Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Shadows of the Past

I just found this article. Apparently there is an ongoing debate about the release of old Securitate surveillance files (the Securitate was secret police organization during the communist period).

Interestingly enough, after the Revolution, no high-ranking communist officials were prosecuted. They simply continued on with life as usual, and many of them are still involved with the government. This, one can guess, has been a hindrance in settling this debate. But, those who suffered during communism because of their opposition to the regime want to have some degree of justice and some sense of closure. Thus, the release of this information is very important to them, and understandably so.

This whole situation seems to indicate how Romania is still dealing with ghosts from its past. Getting out from under the shadow of communism is certainly a process, to say the least.


Here's another piece of news I've found. It seems that Romania wants to position itself as a mediator between the EU and Serbia in dealing with the issue of Kosovo. Obviously Belgrade doesn't want to be isolated from the rest of the European community. However, neither does Bucharest, but its refusal to recognize Kosovo hasn't helped in this regard. By positioning itself as the middleman, Romania would not only be able to help reconcile Belgrade with the rest of Europe, but it would also be able to keep its own "community" image in good standing.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


The weather was incredible today, so I went for a little trip to the outskirts of town, and discovered this village. I don't know its name.

(Update: It's Poganesti)

Here's the rest of the pictures:

Friday, February 22, 2008


Since Kosovo declared its independence earlier this week the situation in Serbia seems to be tense. I haven't heard too many Romanians talking about it. But, I gather that Romania will not recognize Kosovo in order to maintain its ties to Serbia. What I wonder is exactly how close the two neighbors are. I'm sure there may be more going on than what I can see, but I haven't seen or heard of any clear examples of a close relationship. Years ago Serbia and Romania joined forces to create a hydro-electric dam on the Danube and today they share the electric output. However, I can't say I know of any other examples of cooperation. I mean, I haven't found a Romanian bank that will change Serbian money. Seem strange? They are neighbors after all.

I've also heard that the Romanian government is reluctant to make any official statements of support since it's worried that Kosovo might set a precedent for other separatist movements. Romania itself has had some issues with territorial disputes (The area now known as The Republic of Moldova was separated from Romania in the 1940s. Moreover, there have been years of ethnic tensions in the Transylvania region, to some degree at least. The sizable Hungarian minority in the area hasn't always mixed well with Romanians. In fact, they claim that Transylvania is rightfully a Hungarian region. I've even been told that such Hungarians view Budapest to be their capital, not Bucharest. So, perhaps Romania can at least sympathize with Serbia's wish for national unity. And, considering these things, it becomes more apparent why Romania wouldn't wish to say anything that might tacitly encourage another separatist movement (whether within their own borders or elsewhere in Europe).

In any case, it will be interesting to see how Romania reacts to the current situation. I wonder if the EU will put any pressure on Romania to recognize Kosovo. In any case, with the recent attack on the US Embassy in Belgrade, and general uncertainty about what will happen next, one thing is for sure: I think I'll put any trips to Belgrade on hold for a while.

The Butter Battle Begins

After I finished teaching for the day I went to the English teachers' room. Our lair is a relatively small space, filled with a large conference table, 15 chairs, a computer and a xerox machine. I sat at the computer to check my email when a fellow teacher approached and started talking to me about Romanian cooking. This particular teacher knows that my new favorite hobby is to cook, so she gives me her tips and advice. She teaches French at the school, and is married to the head of the English department. She loves cooking, she loves talking and, even more, she loves talking about cooking.

Once you get her on the subject, she'll go on and on. Her enthusiasm is really something. The only problem is that she talks so quickly I sometimes have a hard time following her. The other teachers in the room find it ammusing to watch these exchanges--apparently my looks of confusion are evident to everyone but her. She just keeps on blabbering, apparently undiscouraged by my slightly vacant expression. Well actually, she does ocassionaly stop to say something like, 'I don't know how much of this you're getting...' I just smile and she continues on as usual. Not being able to get a word in edgewise, all I can usually do and nod my head and grunt, which is probably for the best (since I could never match her in speaking anyway).

Today the exchange was much the same. I actually do understand her fairly well, it's just hard to keep track of all the details when she's giving me a recipe that has multiple steps. Another teacher, one who doesn't usually spend much time in the English office, happened to be observing. She was surprised that the French teacher was talking to me in Romanian. 'He understands Romanian?!' she asked with a hint of surprised delight. At this point she entered the conversation. The French teacher and I happened to be discussing the intricacies of beef soup. Since we were on the topic of soup, the second teacher asked me if I happened to know how to make dumpling soup (supa cu galuşte, as dumplings are called in Romanian). Since I didn't, she took the opportunitiy to impart her wisdom on me. She described the process, but when she got to the part about the eggs, the French teacher piped in her objections, "No! that's not what you do with the eggs! You can't beat the whites and the yolks together. You need to beat them separately and recombine them, it's the only proper way to do it." The other teacher responded, "I'm just telling Mike to do it this way since it's easier." "Easier! Poppycock! It'll make the dumplings too hard," retorted the French teacher (she didn't actually say poppycock, I just added it for effect). A third teacher chimed in, "No, no, no. You've both got it wrong. You discard the yolk, beat the whites, add the farina a little at a time, along with a little oil." Everyone had their own opinion; the situation really demostrated that there can be such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

