in Hungary, I was surprised to find that Hungary is in almost exactly the same situation!
In Hungary, also, people and businesses have been very hungry for foreign goods. So the country has been importing much more than it has been exporting. Thus, Hungary has a current account deficit that is even bigger than Romania's. And so Hungary's currency -- the "forint" -- has begun to fall.
But Hungary's situation is actually even worse than Romania's. Romania's leu is starting to look vulnerable, like a possible target for currency speculators. Hungary's forint is, right now, under attack by currency speculators. The forint has fallen by about 5% in the last ten days or so. It would probably have fallen by more, but last Friday the Hungarian National Bank raised the interest rates to defend the forint.
They raised interest rates by three percent -- from 9.5% to 12.5%. That's a very big increase. And if interest rates stay high for more than a few weeks, this will cause serious problems. "The 3% interest rate increase is the Hungarian economy's obituary," said one opposition party. While that's probably an exaggeration, it's certainly not a good thing.
Still, it should have stopped the speculation. After all, raising interest rates means that forint-denominated investments are more attractive now. So people should start rushing to convert dollars and euros into forints, which should make the forint rise. (I'm simplifying again, but this is more or less how it works.)
And yet, after a short pause, the speculative attacks have started again, and the forint has fallen another percentage point or two.
Here are some completely random observations about Budapest.
1) It's a really beautiful city, with delightful architecture and lots of lovely squares and parks. And the river, of course -- the Danube flows right through the middle of it.
2) It has the best second-hand English bookstore in the region. (The "Red Bus" bookstore, on utca Semmelweis.) Wow, that's a good bookstore. Only one problem -- it opens late and closes early. I only had about 20 minutes there, rush rush rush. Next time.
3) It has the biggest Advent Calendar I've ever seen. It covers the side of a large building in one of the squares, and it's probably 20 meters high and 40 long. Each window has a different Christmas-themed painting by a local artist.
4) Everyone under the age of 35 speaks at least a little English.
5) On the other hand, advertisements and posters are more than 90% in Hungarian. (This is in sharp contrast to both Belgrade and Bucharest.) I'm not sure what this means, but it's interesting.
6) The vendors in the parks and squares sell sausages, pastries and hot spiced wine.
7) Double feature in concert this weekend: Earth Wind & Fire, and Kool and the Gang.
8) Budapest is second only to Paris in its abundance of nude public statuary. It seems like every building has lots of attractive young naked marble people hanging around its windows. Get your mind out of the gutter, you -- it's Art.
9) Either Hungarians don't like dogs, or they clean up after them. I'm not sure which, but in the center of town, the "dog crap per 100 meters of sidewalk" index is much, much lower than in either Belgrade or Bucharest.
10) The departure lounge at Budapest airport has a "Kids Room". This is a room with toys, books, one of those crawl-climb-slide things, a changing table, and a Nintendo GameCube hooked up and ready to go. It also has a guestbook, which I flipped through: about 1/3 entries from happy children, 2/3 from very grateful parents.
Obviously, two days in a city are not long enough to form more than the most casual notion of what it's like. Still, Budapest makes a very good first impression.
And that room at the airport is pure genius. Why isn't everybody doing that?
The Hotel Le Meridien is very nice. Much nicer, in fact, than I would have chosen for myself. (When I'm travelling alone, all I really need is a bed, a shower, and a reading light.) But the conference got a group rate, so here I am.
I won't bore you with the details. (Well, one detail. The minibar has a sensor that knows when you've removed a drink or a snack. If you don't replace it within 30 seconds, your account is automatically charged. I'd never seen that before.) I mean, it's a nice hotel: doormen in uniforms, very expensive restaurant, crisp white sheets. The maid comes into your room in the evening, turns down the bedcover, and leaves a bottle of mineral water on the night table. Nice.
But there is one interesting fact about the Le Meridien that you won't find on their website. That is, it used to be Budapest's police headquarters. That was true until 1956, when the police gave their support to the October revolutionaries. (The normal police, that is. The secret police were something else again. Secret police headquarters is now a very unusual museum, not a hotel.)
So, for ten days, the building was the headquarters of the revolutionary forces. And then, well, the Red Army crushed the rebellion and the revolutionaries either fled or were killed or went to prison.
