The 100th anniversary of what, exactly?

Centennial parade Gandul

You might think the photo must be from Paris, where the Arc de Triomphe is located.  But the tricolors are the wrong colour, and right now on the streets of Paris the popular expressions are of a different sort.

That’s right, in Bucharest there is the Arcul de Triomf, first built in 1878 to mark Romanian independence, and rebuilt in 1936 in stone, to more closely resemble the Parisian version.

And the picture is from today’s parade to mark Romania’s centenary.  (Photo credit:  http://www.gandul.info )

But those who are quick with math might wonder what happened 100 years ago that is being celebrated.

Especially for European countries which have been around in some form or another for centuries, there is often something arbitrary about what date is celebrated each year on their ‘national day’.

In the Romanian case, the southern and eastern principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia gained their independence from the Ottoman empire, as a state called Romania, after joining on the Russian side of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78.

But the northern province of Transylvania remained under the rule of the Hapsburg empire, by this time a dual monarchy in which these lands were effectively administered by Hungary.   While the majority of the population here were Romanians, there was also a substantial Hungarian settler community making up as much as 35% of the population, and a significant German-speaking group, (just under ten percent), ancestors of the original Saxons who arrived in waves from the 12th to the 18th centuries and built the beautiful fortified towns of Transylvania.

This situation continued for almost 40 years until World War I, when Romania unexpectedly joined the Allied side explicitly in return for sovereignty over Transylvania after winning the war, which is what happened just after the November armistice of 1918.

It is this “Great Union” which is celebrated every December 1 in Romania.  And throughout Romania, often the most prominent public place in cities is named the ‘Piaţa Unirii’, meaning Union or Unification Square.

(Beyond Transylvania, there were other territorial gains made at this time.  The eastern province of Bessarabia, now the Republic of Moldova, was also added to Romania, but this region which has always been mixed Russian- and Romanian-speaking, became part of the USSR after World War II.)  Multiple choice test to follow.

As they say in Romania, “La mulți ani România.”  (translated:  Happy birthday, Romania – in the sense of wishing someone, or a country, a long life)

 

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Infrastructure spending, Romanian-style

 

Yesterday, thousands of Romanians crushed in to join the opening consecration of a new national cathedral, built largely with public funds.

It’s a story jarring to those of us in the West, who might see a better use for this €100-million in government expenditure being directed towards hospitals, schools, or decent road and rail connections to the rest of Europe.

But Romania, coming up to the 100th Anniversary of its unification later this week, has never had a significant cathedral in the capital region for the Orthodox church, which claims the support of 86 per cent of the population.

Building such a national cathedral had been proposed since the 1880s, but there was never consensus on funding or exact location.  And this monumental effort was clearly never going to happen during the immediate post-war period when the officially atheist Communist party was in power (although there had been some type of understanding whereby the Communists and the Romanian Orthodox church co-existed without challenging each other).

After the fall of the Ceaucescu regime in 1989, support of the Orthodox church (which is ‘autocephalous’ and headed by a Patriarch who resides in Bucharest) is seen almost equated with Romanian nationalism.

Plans for the new cathedral have not been without controversy.  Apart from the cost, the design has been criticized as grandiose.  At 135 meters high, it is slightly taller than the nearby Palatul Parlamentului, the massive administrative building next door.  While apparently also the tallest Orthodox church in the world, few would call it the most beautiful.  Construction lagged, and as recently as Wednesday of last week, construction cranes were still working on the last dome, but were moved away for the consecration yesterday.

And it’s fair to note that the enduring relationship between the Orthodox church and the ruling Social-Democrat party (PSD) has also been questioned.   The Orthodox church recently sought to flex its muscles by promoting a referendum to prevent same-sex marriage.  The PSD government generally supported the referendum, with most of the opposition staying silent and some counselling a boycott.  About 90% of votes cast were in favour of the same-sex marriage ban, but turnout was less than 21% of voters, well below the minimum threshold for the vote to take effect.  The strength of the PSD/Orthodox church coalition will face new tests in the next two years in Presidential and parliamentary elections.

Death by Demographics?

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Today, the post is nothing to do with Romania.  Above is a picture of the fourth green at Cornerstone Golf Course, just south of Tobermory Ontario.  I was happy to complete a round of 9 holes here this past Saturday.

