Sunday Lunch with a Rumanian

This post actually begins with the last. The daughter of my friend Jonka studied Japanese at the Jagiellonian University (she now lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband) but did post graduate study in Heidelberg. It was there that she met the lady who was to become the first and, so far last, person from Rumania to have lunch at our house.

Monika, who was working as a doctor at a local hospital, was probably not a typical Rumanian.   She came from near Oradea in western Rumania , not far from the Hungarian border, a town known to many of its inhabitants as Nagyvarad (Hungarian) or Grosswardein (German). Monika was in fact a Banat German, a member of the lesser known of the two German speaking communities in Rumania, descendants of Germans who were settled in the area in the period following the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 when the Banat, by now largely devastated and depopulated after years of warfare, was ceded to Austria by the Ottoman Empire. Bohemians too settled in the Banat and Czech was also spoken here for several generations. Add in the Magyars and the area was pretty multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. Indeed the same could be said of Rumania as whole and Peter Trudgill in his very readable book Sociolinguistics refers to a study from 1956 which found speakers of over 20 languages in Rumania.

The other Rumanian I got to know was our German language assistant in my Sixth Form year at school. His name was Kurt and he was a Transylvanian German from Sibiu or as he called it Hermannstadt (the town too has a Hungarian name, Nagyszeben) . He had been allowed to leave for West Germany after completing his military service in exchange for the appropriate sum in Deutschmarks from the Federal Government. Under the maniacal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu selling the country’s ethnic Germans to West Germany was as they say a nice little earner, something which Kurt described as ‘Menschenhandel’. To encourage them to leave Ceausescu made life hard for them, for example by flattening their ancient villages and relocating them to Communist mini-towns,  a policy known as systemisation.  Those Germans that remained after the unlamented demise of the Conducador left soon afterwards. As a result a German community that flourished for over 600 years has largely disappeared. There are, however, still two million Magyars and significant tensions remain.

Of course everyone suffered under Ceausescu and his infamous Securitate secret police. He subjected the people to a regime of austerity that would make even George Osborne blanche and succeeded in paying off the country’s foreign debt, which, paradoxically, may have made the transition to free market capitalism easier than it was, say, for debt ridden Poland. But his megalomania scarred the country. I remember Kurt, after a visit to his parents, bringing us a copy of the Rumanian party daily, which was nothing more than six pages of pictures of the leader and of his thoughts, such as they were. Bucharest, the capital, was once an elegant city known as the Paris of the East. It was devastated by an earthquake in 1977 but the destruction continued throughout the 1980s as numerous fine buildings were flattened to male space for Ceausescu’s ludicrous presidential palace.

Even by the standards of the Eastern Bloc Rumania was a run by a lunatic and his legacy was dire.  The country’s achievement since has been correspondingly impressive. This might say something about Rumanians. It might also suggest that great numbers will not want to come here. But if they do, I will say ‘welcome’ or possibly ‘willkommen’.


Why I’m Not Getting the Buzz

I didn’t really want to blog about sex work again but as the advocates of the so-called Swedish Model continue to propagate their inaccuracies and half truths and while the bien-pensant liberal press continues to publish their articles while refusing to publish letters pointing out the flaws in the reasoning I feel I have to say something particularly as some of these people seem unwilling to publish my comments on their blog posts.

Mary Honeyball is Labour MEP for London and a vocal advocate for the Swedish Model. She wrote a piece in favour of it on her blog here.  You will notice a number of comments below, two of which are mine. There is a further comment that Honeyball has so far been unwilling to publish.

By any normal standards of intellectual rigour this is a poor piece, full of inaccuracies and claims that are simply not supported by the sources she cites. I will mention a couple here. The claim that the Swedish Model has halved street prostitution and made men less likely to pay for sex is not supported even by the Swedish Government’s own figures. This is discussed brilliantly here by the Irish feminist Wendy Lyon. I referred to this in my censored comment.

Then there is the claim that 89% of “prostituted women” would leave their job if they could. As Honeyball was told after a similar piece appeared in The Independent on 25th November this is based on flawed reserach by the now discredited Melissa Farley, But, even if it is true it is, surely, a trivial truth. I would not be surprised to hear that 89% of workers in many, if not most, jobs would leave if they could.

The most alarming claim is the one that 49% of British men have been abroad to buy sex. Intuitively this seems improbable, after all that would amount to some 15 million people! Honeyball helpfully provides a link to the research, from which we glean that 49% of 103 London based men who regularly used the services of sex workers had bought sex abroad. This is, as most school students could tell you, not a sample that is representative of the whole population and is, in any case, too small to ;permit meaningful extrapolation. Does Honeyball not realise this or does she not care? Should we question her intellectual grasp or her integrity? I don’t know but am beginning to suspect the former, particularly after her appearance on Woman’s Hour in November when she discussed the issues with the academic expert on sex work Belinda Brooks-Gordon. When Brooks-Gordon suggested that criminalisation of clients would make sex workers less safe by making them unwilling to report attacks to the police, she artlessly replied that she thought that ladies would be only too happy to tell the police all that had been done to them when the police came to “rescue” them.

