Frank O’Hara in Romania – October 5 to Nov 3, 2000

Frank O'Hara, Sorin Chiriac, Gheorghe Sandor

I learned a few words of Romanian from my landlady and she some English. It's surprising how much can be communicated in seven or eight words. Actually, our conversation involved a great deal of waving of hands, smiles, strange looks and grimaces.

  I had some difficulties doing as much as Sorin Chiriac, my patron, would have liked. As a typical entrepreneur, he wants the sun, moon and stars on a plate and here was I, a meat and potatoes kind of guy! Just one of the features of the web site is an auction, like e-bay - as complicated and detailed as almost any site can be. In addition, there are several other features, including a jobs module that allows people to post their resumes and employers to post their requirements. In the time available, I gave him something that will work, even if it doesn't have every bell and whistle.

Sorin has rather grandiose plans for what is known as an Internet portal. He is only 37 years of age and not yet jaded. So I tried to temper his enthusiasm without disturbing his optimism. Who knows, I wouldn't be the first "old fart" who didn't appreciate where the world is moving and how fast.

It was a bit frustrating working with Sorin because his mind is going at top speed all the time (very creative) but not in an easily discernible path. Fortunately, he didn't get annoyed or not discernibly so, when I stopped him in mid flight to bring him to a crashing halt. Neither did it prevent him from immediately launching again. It could be stimulating for me but, quite possibly, enervating to be an employee .

I worked with a young fellow, Gheorghe Sandor, who is very intelligent and quite talented. He created a very attractive "look" for the site. However, it showed well in Internet Explorer but not in Netscape. So we’ll have two versions, with a "browser sniffer" to make the decision: fun and games.

At my host, Sorin Chiriac’s, home

It's early Sunday afternoon and I'm having a gin and tonic, sitting in the living room of a quite comfortable house, while Sorin's wife, Christina, is accessing the Internet in the corner and I'm at the coffee table with my notebook computer and Sorin is bleeding the radiators in preparation for winter. Later I review with Sorin a flow chart that I completed at my apartment, of the system we are planning.

It's a glorious sunny day. The temperature about 1 PM, matches yesterday's 16+ Celsius. Later in the afternoon we have a barbecue in the back yard. The meat is sausages and michi (spelled mici in Romanian), something like spiced hamburger in little rolls. Quite tasty. Mici means "small" in Romanian. Sort of like the progress we have made in integrating Quebec into confederation.

My sensitive stomach was acting up a bit in the morning so I took an Immodium pill before I got into the full-fledged trots. It helped. Of course, the gin Sorin served me possibly helped more. There are some pleasant ways to kill bugs.

I visit a neighbour's house to see how he prepares his grapes for wine. He too has about a 1/2 acre lot. He is semi-retired so he has a semi-farm. It is quite primitive with an outdoor privy and a tap in the backyard. He just stays here in the summer and in the winter commutes from his city apartment once a week to feed his chickens.

At the neighbour's house we sit outdoors and I drink more Slivovitz than is good for me (but kill lots of bugs) and listen to the hens proudly announce their egg-laying prowess. The neighbour is very gregarious and speaks some English but not nearly as well as Sorin and Christina or, for that matter, their seven year old son, Alex (who has learned primarily from American television animated cartoons).

A trip to Bucharest

We headed out at 7 A.M. and arrived in Bucharest at 8 P.M. A long day's drive on twisty roads. It's a good thing Sorin is a bundle of energy. Thursday morning I met the local CESO rep at breakfast and then we went to a business show - oriented primarily toward builders. It was very large, with representatives from most Western European countries. I didn’t have much to contribute.