Yet it looks like mine will be one of the last rounds every played here, as the owner, unwilling to continue absorbing operating losses and unable to sell, has decided to close the course.

Apparently it’s a world-wide trend.  Courses are closing at an alarming rate across our continent, as younger golfers are simply not coming along in sufficient numbers to replace their elders.  The Economist tells me that demographics are even threatening courses in Scotland.

Now, our little course was no Augusta.  You can see some damage on the green caused by this summer’s drought.  The second little red flag out there is from an attempt to get some additional revenue from FootGolf.

But it was a pleasant, relaxed course only four minutes from our cottage.  I could head out for nine holes on a quiet day and be back inside two hours.  It was a place I where I got my 10,000 steps, made some friendships around the clubhouse and — yes — improved my golf game at least a little bit.    With no alternative golf course within an hour of Tobermory, the round-trip plus 18 holes down the peninsula will make for a six-hour absence, which just isn’t going to happen as often.

No-one will hold a silent march for inconvenienced boomer golfers.  In fact, a candidate for Mayor in Toronto has just promised to shut three public municipally-owned courses and convert them to ‘public spaces’ for things like cultural facilities and cricket fields, she said.  (Someone might explain to her that golf courses open to the public are also, by definition, public spaces.)

There has always seemed to be some fairly significant barriers to golf around Toronto.  The courses are either far out of town or expensive, and they’re often busy and pretty regimented in their expectations of how quickly golfers are going to progress through the course.

So I had been pretty happy to find a relaxed course to join near where we spend our summers.   And now, frankly, pretty annoyed that it is closing.  Apparently we can’t fight demographics.

 

 

 

Quick change artists (on Romania’s new Prime Minister)

New Romanian prime minister

Welcome Viorica Dănică, Romania’s first female Prime Minister.  An accomplishment, for a country in need of some modernization.  But as her two predecessors each lasted only six months as Prime Minister, I wouldn’t recommend her getting a long-term mortgage.

I know just how much people are asking what this change can mean, so I will try to give my assessment.

The simplest explanation is that the revolving door in the Prime Minister’s office, with now three occupants since the December 2016 elections I witnessed, is the result of power struggles within the dominant Social Democratic Party (PSD).

The most powerful politician in the country, PSD President Liviu Dragnea, has been blocked from serving as Prime Minister due to a previous election-tampering conviction.  Hence he and his party executive have nominated Prime Ministers to implement the party program.    And, in oddly similar situations, after about six months, each of the first two Prime Ministers seemed to get inflated by the position, challenging the power of Mr Dragnea.  And in each case, they were forced to resign.

Ms Dănică, currently sitting as a member of the European Parliament, is a relative unknown.  She at least has a clean criminal record.  She is a native of the same poverty-stricken county, Teleorman, as Mr Dragnea.  Hence the media seems to view Ms Dănică as an ego-free loyalist, the least likely to challenge the power of the real boss.

Recently I had commented on some important goings on in the Romanian parliament.  The Government was proposing changes to the justice system that would bring the judiciary and the anti-corruption prosecutors under closer Ministerial supervision.  Especially as Mr Dragnea is newly under corruption investigation, the measures sound  similar to American efforts to muzzle the top prosecutor in the land.  A coalition of civic groups, businesses and foreign governments have warned the government to think twice.  How will these changes in the Prime Minister’s office affect these dangerous moves?

It’s not clear, actually.  The previous Prime Minister,  Mihai Tudose, had previously shown an inflexibility to consider further changes in the justice system legislation, and I have read that Mr Dragnea (and hence his new Prime Minister) might be willing to consider some revisions.

Whether those changes are fundamental or cosmetic remains to be seen.

 

 

 

 

Crăciun fericit! (or Merry Christmas)

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It seems like the right time of year to share some shots I took about exactly one year ago of Christmas preparations in the centre of Timişoara, Romania.

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The area in front of this theatre is known as Piața Victoriei, or ‘Victory Square’ — referring to the popular revolt in 1989 which started in Timişoara and eventually topped the Ceaucescu regime.  (The stage out front was set up for a concert celebrating their December 1 national holiday.)

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Throughout the square at Christmas time are many stalls for their Christmas market, a tradition that likely started in Germany and spread with the Austrians and Hungarians who helped build Timişoara.  One night I had dinner, a very hearty Hungarian-style goulash for about $2, from the counter on the left.