This is deeply worrying as Honeyball has influence in the European parliament. and there may be a concerted move to bring in the Swedish Model across Europe. As Honeyball has clearly demonstrated, this would be a triumph over ideology over facts, one pregnant with consequences for many vulnerable women. .


Thoughts on Bulgarians

In Poland, as in most European countries, there are different ways to address people depending on how well you know them. The formal way is “Pan” for a man and “Pani” for a lady, which is actually an indirect form of address, while people you are more intimate with are addressed as ‘ty’. Getting this right is a fundamental part of etiquette and great importance is attached to the transition from the formal to informal address when you have got to know someone well enough to regard them as a friend. In Poland you seal this by drinking vodka together in a ceremony known as bruderszaft. In nearly a quarter of a century of visiting the country I have actually only done this once and that was not with a Pole.

Pani Jonka is a Bulgarian and long standing friend of my wife’s family who has lived in Krakow for nearly half a century. Until retirement a few years ago she taught German at the Jagiellonian University. It was one summer’s evening in her flat some fifteen years ago that she suggested to my wife and me that  we should move to ‘ty’ and we sealed this in the time honoured way. So Pani Jonka  became Jonka, as a result of which I can say that I can count a Bulgarian among my friends. This, I suspect, is more than most people at the Daily Mail can say, or indeed the assorted xenophobic Conservative Constituency Association chairmen. who wrote to the Prime Minister last week. Reading the recent scare stories I had some difficultly reconciling the depictions of hordes of scroungers and benefit tourists alleged to be heading our way with the cultured and thoughtful Bulgarian lady I know.  Jonka has worked all her life and includes among her former students people who have become prominent in public life. There can be no doubt that she has contributed much more to Poland than she has taken out.

I can say the same about the Bulgarians I know in Birmingham, a young married couple who run a cleaning and ironing business whose services we sometimes use. They are honest, enterprising and hard-working. As they have a young child they must be considered as one of the “hardworking families” that the Conservatives claim to be wanting to help.

The Bulgarians (and Rumanians, about whom I will write in a future post)  who do come, will benefit our country and I can only welcome them.

Why Mr. Gove Should Have Listened To Mr. Heath

I sat History O Level a long time ago, in 1978 to be precise. The syllabus was European and World History from 1870 to 1945 with ‘World’ pretty much tacked on as an afterthought. Our teacher was a Mr. Heath who drummed one thing into us from the outset of the course.

‘In an exam boys’ he said, ‘never ever attempt a question about the causes of the First World War.’

This was sound advice. The causes of the conflict are simply too complex for any 16 year old to discuss adequately in a 45 minute essay. They defy simplification and generalisation and  are best left alone by those without detailed knowledge.

The problem with journalists and politicians is that they often think they know more than they do and when you are both a former journalist and an Education Secretary the temptation to sound off must be irresistible. So Michael Gove has given us his thoughts on the First World War and given a presumably long retired Mr. Heath the satisfaction of knowing how right he was all those years ago. The insights of Mr. Gove do not, apparently, extend to understanding that Blackadder Goes Fourth was a comedy. Presumably he also thinks that Dad’s Army has been influential in shaping public perceptions of the Second World War.

Gove’s thesis is simple. It was the fault of the Germans who were hell bent on world domination and had to be stopped in the name of freedom. He seems to forget which country had actually been successful in subjugating large parts of the world. The German colonial empire did not, in fact, amount to much, essentially a few bits of Africa that nobody else wanted  and a couple of coastal towns in China, the main legacy of which is Tsing Tao beer, which is still brewed to a German recipe in a brewery founded by German settlers in the late nineteenth century. But I digress.

The point is that Britain was every bit as ruthless as the Germans in promoting its interests and freedom did not extend to more than a handful of the inhabitants of the Empire. Other countries too had their agendas and the slaughter began in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, the capital of a Bosnia-Hercegovina which had been an Austro-Hungarian protectorate since its detachment from the Ottoman Empire 1878  but which had been illegally annexed in 1908 inflaming Serbian feelings. It takes two to tango or, in this case, seven, and none of the participants had pure motives.  None of them, either, intended the actual consequences of the war. Gove’s comments are as ludicrous as the post-war demands for punitive reparations and have as little foundation in fact..

I know that listening to what Mr. Heath had to say is not something that comes easy to modern Conservatives but occasionally it is well worth doing.