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’.

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.