Archive for September, 2008

The Real Romania

September 24th, 2008 11:25 am by ray from here

When we last left our intrepid me, I was barreling across the Beautiful Gray Green Greasy Danube River from Vidin, Bulgaria, to Calafat, Romania, where our friends Dan and Laura were waiting to pick me up. That was nearly a month ago, and from then until the end of the trip I did not have time to write.

Really. Not one minute for one single entry, especially since entries take more than a minute.

It’s more straightforward to review churches and castles than to review your friend’s wedding. That it happens in a culture that I’m not conversant in, which is to say, a culture, stays even more my typing hand. Also, I set myself an additional task of writing post cards to as many of our friends as we can and that takes some time as well.

This might be the Real Romania that the guidebooks are chiding us for not seeing and the tour leaders are trying to simulate with their happy native shows under the grape arbors of Xinjiang. But it might not be Romania at all. It is Dan and Laura and their families, and Andrei’s friends, and other individual people and I can’t say whether they represent Romania any more than they represent Dubai. Nobody among them acts like the opening scene of Borat, that’s for sure.

Sometime recently Dan and his brother Cristi both seem to have decided that working 60 hours a week to stay in the same place was not cutting it, and what they really need to be doing is working 120 hours a week to get ahead. That is what they are doing now, and the wedding seemed only to be a bump in the family road. Dan was working out a house he was designing as he left on their honeymoon, and Cristi was making deals practically the whole time.

I hope it works. It is possible to work arbitrarily hard and have it all come to nothing due to currency speculators and war profiteers 7 time zones away.

The time in Craiova was mostly spent at parties or preparing for them. I arrived Thursday; Friday was spent preparing for the wedding and the party afterwards. Laura was buying the food for the restaurant to serve. They were not in a position to be throwing money around like some other wedding people. We went to a Farmer’s Market/Costco amalgam outside of town to buy fruit. When we pulled up to the back of the Restaurant Doljana at lunch time, one of the restaurant workers was out the back door killing a chicken. This is a good sign at a restaurant.

I only lately realized the cultural or more properly temporal centrism of the history I learned in America. Don’t you remember learning that there was a big demand for spices to preserve meat or disguise the taste of bad meat in the Middle Ages, because of the lack of refrigeration? I suppose it must be true, but the real way people live who don’t have refrigeration is that they don’t kill more meat than they can eat. Chickens on an average night, fatted calves for the big celebrations.

In the afternoon we went to Cristi’s new hardware store and construction company and bar in Blatovoiesti. I told you he was busy. None of them drink so I didn’t either. I don’t know what the instance of teetotaling bar owners is. Sheik Abdelaziz al-Brahim (of the Cairo Hyatt) would not approve of his inverse hypocrisy. (Hypocrisy is signed, a fact which is seldom mentioned in culture-centric rhetorical discussions.)

That night about ten he remembered he had to buy dress shoes so off to the mall.

The day of the wedding was grueling like all weddings. There is a great tendency to stand up in Orthodox services. I’m not sure what the survival value is of that. Afterwards the photographer wanted a detour to the park for photos. There were certain marigold beds that were much in demand and Dan and Laura had to wait in line behind other brides and grooms in order to pose where they were instructed. Dan was not happy with all this. Cristi was on his cell phone most of the time practicing the Art of the Deal.

And so to eating.

At about 9:30 PM the wedding reception was brought to a standstill when the game between Craiova and Dinamo came on the big screen TV on the terrace. Every man in the room walked outside to watch, and didn’t come back until it was over. Craiova unfortunately lost 1-0. Craiova does not have the money to bid against Dinamo for the best players, is the explanation I was given.

On Sunday we all went out to the Vintage Rose in Blatovoiesti (That’s Cristi’s bar) to eat more of the leftover food and I watched them again berate the very old drunk lady who comes around demanding things.

