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Today I'm going to finish off my Japan blog posts with a few photos that either didn't fit into previous posts, or accidentally got left out of them. Read more... )

Well, that's it from Japan. Hope you enjoyed this series of blog posts.

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Our last day in Japan (but, due to my rearranging things a bit, not my last blog post), took us to Hiroshima, where the tourism, not surprisingly, centred around the city being the first one in history to get nuked.

Read more... )
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Today's blog post takes us to Itsukushima, an island a short distance west of Hiroshima (also known as Miyajima), famous for its torii gate standing in the water before the island's shrine: Read more... )
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Today's blog post takes us to what was for [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m undoubtedly the highlight of our time in Japan: the small island of Okunoshima in the Inland Sea, home to over eight hundred rabbits, all wild but sufficiently accustomed to visiting rabbit fans that they might as well be tame.

Prepare for an overdose of cute )
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Today's blog post takes us, on a daytrip from Kyoto, to Nara, capital of Japan in the eighth century, and today famous for (amongst other things) the deer roaming Nara Park. Wikipedia tells me that "according to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, the god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō; since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country."

Read more... )
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Today we're going to visit Kyoto, the former capital of Japan. Read more... )
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Today we're going to go on a trip to Nikkō,* a town in the mountains quite some distance north of Tokyo. Nikkō is famous for its imperial shrine and temple complex, which is extremely sumptuous, and was for me the highlight (along with the fireflies I saw in Kyoto) of my holiday in Japan; many of these photos are worth clicking through to the high resolution versions.

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On today's blog post, we're going to go on an excursion to Kamakura. We start with a (slightly watered-down) tea ceremony in an old teahouse attached to Jomyo-Ji temple:

Read more... )
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Before we head off to Tokyo, one last photo from Atami, which I forgot to put into the first trip report. In the UK, all hotel rooms come with tea, coffee and the wherewithal to prepare them; in Germany, much to the horror of a stereotype-fulfilling Brit such as myself, they do not. In Japan, I was pleased to see, the situation is more like that in the UK, only, of course, the tea on offer is green, not black.

View piccy )

Which segues, tangentially, into something I noticed during my time in Japan. When I went to South Africa, I was, in much of the country, in a small minority having white skin. I felt a sense of insecurity as a result, which might be summed up as 'my good treatment in this country is entirely dependent upon the favourable attitude of the ethnic majority' (leaving alone the fact I'm not sure there is an ethnic majority in South Africa). I expected to feel something similar in Japan, where the native word for non-Japanese, gaijin, carries, as I understand it, the same pejorative overtones as goy or gadje. To my surprise, I didn't feel any such insecurity (and indeed never heard the word gaijin during my time there, or at least not knowingly). I'm at a slight loss to explain this. Maybe it's because in the city where I grew up there were plenty of people of oriental and Hindustani ethnic origin, but few blacks, leaving me conditioned not to feel the former as exotic.

Although Japan, as I said beforehand, adopted western culture wholesale in the wake of the Meiji revolution, there were a number of people in traditional costume visible on the streets. Some of them were tourists, others, as our tour guides pointed out, were simply not knowledgeable enough to be wearing appropriate combinations of clothing, but some were. In particular, anyone serving in a temple or shrine in a religious role would invariably be wearing traditional clothing, along with servers in teahouses traditional enough to have a tea ceremony, and in our ryokan (on which more when I get to it).

And so, on to Tokyo. Tokyo is, as I discovered to my surprise, the largest city in the world, numbering forty million people. (I expected this to be somewhere in the Third World.) Maybe due to this, it didn't really seem to have one centre, but many.

Here's a few view from halfway up the Tokyo Skytree, which is the tallest building in the world, saving only the Burj Dubai:

Read more... )

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Some general impressions of Japan this time, before we move on to Tokyo. They drive on the left there; if you're not used to it, be careful to look both ways before crossing the road:

Read more... )

Also for a country with lots of high technology, we saw a surprising number of people doing fairly menial jobs one would have expected to have been at least partially automated, for example acting as a tram conductor, or sweeping the street using not just a broom but indeed the old-fashioned kind consisting of a bundle of twigs, rather than street-sweeping vehicles.