I felt like I had somehow gotten myself caught in the crossfire of Dr. Seuss's great butter battle. Even more confused than before, I decided to go down to the cantina for lunch. When I came back up, I discovered a bag of farina, 6 carrots, and powdered chicken broth waiting on the table for me. Along with those items was a hand-written recipe from the second teacher (all in Romanian, with handwriting I could barely read). Apparently she went shopping to get me the particular type of farina that she always uses. I forgot to mention, there had also been a lengthy discussion about what sort of farina to use. Apparently, the second teacher was so concerned about me doing things "correctly" that she took it upon herself to make sure I had the proper supplies. Just another example of the typical Romanian woman's motherly instinct. You can imagine how worried they all are about this American boy, far from home, without a mother to cook for him (For example, whenever I visit my landlady, the conversation usually starts off something like this: "Are you hungry?" "No, thank-you" "How about a schnitzel?" "No, that's quite alright, thanks." "Ok, how about some eggplant salad?" "No thanks, I'm content" "How about some branza?" "Really, I'm not hungry." "Oh, not hungry, eh? Maybe you would just like some bread then?").

I was milling over the recipe instructions when the French teacher came back into the room. She knew that the other teacher had left them for me. Hinting at the fact that the recipe in my hand might lead me astray, she said, "you should really consider separating the white and yolk."

Well, when I got home I decided to make the soup-- I figured why not, I had all the neccessary items and some time to kill. So, I got out my pot and I deciphered the recipe. Now, I'm not sure if the French teacher's warning was prophetic, or if I had simply done something wrong, but the dumplings ended up being a little hard. However, all in all they weren't bad. Maybe next time I'll see if I get a different result by separating the eggs.

In any case I had an interesting cultural exchange today. And, I learned just how seriously Romanian women take their cooking, which is to say...quite seriously

Monday, February 18, 2008

December 16th, 1989

On Friday of last week I went to a presentation given by Dorel Jurcovan, a man who experienced the Romanian Revolution first-hand. He talked a bit about life during the last days of communism and showed a video about the Revolution from 1990.

Dorel giving his talk

It was very interesting to hear the story from someone who actually took part in the events. Dorel was involved in the first protest, which began on December 16th 1989 in Timişoara, setting in motion Ceauşescu's fall from power. His participation was rather incidental, as it was for the thousands of others who were there that day. No one woke up that morning knowing that there would be a huge public outburst. As for Dorel, it was just another dismal day under the iron fist--until he heard that something was happening in the big square downtown. Curious, he decided to go down to see what was going on. Once he got there, he got swept up in the hysteria, suddenly finding himself up in the balcony of the Opera House. From there he had an unrestricted view of the massive, throbbing crowd and he could hear their chants of "Down with Ceauşescu, down with communism!"

The square where it all happened (The Opera is at the far end of the square)

The mob in front of the Opera. Notice the people up in the balcony

This sort of public gathering was unprecedented; under Ceauşescu even something as unassuming as 5 men gathering for a game of bridge was considered "subversive." So, needless to say, what happened in Timişoara was the equivalent of a four-alarm fire. The army was called in, and they began firing on the crowd. Bullet holes can still be seen today in a building that now houses a McDonald's. Many were shot, others were treated with severe brutality. The army desperately sought out the leaders of the uprising, but there were none. It was not a premeditated event, but simply the precipitous culmination of a people's collective frustrations.

Dorel vividly remembers the intensity of it all. He said it was almost too much to process at once. The daunting images still pierce his brain to this day: pools of blood on the groud, mutilated bodies, wounded people stacked in the trunks of cars with their feet dangling outside, soldiers shooting on the street, or pointing their guns at him. It was amidst this chaotic scene that something peculiar started to happen. Some of the soldiers stopped firing and started chant with the crowd. Apparently they too were fed up with the regime. This was a sign that the ground was truly crumbling under Ceauşescu's feet.

The video Dorel showed was very interesting. It was produced by an Irish news station (and, as far as I know, was never broadcast in Romania). The Irish journalist actually came to Romania and freely spoke with Romanian citizens, something that never would have been possible under Communism. The video put a lot of things into context for me. I had heard things about the Revolution before, but largely in vague bits and pieces. It was also good because it gave an idea of people's reactions to the Revolution immediately after it happened. Suddenly, things were different, and people expressed their hopes for the future (even if after time those hopes were not all fulfilled).