Today there's a small plaque and a wreath on one side of the hotel. And that's all.
I'm not sure what to make of it; but the Hungarians don't seem to give it a moment's thought, so.
I am in Budapest tonight, posting from a little basement cafe. In a few minutes I'll finish here and then go for a walk along the river and then to bed.
I came here for a conference, which was very interesting; perhaps I'll post about it sometime. But tonight I want to post briefly about the people who made it possible for me to be in this beautiful city tonight.
Because I'm here at the expense of others. The American taxpayer is paying for my plane ticket, and my hotel, plus a few dollars extra to feed me while I'm here. So I have an obligation to make something out of it. The benefits that might come back to the American taxpayer from my activities will be very, very indirect; but indirect benefits are benefits nonetheless, and I will try to make sure that there are some.
Less abstract and much more concrete, I'm here at the expense of my wife. While I have two days in beautiful Budapest -- and two nights of uninterrupted sleep in my nice hotel -- Claudia is alone with a baby and a toddler. For two days she has to feed, change, bathe, burp, amuse and take care of these two very demanding little creatures, while I talk about secured transactions and stroll down the Danube esplanade.
I hope to make it up to her, though the when and the how are unclear. (I'd take the kids for a weekend myself, but the baby is still nursing.)
But I guess that's part of what marriage is: a lot of borrowing, hoping that you can pay it back some day.
Right, off I go.
Right now Romania's economy is doing OK. Yes, there are lots of problems, some of them very serious, but (with one exception) the "macroeconomic fundamentals" look pretty good.
Unemployment has been falling for the last couple of years. Today it is around 7.5%, which seems high to Americans but is pretty good for Europe. (Yes, that's the official statistic, and yes, the real figure is almost certainly higher. But it's clear that unemployment has been falling for a while now as the economy expands.)
Inflation is running around 15 percent per year, which is high but much much lower than it was; it was 45 percent just a few years ago. The currency is pretty stable. The banking sector, after a lot of difficulties, now seems to be in good shape, and there's a lending boom. Foreign direct investment is rising, albeit from a very low base. The government's budget deficit is big but at least it's not growing any more. Overall, the economy is growing between 4% and 5% per year, and has been for almost three years now.
Mind, Romanian wages have not risen along with growth. The average real wage, adjusted for inflation, only rose by about 1.6% in 2003. Optimists say this is because Romanian productivity is going up, so of course output is rising faster than wages. Pessimists say that Romanian workers, especially in the public sector, will demand big wage increases soon, and that this will result in wage-price inflation. But that's a story for another time; and at least real wages are rising, which is not true everywhere in this region.
So, good news, right? Well, maybe. There are two areas of concern.
Alan got up at precisely six o'clock this morning.
While I was warming his bottle in the kitchen -- he's a big boy, but he still takes a bottle in the morning -- I looked out the window. Outside, in the cold and perfectly silent sky, a gorgeous full December moon was descending towards the rooftops.
Could a not-quite-two-year-old appreciate something like that? Worth a try.
I picked him up and held him to the windowpane. To my surprise, he went absolutely silent and still. (If you knew my son, you'd know how striking this was.)
"Moon," I said after a few moments.
"Moouh," he immediately replied.
"Yes. Moon. Where's the moon?"
He raised his arm and pointed straight at it.
And we both fell silent for a little while, looking at the perfectly round and shining moon.
Root canal treatment today, so I don't feel like posting. Here's a picture, though. As a fond mother, I naturally assume that everybody loves to look at pictures of my kids. Call me biased, I plead guilty.
I used to read a lot of magazines. I used to subscribe to magazines. I'd get three, four, five of them every week, and I would read them all, cover to cover.
Then I had children.
These days I only have time to read one magazine regularly, and it's the Economist. You can argue with my choice, but there it is.
The thing is, in the Balkans, buying the Economist is not always a simple matter of strolling down to the local newsstand. Ha ha, pas de tout.
In Belgrade, it was very much a game of chance. The Economist would arrive in the country sometime on Friday, usually. And there were five or six magazine vendors who might carry it. Or then again, maybe not. So every Friday evening I would trot around downtown Belgrade, going from one vendor to another. Sometimes it would be at the first or second one; sometimes I would visit all of them with no luck. Sometimes it wouldn't appear until Saturday or even Monday. Nobody could ever explain why.