And on Monday, Dan and Laura drove to Iasi, with me in the back seat. It took about 16 hours. The road, via Curtea de Arges, winds up past a large dam and over a very high pass with a glacial lake at the summit. That is the fast part. Curtea de Arges has a cute little monastery in it where you can pay to take pictures inside. It is also the first instance I have seen, of knock-off World Heritage Sites. Apparently the monastery did not make the cut for the UNESCO imprimatur, rather like French Cooking in that respect (there is a considerable movement to get French Cooking declared a cultural heritage which must be preserved by all the world. No more of these Basque upstarts. Does anyone else see the problem with cultural heritages, when contrasted with Ruins? When you declare that you are going to preserve a cultural artifact, like basket weaving or marriage, you are condemning actual living human beings to spend their lives that way. The janitors and structural engineers who service World Heritage Sites at least get paid. It would be one thing to say that all the drama students who didn’t get the roles they wanted in Summer Stock would take jobs in Colonial Williamsburg to say “thou” for three months. But ox-herding in Costa Rica requires a bit more commitment. (That’s one of the UNESCO cultural artifacts.) What if the ox guys decide they want to watch Reality TV and drink Red Bull? Does the World Bank keep them in line behind the oxen?

Where were we? Curtea de Arges. They have designed themselves a logo which at a glance looks like the square peg in a round hole that is UNESCO. There are snow globes of the Crucifixion for sale there but since Scott doesn’t collect Madonnas any longer I had nobody to give one to. They’ll still be there.

If you drove across America in the early 1960’s, you know what it is like to spend the whole day in a construction project single file behind trucks while a freeway gets built. If you didn’t, go to Romania or China. That’s what the road from Urumqi to Turpan, and the road from anywhere to Brasov is like. The Americans I think ultimately figured out the Art of the Detour and it is a Cultural Heritage which I wish we would pass on to the world because other people don’t understand, you build your freeway off somewhere, like Highway 5, and when it’s done, you turn it on like a tap. Dam builders and canal builders have known this for centuries.

When we descended from Balea Lac, we hit a traffic jam that extended most of the way to Iasi.  What a way for Dan to start his honeymoon. But he is driven, so he drives. Also the restaurant at Balea Lac is where (as I mentioned) he plugged in his computer to design the house he was working on at the time.

Our friend Andrei had found Dan and Laura a hotel so when we pulled in at close to midnight, he didn’t have search for one.

In the morning, Dan and Laura drove on to have a proper honeymoon and not one with hitchhikers, and I spent the rest of the week hanging out with Andrei and the gang who would be our best friends if we didn’t have our own gang and if they wouldn’t be half our age until Sarah Palin’s second term. (That image is two days anachronistic, a sign that I am writing this much later. I watched Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech, to the extent one watches shows like that, from Andrei’s living room on CNN.)

Beauty is not truth

September 5th, 2008 2:43 am by ray from here

And whoever said otherwise, if that’s all he knows on earth or thinks he needs to know, then he needs to take a refresher course in something. I don’t know what.

The continual lesson I take from all the museum and cathedral hopping, is that the most elegant structures in the world are produced by persons laboring under false impressions.

Don’t take my word for it, I’m just a liberal atheist without nearly the conviction in the nonexistence of Your God to scratch out the eyes of an icon, let alone kill millions of children. Ask the beauty-makers about each other. The builders of the splendid mosques destroyed the splendid monasteries of the Orthodox and the favor was returned and furthermore they are still doing it.

It simply cannot be true that both the world model which produced the Taoist ornamentation north of Xining and the world model which produced the flying-running-kneeling angels who surround the frescoes in Ohrid are valid. One at least has to be false, or both of them if the Buddhist model is true. (There is a lay belief in America from the 1960’s that Buddhism is all mellow and accepting and everything, well that’s just because they aren’t in power, like pre-1948 Jews. Buddhists aren’t cosmic at all. If you lived in a Buddhist theocracy and your unattachment was 2 jiggers different from the prescribed unattachment of Bodhisattva Uno, they would cut off your feet.)

But what do realists produce, spreadsheets?

When you are alone and don’t speak the language, you have a lot of time for open loop thinking.

Ohrid is easy for an English speaker, though. All the signs are in English. Good English. Better English than you speak, as I will describe. Not because many English speaking tourists go there: mostly it’s folks from the Balkan countries who drive their cars. A fair number of Germans. But in the Balkans, as in India, English is a relatively non-sectarian language, and if you write in English, people won’t ask why you have Albanian but not Serbian, or Greek but not Croatian on your menu, and some of those people have guns.

In two days in Ohrid I made a fair dent in the UNESCO-listed churches and other ones I happened by. I bought a guidebook. There are handouts in many of the churches, telling you what you ought to be seeing when you stow your camera and walk inside.

