what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Worlds Apart at the Danube

Today I remember a good man who died exactly two years ago. Ion Olteanu was a friend who devoted much of his life to the youth of the country – encouraging them to get involved in their localities; to establish youth parliaments in their towns; and to make contact with their European counterparts. He was a philosopher by training and had the dry manner of the Romanian intellectual – but, unlike that class, had a passion and real commitment to make Romania a better place. And transmitted this to the teenagers he (and his wife) worked with. I saw this vividly at a couple of the events he was kind enough to ask me to perform at.
I first met him in the Prime Minister’s offices at Piata Romanie in the mid-1990s where he was responsible for the initial attempts to develop a strategy for working with non-governmental organisations. I wrote this paper for him. Faced with a reshuffle, he chose to leave the civil service and move to the hand-to-mouth world of international grants. I wasn’t all that close to him although we did pop in unannounced from time to time to his flat in the centre of Bucharest which was, with its mass of files and papers, more like an office – not least with the other visitors. Last year I dedicated a post on policy-making to him. 

Today I devote this post to his memory. It is a post written spontaneously (ie I have no idea where it will go) on yet another glorious cloudless if nippy morning in the Carpathian mountains – between the Piatra Craiului and the Bucegi ranges. And written in this lovely old house given a new life by his friend Daniela over the past 12 years. In her love of the vernacular Romanian architecture (and efforts to preserve it) she is in a tiny minority here in Romania – despite the best efforts of Valentin Mandache and Sarah in Romania

For reasons I don’t yet pretend to understand, Bulgarians seem to value their traditional village houses much more than Romania – despite (or perhaps because) the socio-economic dereliction which has overtaken so many Bulgarian settlements. After its “liberation” in 1989 Romania went for the American dream – with all the “creative destruction” and modernist eyesores that involves. I was, therefore, delighted to purchase recently a book which showcases some old restored houses here in Romania 
And also pleased to see this post on one town’s architectural heritage by one of my favourite Romanian bloggers.
The pity is that people don’t seem able to get together to cooperate properly here – the trust and respect which that requires seem for the moment to have been destroyed in this country. That’s one of the things which Olteanu was fighting to restore……

Alternating, as I have in the past 5 years, between Bulgaria and Romania has made me think a lot about cultural differences. Despite sharing the Danube as a border, the citizens of the two countries have (apart from the summer trips to the Bulgarian part of the Black Sea  - which are such good value) little contact and know very little about each other. It hasn’t helped that the Dobrogea area at the Black Sea has changed hands several times in the past few centuries – nor that the Bulgarian alphabet is Cyrillic and the Romanians so profoundly Latin  
Although Romania attracts far fewer foreign residents (partic Brits) than Bulgaria, it has a fair number of ex-pat bloggers - perhaps due to its exoticism. One of them talks feelingly in the online book he has made of his blogs about the country
A Romanian wife’s fury is as legendary as it is short. In the morning, you can have your ear chewed off – my sins generally rotate around where I leave my shoes in the hall and woe betide me if by briefcase ever touches the kitchen table! There are constant bumps like this - yet by evening, she is back to chilled and happy as if we never argued at all.
Romanian girls do seem to work much harder in the home than their British counterparts. My wife is always scrubbing and cleaning our 1 bedroom apartment (we even took on a maid to further help!)
You do need, however, to develop a skin like a rhino, as every small mistake you make in life is blown up into something significant, before floating away again into nothingness
And two books have been produced recently by Brits on the country - William Blacker' s elegant if controversial Along the Enchanted Way; and Mike Ormsby's more gritty Never Mind the Balkans, here's Romania. And here's a recent documentary on the country which suggests that Ceaucescu's baneful influence is still active.

After several years of familiarity with Romania, I suddenly found myself based in Sofia. The Bulgarians were down-to-earth, modest and….well..bourgeois! Not least in the extent of small spaces in the centre where old and young alike can set up shop themselves - whether to sell cigarettes, haircuts, coffee, paintings or clothes. I've commented on this here; here; here; and here

One of the key books on cultural values is Richard D Lewis’s When Cultures Clash – a complete version of which I have just discovered online. Some of the values he attributes to Bulgarians (on page 319) are disciplined, sober, pragmatic, cautious, stubborn, good organisers, industrious, inventive.
The terms he uses for Romanians are – pride in being a Balkan anomaly, opportunism, nepotism, volatility, self-importance, unpredictability, tendency to blame others, black humour…..
Certainly I know that my Romanian friends sometimes get impatient with what they – as tough, direct speakers – feel as the polite hypocrisy of Bulgarians! As a Scot who has felt the same about a certain type of Englishman, I know what they mean! Certainly I find it fascinating that Bulgarian paintings of the 20th century speak to me in a way which the Romanians don't.....
I feel an important project could be one focusing on Bulgarian-Romanian relations. The EU is putting a lot of money into trans-Danube projects – pity that cultural aspects don’t seem to have been addressed.
I've reached the age when I think how the money I leave behind might be used to further passions of mine - whether conceptual or sensual. One idea which occurred to me recently was to leave a small fund which could encourage Bulgarian and Romanian painters/artists to come together once a year (starting with my village here!)
It would have been great to work with Olteanu on this!

The painting is an Atanas Mihov (1879-1974) - "washing at the Danube" which can be seen at the Russe Art Gallery

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