In Bucharest, it's still a game of chance, but the rules are a little different. The
Over the next few days, we'll be adding some more blogs that we're reading to our blog roll. I added some links a few weeks back without acknowledging it in a post -- apparently that is the blog-correct thing to do. So [drum roll], today I added Charlie Stross' blog.
Charlie is a friend of Doug's, a shwi person, a very good and published SF author... and if you are curious now and want to know more, go to his blog and read his stuff (and then go and buy his books -- royalties are good for him).
Loads of money will buy you a truly literary trip -- on the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul with a one-night stayover in Bucharest. A one-way trip costs over 3,000 British pounds.
Since we don't have loads of money and two kids, we will probably just make a pilgrimage to the Baneasa train station and peek at the train. September 6, 2004. Already booked in the calendar.
Well, not really, because we already had a bout of snow in October. This episode seems much more time-appropriate, though.
It's been snowing the last ten minutes or so. It's just past 3:30 on the second advent Sunday, all my men are asleep and I'm wondering whether the snow will stay so that we can build a snowman tomorrow.
[a bit later] Well -- Douglas and Alan woke up as I was writing this, and the snow stopped after just dusting our street. Now it's turning into a very grey late afternoon, dull winter light and the birds huddling in the trees.
Time to make cookies.
Went to the Gara de Nord today. That's Bucharest's largest train station, and it's a couple of kilometers from our house. Alan and I go there most weekends. I go to buy a copy of the Economist magazine, and Alan likes looking at the trains.
(One of these days I must do a post about Economist roulette, or the interesting experience of buying foreign magazines in the Balkans. Remind me.)
The Gara de Nord has seen better days, no question. It's kind of dirty. The platforms are crumbling -- run to catch a train, and you could break a leg.
Today is the day of Mos Nicolae, whom I know as St. Nikolaus. Doug had a moment of confusion that a Romanian tradition is so well known to me, until he realized that we have the exact same tradition in Germany, as well.
It's a children's holiday, both here and in Germany -- not meaning to imply that older children (aka adults) aren't happy about Mos Nicolae paying them a visit, too.
In the night to the 6th of December, children put their shoes (or boots, they fit more loot) out for St. Nikolaus to fill them. If the child has been good this past year, he will find his boots filled with goodies like nuts, tangerines, sweets and maybe a little present. If he has been a pain, he gets only a stick (presumably to be hit with).
The other day, a friend of mine asked me why Doug and I are keeping this blog. She finds personal information on the net at least questionable and blogs in general an odd fad of the early 21st century that will hopefully die the quick death of all fads.
I was at a loss to explain to her our reasons and I'm still not quite sure about what compels us to post.
I could say it's sort of a diary of our experiences in Eastern Europe - but that doesn't quite cover it. After all, we are trying not to put too much TMI out there. If you grumble publically about your spouse/kids/neighbors/friends, you have to keep in mind that it's not only recorded for eternity but also that it's being read by people who don't know you at all and can't tell whether you're just being bitchy, off your meds, or entirely justified. Additionally, they might not be all that interested in the fact that your writing this post was interrupted by a poop explosion...
Thinking back, it was Carlos who first pointed me to the world of blogs of which I had been blissfully unaware. He sent me the link to a blog (I forget which one) and I was intrigued by the concept.
I thought we could have a blog to keep our scattered families up to date on our current living/moving/working/family situation(s). Sharon Casteel referred me to Movable Type, my brother helped me setting the whole thing up - and voila! we were online and publically writing. As these things go, my mother is the only family member who regularly reads this blog. Go figure.
Since then, the content has changed somewhat and the stress is now on reports about the country we live in at the moment, plus some kid stories to lighten things up a bit. (The title of the blog used to be accurate back when we lived in Belgrade; we decided not to change it despite the fact that the Danube is an hour's drive away now and quite close to its final destination.)
I've always been writing and this format gives me two things: an incentive to write regularly (after a fashion) and a forum to practice writing in English. I've been trying to write in English for some time now and as with so many things, I found that practice is everything. I won't say that it is helping me to write fiction because I'm not writing much fiction these days -- but maybe one day, it'll pay off. Until then, I get to torture you guys with my struggles with style, vocabulary and punctuation.