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Here’s a view to the south end of the square, with the wooden huts of the Christmas market vendors you can see on the right.  Overlooking the square is the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral, an intriguing building constructed relatively recently to look old.

People in Timisoara

Finally, you can see that the locals were taking advantage of the market stalls and the free concert on the square, despite the weather that was no warmer there than Canadians would expect in December.  Crăciun fericit!

 

The Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania

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One of our blog readers suggested I might post some of my photography from Romania, which I have been reluctant to do, as I don’t think of myself as much of a photographer.

But here are two shots that are appropriate for today.  Above is the Royal castle at Sinaia, Romania, where King Michael was born in 1921.  Below is the lovely view from the castle grounds.  The photos were taken in 2015 by our daughter Jenny, who is much better photographer than I am.

Those who think the architecture doesn’t look too Romanian will be quite right.  The Royal family was mostly Austrian, and we might expect to see architecture like this further west in the Alps.  But it’s very beautiful wherever, and well-preserved as a tourist attraction just south of Brasov.

 

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Romania back in the news?

I know just how much you miss hearing about Romania.  It was a year ago now this blog appeared when I went over for a two-week visit.  Soon after there was regular news coverage of mass protests against the government’s attempts to retroactively exonerate politicians convicted of corruption.

December 1 is Romania’s National Day.  For those who would like to get in the mood, here on Youtube is their national anthem, with English translation.  You don’t need to hear all six verses, but please stay long enough to picture the school kids singing, every day, about beating ‘barbaric tyrants’ on the battlefield.

 

And I am going to predict that within the next two months, Romania will again be back in the news.  Exactly how the situation will unfold is not clear, but the struggle between the government and civil society appears to be coming to a boil.

Politicians trying to shut down investigations of high-level corruption?  Heard this story before?

The current Romanian flashpoint is the government’s legislative amendments to the way the judiciary and prosecutors are supervised.  Currently, many of the key appointments are made not by the Justice Minister or Prime Minister, but by the President.  In the proposed legislation, the primary supervisory relationship would be shifted to the Justice Minister (like all Ministers appointed by the Prime Minister who has the confidence of Parliament).

(Romania has a constitution modeled after the French, with an elected President with a narrow range of official functions.  If the President and the Prime Minister had been from the same party, these issues would matter less.  But as the President is opposed to the majority Partidul Social Democrat (PSD),  the President’s current role provides an important measure of independence to the judiciary.)

And what is motivating the PSD to persist with this legislation despite strong opposition, despite protests in the street?  Despite warnings from the EU and even from the US Ambassador about weakening the independence of the judiciary?

In the past several weeks, new investigations have been opened on several senior members of parliament, including a Deputy Prime Minister.  And on the most powerful politician in Romania, the leader and chairman of the PSD, one Liviu Dragnea.  As part of this investigation, the anti-corruption directorate placed a freeze Mr Dragnea’s assets, worth more than $30-million (CAD), assets that were allegedly obtained by diverting funds from the European Union for road construction.

How does someone living on the modest salary of a Romanian politician accumulate $30-million, you ask? A good question that may be answered in the next few weeks.  I sense there is a race between the anti-corruption directorate to convict the PSD leader…and the government to pass its amendments and fire the chief prosecutor of that directorate.

It’s a story that has some parallels in the current investigations in Washington, versus the efforts of some to fire Comey and potentially even Mueller to rein in those investigations.

In Bucharest, I can’t be sure which side will strike first.  But either way, the impact will be significant, and should result in a few thousand people hitting the streets, the way the Romanian people “wake up” to hit the news again.

 

100 years later, on the Eastern Front

Romanian soldier at World War I battle of Marasesti

To me, Remembrance Day has always emphasized World War I. That was the struggle where the Canadian casualties were so heavy, and where our little colony earned the right to be taken seriously as a country. And moreso this year, as 100 years after some of the great battles, we have seen footage of the battlegrounds and the Canadian monuments in Europe.

But there was also an Eastern Front. Especially worthy of note in our household as my grandfather, Nicolae Homorodean (c1897-1957), fought in the Romanian army in these battles when he was about 20  years old.