We saw a lot of people doing their jobs in a public context, for example traffic police, wore white gloves. I suspect this owes something to nineteenth-century England, though how, I'm not quite sure.

There are lots of people in Japan wearing surgical masks; apparently something like one in four of the population suffer from hayfever.

There are a lot of USAn fast food chains to be found in Japan; I saw there chains, like Denny's or Wendy's, which I hadn't seen since my last time in the States in 1990.

And lastly, for today, the ecological niche which is filled in the UK by seagulls (black-backed gulls and herring gulls) is filled in central Japan (I didn't see this when we went further west), instead by black kites. It was quite something to see these great big birds of prey swooping low over beaches. Sadly, I didn't have a camera with me when I got to see them really close up; and when I did later have a camera, I didn't get to see any close enough up to get a decent photo of.

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This is Atami castle. (Again, all images are clickable through for mostly higher-resolution versions.)

View piccies )

It's twentieth-century, but built to resemble an Edo-period castle. (Japan has few old buildings, due to a combination of having built in flammable materials, non-earthquake-proof construction, and heavy bombing during the War (with the notable exception of Kyoto, the "city of ten thousand shrines", which was spared).)

The castle contains a number of small museums.Read more... )

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Many of the tourist sites we saw in Japan were Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. Japan has the, to western sensibilities, odd situation in which most people adhere to two religions. People go to Shinto shrines for happy events, such as births and weddings, but Buddhist temples for sad ones such as funerals. This state of affairs seems to have come about because Shinto worship consists entirely of venerating local deities; there's no code of ethics around which to structure one's life, and Theraveda Buddhism appears to have moved in to fill that gap.

This state of affairs with regard to Shintoism also means the religion has no holy books, which made [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m question where the rituals that we saw came from, then. Presumably they were all transmitted through oral tradition.

Actually, most people in Japan today are fairly secular (this may be because some of the great Buddhist temple complexes supported revolts against the shogunal government a few centuries ago, and the shogun responded by breaking their power in the land). Quite a few, seeing western-style church weddings in films, decide they want one themselves, so join a church a few weeks before their wedding in order to be able to achieve this—leading to the crazy situation of their having three religions at once.

Shinto shrines are to be distinguished from Buddhist temples in two ways. One is that before making an invocation to the enshrined deity, one claps one's hands twice, presumably to get the deity's attention, then bows; the other is that the approach to every Shinto shrine is marked by the presence of at least one Torii gate, usually, though not always, of red-painted wood, marking this as holy ground.

At the start of our holiday, Andrea and I spent a few days recovering from the jet lag in the beach resort of Atami, less than fifty miles from Tokyo. There we encountered our first shrine, called Kinomiya Jinja.

Read more... )

You'll be getting to see plenty more shrines and temples here in due course.

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[livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and I have just come back from our honeymoon in Japan; here's the start of my trip report on it (further instalments to come).

Read more... ) Well, that'll do for starters. I'll talk about something different next time.

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The other week, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and I went for a long weekend in Copenhagen. Read more... )

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This is my father's mother's mother's mother's father, Myer Goldberg. In the early 1850s, he came to the UK from Posen in Germany, today (as beforehand) Poznań in Poland. Read more... )

I had the opportunity to visit Poznań* a week ago; I have never before been to any of the places my ancestors came from, so this was a new experience for me.Read trip report and see photos )

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Like The Lord of the Rings, I foolishly presented you my readers with all these foreign names, but gave you no guide on how to pronounce them until the end. So, a brief guide to Romanian orthography: ş is pronounced SH, ţ as TS, and, like in Italian, "ce" and "ci" indicate a CH sound. So, the moniker of Vlad Ţepeş is "tsepesh", and Ceauşescu's name pronounced "chau-shesku". Î and â represent a sound (/ɨ/) similar (but not identical) to a short I, and ă = represents a schwa (the unstressed vowel in "about").