First of all it’s dark in there, you have to wait quite a while before the murals show up, and when your eyes are adapted enough to tell St. Clement from St. Naum, you squint at the handout, or the guidebook, and read:

“The 10th century basilica had difoil toves and a perverse napster with inscriptions in Old Hemolytic. It was reconstructed by Glandelinian in 14c and assumed its current form after being leveled 8 times. Behind the iconosepsis are fine frescoes of Christ Vasodilator and the Reminding of John Penstemon. The coppice is transceived by St. Mordant’s Cross, and three hypospadiades intimidate the forex, upon which traces of paint may still be seen. No evidence of an ossuary remains upon the grounds, but we like using the word ‘ossuary’.”

You don’t speak English.

The Turks defaced a lot of the murals, to varying degrees. I got into an argument with a German lady in Turpan. I won’t say argument; we just lobbed a few unsupported assertions at each other. Anyway, she was convinced that Islam only forbids drinking during the day time. I don’t have that impression, and since neither one of us is an Islamic scholar I can only assume that her Muslim friends drink in the evening, and my Muslim friends don’t drink. And from that we extrapolate to a billion and a half people: this is the prerogative of inductive logic.

I think of the moment that some individual person was charged with bringing a Buddha Cave or a repurposed Orthodox church into line with the proscription against worshipping graven images. What did that person decide to do, and why did he decide to do it? In Afghanistan, he used artillery. In Dunhuang, he obliterated faces. In Ohrid, he scratched out the eyes of some saints. Perhaps he was impressed by the beauty of the fresco. Or he thought his boss might be. Or he was lazy. Or he had Christian friends who worshipped there.

That anything should survive is a miracle, which is being addressed.

The food in Ohrid was good overall, even at the hotel on the first night. Especially there. Trout soup. Then I read that the Lake Ohrid trout was endangered and you shouldn’t eat it, just like you shouldn’t eat shark’s fin. It’s a lot easier to not eat something that costs $200 a bowl than something that costs $1.

I was a little disappointed by Antica, which got good reviews but seemed a little S. E. Rykoff now.

Best was Momir, right on the lake front: Macedonian Salad (tomatoes primarily; grilled peppers, garlic); 100 g of ham on a plate; squid stuffed with ham and cheese, potatoes carrots and shredded lettuce on the side. I never had room for dessert. It’s not much fun without Dave.

Hotel Lebed is a good place. You should stay there. My 40 Euro room was big and had a balcony and looked directly out onto the lake. There is a boardwalk along the lake and people promenade all day and night and especially in the evening, which since I was thinking about iconoclasm caused this other spasm of self-referent rumination:

Walking along the shore at sunset. Everyone all orange and fabulous, the kids fishing and the old women in their scarves and the old men playing cards and chess every wrinkle redolent of a lifetime of sun, tobacco, and Slavic fractiousness; but although half the population of the town in August is tourists and they all have cameras, nobody was taking pictures. I felt really conspicuous and a bit uncomfortable using mine.

I surmise that this is because cameras in the modern construct are not for making pictures, they are for performing certain rituals at bars and in front of the Eiffel Tower; just as computers, or what are now called computers, are not at all optimized for computation, their original function, but instead are used for various ritual trivial subsets of their capability, i.e. games and email and blogs.

The number of people using computers for computation has not increased so much since the 1960’s, and the number of people using cameras to make pictures has not increased so much since the 1860’s.

That’s not really true, but it’s a talking point with myself. If touring doesn’t make you think there’s really no reason to go.

Travel in the Balkans is harder than it should be.

September 5th, 2008 12:55 am by ray from here

Consider these three all-day travel segments:

Train from Athens to Plati, 0650-1155
Train from Platí to Florina, 1550-1810
Taxi from Florina-Bitola, 1813-1920
taxi from Bitola-Ohrid, 1925-2020

Bus from Ohrid-Skopje, 0730-1030
Bus from Skopje-Sofia, 1500-2130 including one hour time change

Train from Skopje-Vidin 0705-1230 about
Taxi to ferry and waiting for ferry at Vidin about two hours
FINALLY meeting up with Dan and Laura in Calafat at what, 3 PM?
And then the drive to Craiova.

The distances are small. From Ohrid to Sofia is maybe 400 km and none of it is terrible and some of it is freeway.

If it were possible to rent a car that could cross borders — but it isn’t — it would be 5 hours, not 15. If there were any buses leaving Skopje for Sofia between 0830 and 1500 — but there aren’t.