My mother’s family never had a great sense of history, so there were few stories passed down. One story I recall, however, that my grandfather was wounded in a mustard gas attack, and that it permanently damaged his lungs. My mother once mentioned that he would go for a walk in the back yard, gasping for air, coughing and spitting, like a heavy smoker with severe lung problems. Except that he had never smoked.

So, 100 years later, it was time to do a bit of basic research to try to put this story in context.

(There is one picture of my grandfather together with me [as a baby-in-arms] and it is posted elsewhere.  The picture above is of an unidentified Romanian soldier, working with his rudimentary rifle, before the battle of Marasesti, in August of 1917.)

The comforting news perhaps for us Canadians is that Romania was fighting on the side of the Allies.  Both my grandparents came from Transylvania, the province that was still at that time under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire, even though the majority population was Romanian-speaking.   Romania came into the war in 1916, to open an Eastern Front, with a pretty explicit understanding from the Allied countries that at the end of the war, Romania would be rewarded with control of Transylvania.  It’s a bargain that was kept, still celebrated every December 1 in Romania as its national Unification day.

While the army was run by the Romanian government based in Bucharest, there was no shortage of ethnic-Romanian volunteers from the Transylvanian province that was administered out of Vienna/Budapest.    Volunteers like my grandfather, whose hometown was Orastie.

There isn’t much material readily accessible on-line about the Eastern Front.  For that reason, I bought a text, delivered only yesterday, entitled “Prelude to Blitzkrieg:  The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania”, by American academic Michael B. Barrett.  It’s a type of military history that I generally don’t warm to, which pulls apart the x’s and o’s of battlefield tactics.  But it goes into detail about several battles in Transylvania, one of them close to my grandmother’s home town of Medias.  One could picture a 20-year old soldier meeting the 16-year old daughter of a prosperous land agent?

As the title of the book suggests, the Eastern Front was quite different than the stalemated Western Front.  After the initial Romanian attack, the German army moved in with quick moves, using cavalry and horse-drawn artillery.

And it’s clear that poison gas was also used in the Eastern Front.  There is some evidence it was used at the battle of Marasesti, for instance.  Apparently the types of gas used varied during the war, and there was quite a bit of uncertainty as to how best to defend against gas (with some types of gas-masks found out to be useless).  The Romanian army was poorly equipped in general.

If it had happened more recently, we would have concluded that my grandfather was slowly killed – over almost forty years — by that mustard gas attack.

Marasesti was a victory for the Romanians and their (Tsarist) Russian allies, marking the eastern limit of the German advance.  But generally the Romanians were soundly outgunned by the German armies, and once the Russians pulled out of the war subsequent to the Bolshevik takeover, were completely surrounded as the only country in the region opposed to the “Central Powers”.

While I plan to keep on digging, I do understand a bit more today.  I understand how my mother’s family was quite proud on November 11 to stand side-by-side their Upper Canadian neighbours in Strathroy Ontario.  Lest we forget their sacrifice.

 

Language Training in the Cloud

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I’m going to suggest that the language training business might give a clue as to how businesses might change in the future.

The insight comes from my project of learning the Romanian language, and you can see the Duolingo.com screen has me at a 145 day streak, at level 24.  I will be reaching their highest level of 25 shortly, and I will admit I don’t know exactly what will happen then.

Learning languages is still a booming business out there.  There is a group of travellers, businessfolks, language hobbyists [more in Europe than in North America], who for fun or profit are working away at a host of different languages.  And a range of different language training companies, courses, programs — and now, apps — helping to meet the need.

But the business is changing.

Not long ago, people were spending serious dollars loading up on tapes and compact discs.  Companies like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur were charging several hundred dollars, and the results were mixed at best.  Each program had its own method and strengths.  I had dabbled with Pimsleur some years ago, and I believe that it could have been the best approach at teaching the skills at hearing the different sounds, as long as you had the patience to stick with the program.

Along come the online programs.  Memrise, Duolingo, babbel and many others.  Most of them are free, funded by advertising, or with a optional premium subscription for more features.

What I find most interesting is that most of these sites work on a model that minimizes the amount of paid staff needed to make the site run and improve itself.  Some of the sites are almost completely crowd -sourced.  Memrise, for instance, depends on volunteers to put up the vocabulary and the recorded sounds.  Sure, there was obviously a developer who built the site, and some pros who figured out the algorithms that suggested how many times you need to get an answer right to ‘learn’ it, and how many days later you need to be reminded in order to keep it in your memory.  But once that model was built, the replication into more languages and more words in each language is all done by volunteers.  Sometimes it is clear that you get what you pay for, and especially in the lower traffic parts of the site there are some pretty obvious errors and the route to fix them is not always clear.