There's a script I would see occasionally, particularly in religious contexts, that had a distinctive appearance; here's an example of it (slightly overdone compared to what I saw in Romania; the letter As I saw there were much easier to read):


As you can see, it's readily recognised by the form of the letter U. A tour guide of ours told us that, though it looks old, it was actually an invention of the communists. The Net of a Million Lies, however, disagrees and says this was a script used during the transitional period starting in the 1860s when Romania dropped the Cyrillic alphabet and switched to the Latin one; the letter forms were presumably intended to strike a compromise in readability for people familiar with either alphabet.

History of Romania

[Strada Vlad Ţepeş street sign]

I could point you here to a Wikipedia article, but the chances are you'd not read it, because it's too long. So here's a summary by me, written without checking Wikipedia, for the same reason.

In ancient times, Romania was inhabited by the Dacians and Getans, who may or may not have been the same people, and who may or may not have been a sub-people of the Thracians (Thrace being in modern-day Bulgaria). The modern Romanians seem proud of their Dacian heritage; I think it plays a similar role in the national founding myth to "nos ancêtres les Galles" in France.

Eventually, the Romans conquered the Dacians, but only stayed for about one hundred and fifty years before the Visigoths (on their centuries-long tour-of-Europe migration) drove them out. During the barbarian invasions of Roman territory, however, lots more Latin speakers poured for refuge into Transylvania, protected as it is on three sides by the Carpathian Mountains, and that's why Romania has a Romance tongue to this day, whereas Britain, which was Roman for twice as long, does not.

After this, there followed centuries of invasions by various Germanic tribes, then Huns (probably Alans too), Magyars and other peoples as well (can't remember who, probably Pechenegs and the like). The Saxons called the Romanised Dacians by the same word they used for the Romanised inhabitants of the lands they came to elsewhere, which is why "Wallachia" comes from the same root as "Wales", "Wallonia" and the second half of "Cornwall".

When I learn about the history of a country I'm visiting, there's often a single leader who stands out in its history, as presiding over a golden age in its history. In the case of Romania, that's probably Mircea the Elder, prince of Wallachia, grandfather of Vlad III Dracula; but even he was only ruler of part of present-day Romania. Wallachia and Bessarabia only came to be united in the mid nineteenth century, and Transylvania only became part of Romania following the removal of one third of Hungary's territory following the First World War.

Romania's borders were, however, pretty much written on water; they fluctuated back and forth over the years, such that Bessarabia is now part of Moldova and the Ukraine.

I already mentioned the coup led by King Michael I of Romania during the Second World War, which led to the country switching sides to fight the Axis powers, apparently shortening the course of the war by six months. Michael, who was forced by the communists to abdicate in 1947, is the only monarch still alive from the interwar period, and one of only three from during the War.

As for the rest, since I remember watching the fall of Ceauşescu (and indeed his execution) on TV as it happened, I'll count that as current events and not history,* and bring this history to an end here.

* If you think that's an odd view, [livejournal.com profile] papersky counts anything more recent than the fifth century as current events. That was when the Romans left Britain, on a temporary basis, so they said, to defend Rome, and she's still waiting for them to come back.

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In my last blog post on this subject, I was writing about Jewish life in Romania, and finished by talking about the kosher restaurant in Braşov. Romania's not an easy country to keep kosher in if you're on holidays; there aren't many vegetarian restaurants, and most of those there are are raw food places.

This is a phenomenon I'd seen beforehand when researching veggie eateries abroad, but until now ignored in favour of more conventional restaurants. This was a luxury I wasn't able to afford in Romania.

TBH, I don't get the appeal of raw food restaurants, nor how they can succeed in a country where there's insufficient demand for vegetarian food to sustain conventional vegetarian restaurants. Of the three times I had soup in one (in two different restaurants, one of which claimed to serve both raw veggie and vegan food), two times it was served lukewarm (the final time, after I'd given up hoping otherwise, I got nice hot soup)—yet that couldn't have been on the grounds that it was "raw"; you can't prepare soup (apart from the likes of gazpacho) without cooking it, otherwise what you have is vegetables or pulses floating in water.

The main courses available at the place in Braşov we went to were nice enough; that at the place in Bucharest was a bit of an effort to get through. All the raw good places I saw advertised online showed beautiful desserts (chocolate cakes, etc), enough to make one think that raw food wasn't so bad... but when we actually tried them out, none of them lived up to their promise.