Word of the bloody events in Timişoara spread to other cities. In a land with controlled radio and newspapers, word usually spread slowly, or not at all. But, one help in getting the word out was the fact that Timişoara went into lock-down and all university students were sent home, to their respective cities and towns. What happened on the 16th soon inspired waves of protests throughout Romania, culminating in a protest in Bucharest on the 22nd that threw Ceauşescu from power.

Why did the Revolution spark off when it did, and why in Timişoara? Dorel offered some interesting insights. He gave some idea of the daily frustrations that people had to face. For example, he related a story about waking up at 5 am to wait in line for 10 hours for meat (each family was allowed only a pound or two per person every month) only to find out that the meat had not been delivered, and no one knew when it might come. He had no choice but to do the same thing again the next day, hoping that the meat would arrive (and when it did come, it was mainly fat and bone). He demonstrated the equivalent of one person's daily ration of butter by cutting up a block of butter (good for one month) into 3o small pieces, not even big enough to butter a slice of toast. He talked about the lack of electricity--no lights in the streets, no lights in the apartment stairwells (and no windows), and no lights at night in the apartments themselves. Flashlights weren't really an option since batteries weren't readily available. Dorel was lucky enough to have a car, from which he took the battery at night so that he could wire-up a make-shift lighting system using bits of wire and spare auto bulbs. Buying gasoline for the car was another thing; people were allotted only a few liters per month. These frustrations were nothing compared to the more ethereal terrors of the Ceauşescu period. People lived in fear, having to be conscious of everything they said or did. Securitate, the secret police, were lurking at every corner and no one could ever be sure who to trust. Phone calls were monitored, and one had to be especially wary about being seen talking to a foreigner. In theory, you could travel feely, but, in practice, obtaining permission to do so was quite another thing. In fact, Dorel and his family were blacklisted from travel abroad (even to other Communist countries) because it was discovered that he was teaching his daughter English.

A daily ration of butter. With this, you were expected cook, bake and butter your toast

All of this was too much to take; having to deal with these sorts of things on a daily basis caused popular discontent to well-up under the surface until it finally erupted on that December day in Timişoara. While other communist countries in the Soviet bloc had undergone some degree of de-Stalinization and reform, the Ceauşescu regime maintained a hard-line. His strict, delusional obsession with eliminating national debt brought about an oppressive austerity program, which resulted in the food and resource shortages mentioned above. The time was ripe; the populace was fed-up, disgusted and not willing to be to be silenced any longer. General unrest had swelled to such a point that fear was no longer enough to keep people's mouths shut.

Laszlo Tokes, an outspoken Hungarian priest, provided the pretext for the events of December 16th. He had been using his pulpit to criticize the Communist regime. A known dissident, the government had been watching him for a while. Frightened for his life, Tokes essentially went into hiding in his home. After a while, the church decided it would be best if Tokes was removed from Timişoara and relocated to another Parish. His parishoners, of course, protested the idea, petitioned the bishop, and even tried to spread word of his plight to Hungary and beyond. On December 15th, a bold group formed outside his home to show their support and willingness to protect him. As Dorel related, Tokes's home was nearby a trolley stop, so the people who were gathering there conveniently made the excuse that they were simply waiting to pick up the next trolley. And, being a conspicuous event in a high-traffic area, the group continued to draw in curious onlookers, who joined in the action or at least spread word of what was happening. Soon hundreds had gathered to 'wait for the trolley.' What began as a protest of the harassment of one man quickly became a vehicle for protesting general frustrations, and a spirit of riot quickly ensued. Chants of "Save Tokes" eventually evolved into "we want freedom" or "down with Ceauşescu, down with communism!" From there, the crowd spread to the main square, and continued to gain momentum. The following days were enveloped in sheer bedlam.

The situation with Laszlo Tokes just happened to be the pin that burst the bubble, releasing everyone's pent-up aggravations. Conceivably, these events could have happened anywhere. But, they happened on that day in Timişoara. Perhaps part of the reason is that Timişoara is a university town located on the Western side of Romania. As Dorel pointed out, even though there weren’t really any Romanian TV broadcasts at the time, inhabitants of Timişoara were able to tune into several Serbian and Hungarian TV and radio stations. Thus, people in the area were generally better informed about the events taking place in Eastern Europe at the time, which perhaps inspired them to take action as well. All they needed was a spark to light the fire.

After hearing Dorel speak, and seeing the images from the video, walking through downtown Timişoara isn’t quite the same. It’s a powerful feeling to stop and imagine what took place on those same bustling streets almost 20 years ago.

If you're interested, here's a BBC article about the Revolution

**I don't pretend to be an expert on the Romanian Revolution. Nearly everything I've heard has been second-hand, so please let me know if I have any of the facts confused.