Last, not least, there is also the idea to supply the world with interesting, amusing or plainly weird facts about living in the Balkans - eh, sorry, I meant to say Southeastern Europe. Since writing a blog is a lonely occupation and feedback from the readers is sparse, we are just asuming that people are interested in reading what we write. Amazingly enough, there are some who seem to have taken a genuine liking to our blog.
At which point a loud Thank you! is in order - thanks to our readers and especially to those who also comment. We are very happy about each and every comment, even if we don't write back much (kids! we have kids! that means very little time!).
Anca & Misha, Carlos, Pouncer, Ellen, Cat, Marna... You are the guys we think of when we're writing. Keep those comments coming - or just read and enjoy.
Thank you all.
[Bowing to all sides and stepping off my soapbox. Phew.]
Most loyal and esteemed reader Carlos asked for a calibration of my restaurant ratings. So here is my (very personal) scale of stars:
(Caveat - I had to adjust the scale because I couldn't find a nice gif of four stars...)
Won't go there anymore and if I'm starving
Might go there again one day but not in a hurry
Nice but something was off; will give it another try
Yes! This is one of my favorites!
Hope that clears things up a bit. :-)
December 1 was Romania's National Day. National Day celebrates the union of Transylvania (which had a Romanian majority, but was part of Hungary for about 400 years) with the rest of Romania. That happened in 1918, right after the First World War. Maybe sometime I'll do a post on the weird story of what happened to Romania in that war... but anyhow, Monday was National Day, celebrated with all sorts of festivities and parades.
Unfortunately, we completely missed all of it. Both kids had a restless night -- David woke up again and again, while Alan got up at 5:30 -- so we ended up taking turns sleeping throughout the day. Also, the day was grey and rainy, which didn't really encourage us to go out and explore.
I did manage to walk up to the Arcul Triumf, the big war memorial, with David. (No, that's not the French Arc de Triumph. It just looks like it. Built in 1935, and I think it's a bit bigger than the French one.)
But we didn't get up there until after 3:00 in the afternoon, and everything was finished by then. The only thing left of the parade was a single lonely mariachi band... and no, I have no idea why a mariachi band; but there they were, big hats and all, playing their brass by the Arcul in the rain.
We did see one other thing of interest: a couple of Romanian flags with big holes cut in their centers. This was the symbol of the 1989 Revolution against Ceausescu. The flag of Communist Romania was the old Romanian tricolor with Communist symbols added in the middle; the revolutionaries simply cut out the symbols.
I had seen these flags in films and videos from the Revolution, but on Monday I saw some hanging from houses. Whether they were original flags from 1989 I have no idea, but it was interesting.
After a while it started raining harder, so we went home. And that was our Romanian National Day.
... no, the million lei bill will be released on December 5 -- allegedly to make holiday shopping easier. One Dollar buys 33,800 Lei at the moment - so yes, the million bill will alleviate the cash flow some. However, I think they should have just scratched away a zero or two or three. But nobody asks me... :-)
So the new Chucky movie Seed of Chucky will be filmed here in Romania next year, starting in March. Why's that important? Well, the fact that Romania is attracting more and more international film projects deserves some mentioning. But besides that, Chucky writer Don Mancini is a friend.
The really good part is that Don will also be the director for this movie, so he'll be here in Bucharest for almost six months next year, yay!! I'm not much into horror movies but Don is an absolute sweetheart (you wouldn't think that from the movies, no). He won't have much time to frolic but I hope we can feed him some curry now and then. Lucky us!
Str. Dumbrava Rosie 2
Tel: 212 14 60, 212 14 61
This busy restaurant is currently one of the fashionable spots of the Jeunesse Doree and the expat community. You hear a lot of English spoken around the tables, in various different accents. I saw Japanese, Spanish, Italian and British businessmen devouring their meals.
Located in a beautiful old villa and decorated very tastefully, the Balthazar is truly impressive on first sight. I loved the building and the Christmas decoration, all lights and not too much else. Eye candy for those who like nice architecture and interior decoration.