*shrug* Well, it's past now; I'm not going back to such a place until the next time I have no choice. :-S

Aside from that, I did get to try a few Romanian specialities (including at the shul meals in Bucharest). Can't remember much about them, but they were nice.

Speaking of which, one thing we were introduced to in Transylvania I haven't until now mentioned is the Kürtőskalács, a "spit bread" according to Wikipedia, which means a hollow cylinder of dough baked with sugar on the outside, to which [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m took a great shine. Wikipedia says they are "specific to Hungarian-speaking regions in Romania, more predominantly the Szekely land". You might recognise the name of the Szekelys, as I did, from Dracula, which brings me nicely onto the subject of:

Vlad Ţepeş

Of course, I couldn't write an account of holidaying in Romania without mentioning its most infamous son (I think in the long run he'll be remembered whilst Ceauşescu gets relegated to a footnote in history).

Vlad III Ţepeş ("the Impaler") was of course brought to international attention by Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula; however, if you read Dracula, you'll get a rather false impression of the man himself. For a start, Dracula was not prince of Transylvania but of Wallachia; but Wallachia is flatland, and rather boring scenery. Stoker wanted mountains and spooky forests for his novel, so he moved the location of Dracula's castle.

Today, Dracula is associated with Bran Castle, a short distance southwest from Braşov, but a long way from either Dracula's principality of Wallachia or from the Borgo Pass, where Stoker sets his novel (it is at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, but the Carpathians form a horseshoe shape, and this is on the other side of the horseshoe).

It turns out that the connection of Bran Castle with Dracula, aside from the fact he might have visited it once, was manufactured in the second half of the last century by the Americans, who noticed that Bran Castle has a circular tower and a square tower, which made it a good match for Castle Dracula in the novel, and therefore a good tourist selling point. We'll just have to ignore the fact that Castle Dracula is described as being at the edge of a long ridge high above the forest, with steep cliffs on three sides, whereas Bran Castle is on a small hill only a few metres above the Transylvanian plain.

Oh well. Well, they know in Romania that Dracula is a good tourist sell nowadays. I suspect that the natives are probably sick of the name, but the shops in Bran and at Bucharest airport are full of Dracula merchandise, with everything from kitsch T-shirts to bottles of Draquila.

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From Braşov, we went on trips into the surrounding countryside, to climb the mountain above the ski resort of Pioana Braşov, and hike on the Babele tableland nearly 2300m above sea level. On one trip we passed through a forest lapping the feet of the Carpathians; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father informed us that in his parents' days this used to be the haunt of highwaymen, who would chop down trees so they crossed the road, then hold up travellers when they found their way blocked and demand money to let them proceed on their way.

Fortunately, no such incident befell us on our excursion to Sibiu, or Hermannstadt, which, as the German name gives away is another of the Siebenbürgen. 2500 Saxons originally came to Hermannstadt, but only 100 survived the Magyar conquest.

Like Braşov, Sibiu has a picturesque old centre, but we were lucky still to be able to visit it today: Ceauşescu planned to raze the lot, and only the fact the revolution happened first saved it.

As a cohen, I can't go into churches where there are people buried; kudos to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents for doing the research first to discover whether this was actually the case before taking me into any. As a result of this research, I learned two interesting things: Firstly, burying people in churches is a western Christian thing; they don't do it in Orthodox churches. (Romania is split between Orthodoxy, Catholicism and (in Saxon areas) Lutheranism.) And secondly, like Britain, Romania passed legislation in the nineteenth century prohibiting burial indoors; however, unlike Britain it seems they actually exhumed all bodies that were already buried in churches. In some cases, the tombstones were left in place in the church floor; in other cases, they were subsequently mounted on the walls. In one case, the bodies were reinterred beneath a flowerbed outside the church. ("So that's why the roses are growing so well," I commented.)

After Sibiu, we had planned to see Sighișoara (Schäßburg), another pretty Saxon town, but [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m preferred to go hiking in the mountains instead. Her parents asked my opinion, but I said this holiday was all about her family, and I was just tagging along, so I would go with whatever she preferred.