The best of these sites are the ones that channel the enthusiasm of their user base — those of us learning the languages — to improve the quality of the program.

Take Duolingo, for example.  Their Learn Romanian (for English speakers) program is still in beta.   As you move through the various levels, you are translating sentences from Romanian into English, and many times it will reject a response I suspect must be correct.  For example, the program is looking for  “He is the most proud boy”…. where I am told that my answer (“He is the proudest boy”) is incorrect.  Duolingo gives me the opportunity to click a box that “My answer should be accepted.”  And a few days later, a QR guy working (or volunteering?) for Duolingo comes along and gives me a little email directly, saying that they have accepted my answer, meaning that all future users of the program will have the benefit of this change, and thanking me for contributing to a better program.

What the Cloud has permitted here is that my (volunteer) contribution is now part of Duolingo’s learning.  And for the psychic satisfaction of receiving emails from their QR guy, I am obediently clicking that box and improving their Romanian course every time I hit a roadblock that I don’t view as justified.  And about 60 times, the Duolingo people have thanked me for improving the program.

My observation is these companies are finding a way to replace the folks that one day would have been employed by a Rosetta Stone, by a much smaller group of computer developers — plus the expertise of crowdsourced volunteers/users.

Ah, but some of you may have noticed that I haven’t touched much upon one rather important variable:  do these cloud-sourced programs actually work at teaching languages?  And the truthful answer is that I really don’t know.  In my case, while I am clearly a lot better after a few months of intense work, I really don’t know if I am ‘good enough’.  There are some language pros who say that Duolingo is pretty useful (although a bit weak in the conversational side).

But every student is a special case…based on how they learn and what they already knew.  Personally, I am not bad at taking a language to some type of an intermediate level…but have difficulty getting over the hump to fluency.  That will likely take an immersion experience — something more persistent than me sitting in front of my computer screen.  And, possibly, a better answer to the question:  “Exactly why am I doing this, again?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Economist, and its coverage of Romania

 

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I’ve been a subscriber to The Economist “newspaper” for much of the last few decades.  It has thorough international coverage, and I appreciate its editorial perspective, which favours free enterprise and an open democracy.  It’s written with a dry wit throughout.

Its sense of humour might be the reason why The Economist is one of the few publications to give regular coverage of the political goings-on in Romania.  How better to have a funnies section alongside those interminable stories about coalition-building in the EU?

And sure, we all get it.  Dracula, werewolves, and until 1989 communist cult-worship almost as crazy as the North Koreans.  But, in Romania, all delightfully harmless.

But is it possible that the rigid style guide of The Economist might cause it to miss some real news?  Take the article, pictured from their recent June 24, 2017 number — covering the defeat and removal of the Social-Democrat PM by members of his own party.  Starts The Economist:   “In ordinary politics, it is opposition parties who attempt to bring governments down.  But politics in Romania is rarely ordinary.”

Really?  This commentary coming from the United Kingdom, where Mrs Thatcher was ambushed by her own caucus, or where the current Prime Minister is more concerned by a rebellion of her own troops than being toppled by the rabble opposite?

More than a curiosity, last month’s tremors in Bucharest could be signs of growing weakness in the governing Social-Democrats, a party that maintains considerable continuity with the pre-1989 Communist regime.  The ouster of Prime Minister of Prime Minister Grindeanu, less than six months after his appointment by party president Liviu Dragnea, comes at a high cost.  This week, a popular former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, also complaining about the authoritarian style of the party president, announced that he will leave the Social-Democrats to form a new political party.

(And in the reasonably pure Proportional Representation system under which Romania operates, Mr Ponta is known well-enough to quite likely poll more than the 5 per cent minimum threshold that would give his new party seats in the next Parliament.  You could read my analysis of Proportional Representation in earlier posts.)

So, it’s not for the comedy section, but it’s been a bad few weeks for Romania’s governing Social-Democrats.  And if the opposition parties can manage to capitalize, Romania might just manage to complete the anti-Communist revolution that it started, but never quite finished, in 1989.