I took advantage of the situation to visit Ceausescu's so-called palace. It is the second largest building, after the Pentagon, in the world. I had a conducted tour of some of the main parts of it. It is reasonably attractive on the inside. It's eclectic in design, to say the least. They had some 17 architects design different parts of the inside of the building in a sort of baroque style. The outside looks like a Soviet government building with some extra cornices thrown in. I had thought this was built as a personal palace. Actually it was designed for Ceausescu's office and the principal government facilities and to serve as an "emperor quality" reception place to receive and impress foreign dignitaries. The current government has its legislature in the building and parts are rented out for international functions. It could serve the process quite well when Bucharest increases the number of first class hotels and decreases the likelihood of getting sick from its water.

CastleThursday evening on the way back to Timisoara by the Northern route, we stayed overnight at a place called Sinaia. They have a fairy-tale castle there that was built as a summer palace by the King of Romania late in the 19th century. It has a sort of Bavarian look, which is logical because the king was actually from Germany.

We stayed overnight in a delightful inn right close to the castle. The inn is actually a number of buildings surrounding a courtyard. We had a late dinner and bundled off to bed about 11 PM.

The inside of the castle is amazing. All the decor, furniture, etc. are in the original mint condition. (Everyone has to wear oversize slippers over shoes.) There are literally thousands of examples of weapons from the middle ages and earlier. Every room is a masterpiece of artistry. Perhaps the reason they don't allow pictures is so they can sell their postcards, etc. Sorin bought me a packet of attractive postcards and a booklet.

The road to Timisoara by the Northern route is a lot better than the one we arrived on from the south but neither is a superhighway. Sorin could qualify as a formula 1 driver and he proved it. My normally low blood pressure had many jolts. The countryside, when I could take my mesmerized eyes off the road, is varied, quite mountainous. Less than half the country is arable.

A short vacation in the mountains

Leaving Wednesday morning, 6 AM, Sorin and I went back part of the way to Bucharest, by the Northern route. He dropped me off for a couple of days to have a "holiday" while he went on to do some business. On the way we visited a place called Herculeum, or a name something like that. It has been used since ancient Roman times as a spa. I enjoyed getting in touch with one of my past lives as a Roman emperor - or was it a lackey?

On the way we had a minor accident when one of the kamikaze drivers passed us (and that took some doing) or more correctly, almost passed us. He clipped the front bumper of Sorin's car as he cut in front of us. Unlike the normal situation, he did not have to cut in to avoid on-coming traffic. He was just careless or sightless or stupid. We pulled over to the side of the road, as did the other driver. He was driving a quite new car and tore off a good deal of his back bumper.

I had the opportunity to see first-hand how the police operate. They happened to be parked right across the street (having a coffee, as is the police custom everywhere). We adjourned to the restaurant for almost an hour as the police filled in various forms. Apparently, if there is a sign of an accident on a car, even a small accident like this, the police will stop you and ask you to prove that you have not killed someone. The proof is a police form. So Sorin got a police form. The other fellow was not so lucky; his driver's permit was confiscated and he was given a piece of paper that authorized him to drive for two weeks while he gets his affairs in order. The normal procedure is that the license is confiscated for three months.

However, that's not where it ends. The next step is that the fellow offers a bribe to the policeman in the amount of about $8 US or, if there are too many people around, he goes to the police station and offers the bribe there. NOBODY actually loses his license unless he has had a very serious accident or doesn't know the system.

I spent a couple of pleasant days at a very attractive resort area. I had a couple of pleasant walks and enjoyed the change. From my room's balcony I had a gorgeous view of what is a ski area in the winter.

On Friday at noon Sorin picked me up and we headed back to Timisoara. Everything went quite well, or as well as a nine hour car trip can go. However, within an hour of Timisoara and on a very dark road suddenly, with no time to react, we found two short logs in our path. We road over the first one with only a few noises but the second one caused sickening sounds. The upshot was a loss of oil and a seized-up motor.

Thank the powers that be for cell phones. Sorin called his office. It was about 7 PM but his plant manager was at the office (checking out porno sites on the Internet). He came to pick us up, which took over an hour and then it took over two hours to tow us back. (He had a special sort of bar that is used to tow cars without their crashing together as would be the case with a chain.) It was a cold night. I was sure glad I had my leather jacket but I was chilled to the bone by the time we got to Timisoara.