Jewish life

As Jews travelling abroad, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and I are always on the lookout for sites of Jewish interest and synagogues. Romania was unusual for a communist country in that it let Jews who wanted to emigrate (such as [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents) go, provided they went to Israel. Of course; once they did so, there was nothing keeping them there; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father stuck it out for a few years, her mother headed instead for Germany, where, thanks to her education in Braşov, she already spoke the language.

As a result, the community is considerably shrunken today. We found the shul in Tulcea in the Danube delta; I believe it's still functioning, but we didn't get to meet the community.

In Constanţa the small community was still meeting in the synagogue as recently as 1996 according to Wikipedia, but maintenance was paid for by the state, and after the revolution in 1990, the money dried up, and now the roof has fallen in (and Wikipedia says anything not nailed to the floor has been looted). I went to have a look from the outside; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m said it was too depressing and chose not to join me.

What was surprising was the number of Israelis we met all over Romania: it's a cheap and not too distant holiday destination for them. Our tour guide in Bucharest told us he frequently has Jewish clients exploring their family roots in Romania. As it happens, the other two people on [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and my tour, a young American couple, turned out also to be Jewish; and went ended up spending a half-hour break at a café entirely schmoozing and playing Jewish geography.

As a result of the small Jewish population but prevalence of Israelis, non-Jewish Romanians seem to have a worse problem than in other countries of keeping the concepts of Jewish and Israeli separate.

In Bucharest, there are several synagogues, but only one still functioning, the cathedral synagogue Templul Coral (the name means "choral", not "coral"). Furthermore, while in the rest of the Jewish world, only progressive denominations call their synagogues temples, because for Orthodoxy and Masorti/Conservative Judaism, the only Temples were the two in Jerusalem, Romania seems to be like Italy in that even Orthodox synagogues are called temples. At least one of the other synagogues has been converted to use as a museum, but we didn't go there.

When we wrote asking about Shabbos meals, the community in Bucharest (which was Ashkenazi but דרפס חסונ in rite) invited us to join us for both Friday night and Shabbos lunch. At the end of the Friday night service, a boy of about twelve called Joseph went up to the bimah to drink the kiddush wine, following which the congregation sang "siman tov umazal tov" to him, so we assumed he was about to be barmitzvahed. It turned out, however, that he had rather just had his bris (circumcision, which is normally done at the age of eight days amongst Jews): ulp! The community made a bit of a fuss over him over the course of Shabbos, and I'm not surprised!

In Braşov there were according to two synagogues according to Wikipedia, one Neolog and one Orthodox. (Neolog is an indigenous Hungarian denomination (Transylvania used to be part of Hungary until the end of the First World War) just to the left of Orthodoxy, but which affiliates with Masorti Olami.) The Orthodox one had closed (we looked for it but couldn't find it) and the Neolog one is now Orthodox in practice. We davened there on Shabbos morning, but they didn't have a Friday night service that week. There's also a kosher restaurant in Braşov, but it's only open on weekdays, and until four o'clock, so we didn't eat there.

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After Bucharest, we headed north to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's mother's hometown of Braşov. This is one of the Siebenbürgen (Seven Castles) built by Saxon colonists in Transylvania early last millennium as defence against the Magyars and Tatars.

It's only since I started going out with [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m that I became aware German traders founded colonies right the way across Europe in the Middle Ages, deep into Russia. As well as the Saxons, there was also a later settlement of Swabians in Transylvania. Today as well as the Siebenbürgen, there are a string of villages with traditional Saxon architecture across Transylvania.

Following World War II, in which most of the countries with German colonies had suffered under Nazi invasion and occupation, the Germans were expelled from most of them (into a homeland and culture their ancestors had generally not lived in for centuries—one of the less known stories of the immediately postwar period).

Romania, however, escaped German invasion, and the Germans were allowed to remain. Most fled following the revolution after the fall of communism, though; there (are 1000 according to our tour guide and according to Wikipedia there) were 36,884 in 2011, down from 300,000 before the revolution (and a high of 745k in 1930). Unlike other countries I've visited like the Czech Republic, where German was once the prestige language but since the War, it's been entirely displaced by Czech, in Transylvania they are not only au fait but indeed proud of their German heritage; there were lots of signs and shops referring to Braşov by its German name of Kronstadt (not to be confused with the fortress of the same name off the coast of St Petersburgx).