Or any trains from Platí to Florina between 1139 and 1537, which is particularly frustrating since the Athens train is scheduled to arrive at Plati at 1134 but it was late, and I suspect it is often late. There is a 0530 bus from Ohrid to Skopje but that would arrive just as the Sofia bus is pulling away, even if it were on time, an abstract concept since the schedules don’t mention arrival times.

I could imagine a world in which the Greek trains scheduled a connection in Thessaloniki and allowed a certain amount of time to accomplish it. They used to run a train all the way to Bitola until the Macedonia domain name tiff.

Another thing you need to know about Greek trains which I haven’t seen stated in so many words: you can only buy a ticket for days other than today at the downtown office of the rail system on Sina 6 (37.98002,23.73466), about 100 meters from the Panepistimio metro station. If there is an Internet way, I haven’t seen it. At the Larissa station you can only buy tickets for travel the same day.

I had to buy a first class ticket since they were sold out of second class, so it wasn’t cheap the way Greek trains have a reputation for being; it was 58 Euros to Florina and then 40 to Bitola and then 30 to Ohrid, driving through a forest fire on the way. We really did. I have a snapshot of a fire truck parked on the road directing a stream of water at fire. There are a lot of things to worry about in the Ex-Yugoslavian Republics, and as long as the flames are not so large as to ignite your gas tank, a mere forest fire isn’t one of them. I think that liability insurance companies in California would suggest that the road be closed in that situation.

Maybe it’s just that Ohrid is hard to get to. I just got a letter from a fellow I met in Belgrade in 2005, describing how he had walked across the border from Albania.

But when Ohrid airport can handle Airbus 380’s, maybe it won’t be such a nice little town. Right now, it’s lovely. It’s packed with tourists, but not more than it can hold since virtually every building with walls has a sign out front offering rooms. August is a high period for Ohrid though not the highest; they have festivals for that. Its attraction is a pretty lake, Lake Ohrid, which the brochures group with Lake Baikal and Lake Tanganyika as being ancient Rift Valley lakes. Local people and tourists fish and swim in the lake. In addition, there is a large collection of medieval churches and monasteries — 365, say the tourist brochures but they count at least one ruin that would be called a vacant lot in most towns. There are restaurants and bars and souvenir shops and an entire street of bounce houses and bungee trampolines.

I’m sorry Dave’s camera broke because I saw a great movie at the bungee trampoline. The — what is it, a ride? a toy? It isn’t powered. Imagine 4 big poles in the ground, about 5 meters high. Between each pair of poles is a child’s seat with belts and straps, fastened by two bungee cords to the poles, and on the ground a trampoline. Maybe they have these in America. Liability insurance companies might have words about that, too. Trampolines disappeared from America for a while. There was a big fad in the 1960’s. Trampoline centers were popping up like miniature golf courses. Then they all disappeared at once. I heard it was the insurance companies that did it.

After the Assumption of Risk doctrine became more widespread they started creeping back into the culture.

I don’t like that you can’t do anything in Nanny States, but I don’t like the Assumption of Risk decisions either. Did you ever read the case by which it arrived in California? If you have ever been in a gym, you have signed a release. You probably think that you are agreeing not to hold them responsible if you give yourself a hernia on some machine. Without this, you can certainly imagine that Nautilus and Gold’s would not be able to exist. But the case in which the clause was upheld (it had previously been held a contract against public policy, to agree to hold someone harmless if they injured you), a television set that had been negligently installed by the gym fell on a customer and injured him. This negligence is, since the 1990’s, okey-dokey.

Anyway, back outside the purview of Anglo Saxon Common Law, a lot of boys who are at the maximum stage in life of enjoying acceleration, are launching themselves off trampolines at the point of greatest stretching of the bungee cords, and being propelled way the heck up in the air and then slammed back into the trampoline by the cords.

There is an age limit imposed not by the laws of man but the laws of God. If you’re too small, the bungee cords pretty much won’t let you touch the trampoline, and the funny thing I saw was a baby strapped into the seat, whose resting position was about 4 feet off the ground, and his parents, in order to get their money’s worth, were dribbling him like a basketball to the hilarity of all. Actually it was a lot like the scene in The Absent Minded Professor, now that I think about being 9 years old again.

But I am not 9 years old, and I came to this Macedonian version of Clear Lake where a UNESCO World Heritage Site substitutes for Wave Runners to stare at more pretty things I don’t understand.