My last week-end

Maybe it was due to the chill I received with the car accident but I had a rather difficult week-end. I left work about 1:30 PM on Friday. Marianna prepared me a meal. As usual it was more than I could eat and this time I was hardly hungry at all. I went to bed and slept for most of the afternoon. However, by the end of the afternoon I was in worse shape with a head cold having settled in my chest. I went to bed again after dinner and coughed incessantly. Finally, around midnight, Marianna called me to the kitchen (I guess I was keeping her awake) and gave me a couple of small pills. I had no idea what they were but if they had been heroin or deadly poison I probably would have tried them. In any event, after less than an hour I stopped coughing so much and was able to sleep for two hour stretches for the rest of the night. The muscles of my stomach and back were so sore from all the coughing that I hated to have a normal cough for the next couple of days. (I bought some of those 'magic' pills for future eventualities.)

The next day, Saturday, George, came to my apartment in the morning about a work matter and then he, Marianna, my landlady, and I went to pick up my new glasses (since she knew where the store was). I didn't mention that on my visit to Brasov I misplaced my glasses. Fortunately, my sunglasses have the same prescription so I was able to order a new pair. We then spent an hour or so doing, or trying to do, some shopping. I had heard that you could buy a good pair of shoes for 12 USD. It's true but using the word "good" is exceeding even the vocabulary of the advertising industry. Actually, I could have bought a serviceable but unattractive pair of shoes for 25 USD. I then went looking for gifts. No luck.

We followed up with a visit to a café where we had a coffee (tea for me; I find their coffee too strong) and a nice cake. By this time I was failing with my cold; so Marianna and I caught a taxi home and George went to the office to do some work. Taxis are very cheap by our standards - about 2 USD for a trip of 15 - 20 minutes. Speaking of costs, when I paid for my glasses, George said they cost as much as his mother makes in a month (70 USD - 1,690,000 in inflation-ravaged lei - everyone's a millionaire here) and she holds a responsible job with a firm where she has worked for 20 years.

My cold abated a bit by Sunday; so Marianna took me to a wine festival. I took a few pictures, drank a little of the local wine (respectable and dirt cheap), ate some delicious mici, and checked out an open-air market.

Many of the merchants were gypsies. They have a lot of gypsies here and they are certainly not high on the social scale. They are a frequent sight on the highways, with piles of junk in horse-drawn wagons. As usual, they are accused of being thieves. My exposure to them would say that they are certainly scavengers, as well as professional beggars and peddlers of odds and ends (at spots on the highway where construction has forced slow-downs there are rows of them, typically selling drinking glasses of every shape and whim). Interestingly, they sometimes build characteristic houses. The ones I saw on the highway are quite large, three stories, possibly built for an extended family, and attractive by local standards, well kept (at least from the outside) and look as if they had all been build from the same plans. Little pinnacles on the rooftops readily identify them. I find it fascinating that, for a people who are scorned by the rest of society, they announce their presence so obviously.

On the way back from the wine festival we visited the local Orthodox cathedral – very beautiful, and then we visited a modern cathedral of much more limited means - an Internet café. Lots of young people learning English whether that's their objective or not.

On my last day I met George's parents. His mother knows some English and his father some French. So the conversation evolved into George translating from me into Romanian and from his parents into English. The love and caring in this family is almost palpable. If this is typical of Romanians then they have much to teach us. George hand-made a little Romanian flag that I now have displayed on my office windowsill. I treasure it and their memory.



A last word

The Romanian people are kind and generous and are certainly working hard to pull themselves up despite an economy and a government that make it very difficult. I believe my efforts will help the people with whom I worked and, in a small way I hope, the economy as a whole. For me, it was a rewarding and interesting experience.