However, between 1950 and 1960 the city was known as Stalin City. I was astonished to discover the name lasted so long after Krushchev's denouncement of Stalin, but a quick check reveals the name Stalingrad also lasted until then.

The city has a picturesque centre, and a spur of the Carpathian mountains extends into the middle of the city, heavily forested and adorned with a light-up sign reading BRASOV. (We thought the city had delusions of being the new Hollywood, but when we visited a hilltop fortress Râşnov, we found it was similarly adorned.)

In the city centre, we found a café done up as an old pharmacy named Doctor Jekelius, after the chemist who set up Braşov's first pharmacy on the site. Hang on a tic, I thought: Jekelius... I wonder whether Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll (or the real-life Jekyll he was named after) had Romanian roots...

To be still further continued...

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The Black Sea

From the Danube delta we travelled south to Mamaia for a few days on the beach at the Black Sea. In the evenings we would pass a stall selling Turkish icecream, where they were mixing it with a long and stout metal pole and lots of elbow grease; the stuff appeared to have more the consistency of a thick paste than what one expects of icecream. [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m declared she had to try it. Apparently the taste was unexceptional, but it was worth it for the entertainment vale of the way the seller handed it over to us, repeatedly leaving [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m unexpectedly empty-handed whilst the icecream instead hung upside down from the metal pole, or had been deftly transferred in a second cone leaving the one [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m was holding empty.

Mamaia is just north of the city of Constanţa, which is where the Roman poet Ovid was exiled in the first century. (I remember learning in Latin class in school about how he complained about being sent to a half-barbaric place at the edge of the empire, where the natives were so un-Roman as to wear trousers.) Constanţa is proud of the connection with him; there's a statue of him in the big square in the centre of the old town, which is now named Ovid Square, and the town outside Constanţa where Ovid died has been renamed Ovidiu. I myself met an Ovidiu whilst I was there; presumably it's a popular name in the area.

Actually, Ovid's not the only Roman connection that Romania has; when Romania was created as a country in the nineteenth century it took, on account of the Romance language spoken there, the name by which what we now call the Roman Empire was known in antiquity. In central Bucharest there's a reproduction of the famous statue of the Capitoline wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (which Wikipedia tells me was a gift from Italy to Romania a century ago), and I also saw other representations of the statue in Bucharest.


From the Black Sea, we travelled to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father's old stomping grounds in Bucharest. Bucharest is barely on the radar at all today when one thinks of great European capitals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but apparently there was a time when it was known as the Paris of the east, and there's a lot of grandiose architecture dating from that time there.

Of course, since then it spent a time as the capital of a communist period, which left its own mark on the city. For example, as Bucharest grew (it's much bigger nowadays than it was at the end of the war), the sewerage system was unable to deal with the growth in population, and the river became effectively an open sewer running through the city. The communist authorities didn't have the technology to clean up the water properly before discharging it into the river, so they instead split the river into two layers: the lower layer, hidden from sight, is still little more than a sewer, but sitting on top of that is a nice clean waterway of only a fraction of the depth of the original.

Speaking of communist management, we learned of a couple of mind-boggling incidents during our tour of the city, whilst viewing the outside of the Palace of the People (the second largest administrative building in the world, second only to the Pentagon, commissioned by Ceauşescu but not finished until after his fall—and which Rupert Murdoch tried, unsuccessfully, to buy after the revolution to turn into a casino)... but unfortunately I've forgotten the details. :-(

One was that upon an occasion, perhaps marking some anniversary, a famous American said something about Romania which the communist authorities took great liking to; they printed it on the byline of the most prestigious newspaper in Romania for two weeks... and then they worked out he was being sarcastic; so they managed (under pain of criminal punishment) to recall all issues of the newspaper, nation-wide, that had been issued during that fortnight, to destroy the evidence of their culpability.

(The other story was similar, but I can't remember any of it.)

To be further continued...


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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