Monday, 12 July 2010

Chris Mills in Romania

Night on the tiles

Chris Mills has done a number two. After lighting up EFW with his Insane in the Ukraine posting last week, Mills has moved on to Romania. In this second onslaught he drinks cheap beer, describes Carles Puyol as an 80s poodle-metal superstar and teaches us a trick or two on the correct usage of hard brackets. What's not to like?:

On completion of my news-agenda-shattering 3,300-word revelation that dealing with officialdom in a former Soviet territory is difficult, I vowed two things:

(i) That any follow-up will be MUCH SHORTER; and
(ii) I shall include in it another mind-bogglingly beautiful cliché

So tonight my cliché of choice is the “Legendary Eastern European 34p pint”. I was under the impression that this particular endangered species was now harder to locate than a genuine emotion in the Big Brother house. But here I am in Romania watching the Germany-Spain semi-final of the Vuvuzela 2010 World Cup and drinking one and two-thirds of the “Legendary Eastern European 34p pint” (LEE34pP).

You may remember that when Eastern Europe opened up in the early 1990s, stories began to filter out concerning the LEE34pP. It was, for instance, a long, long time before I made it to Prague, a fact I had to admit, it seems, to every person I ever met. Everyone – from yummy mummies to raving drunken bums on the street – seemed to have been there, “laaaaved it” and drunk a pint which cost them the equivalent of 34p. It was always 34p. Like this was some kind of currency exchange rate: pint in a former Communist nation = 34p.

(By the time I finally pitched up in the Czech capital, the LEE34pP, in that city at least, was but a distant memory. I had to go a couple of hundred kilometres north, to the town of Liberec, and stagger into a bar at the fork of a road that the unsuspecting locals believed was free of those who spoke English as a first language. There I clapped my eyes on, for the first time (and indeed imbibed), the LEE34pP.)

Since then, of course, Wetherspoons has been doing sterling work narrowing the gap between the price of the Brit binge-drinkers’ bevvie (or to use the scientific term: bevington) and the LEE34pP. But we’re still not even close in the old UK and this fact remains to give the former Brezhnev-bothered nations a definite air of mystique and possibility.

Come the night of that most delightful of semi-finals, I was in the room of my then significant other, Oana – on the second storey of a Ceauşescu-built apartment block, in Iaşi [pronounced: “Ee-ash”], north-eastern Romania; near the Moldova border, actually. It is as hot as the Florida Keys in here and later a truck with a flashing yellow light will arrive in the parking lot below and suffuse the whole place with anti-mosquito smoke and an eerie sci-fi sound.

I have now pointed out the following so many times, I am thinking of just printing off a press release and handing it out to people: Romanian housing areas from the Communist days are not like the TV footage one sees of dilapidated, satanic Moscow or industrialized, fume-choked Poland of the 1970s and 80s. The buildings are often only five-floors high and they are usually set in tree-lined streets with little shops, cafés, bars and street-vendors all over the place. Yes, there are cats having kittens with alarming regularity and stray dogs everywhere – but these always seem pretty content and the Romanians tend to leave them Kibbles and Bonios on the sidewalks as well as bowls of water. In winter, some people here even build kennels for these strays. And, meanwhile, the Romanian people promenade and their children play outdoors, while gypsies trot by in horse-drawn carts – just like people say it was in England in the 1950s.

Most groups of buildings share a small “goal-posts” set-up over which people sling their rugs and beat them. This sounds like a series of small shotgun rounds, but there’s something deeply tangible, cleanly and industrious about it. Mind you, there’s an ordinance that states you shouldn’t do it after 20 (as in 8pm)…

But right now, we’re sitting there watching what seems to a Parisian version of Sex and the City. It’s kind of a cute show but I’m keeping an eye on the clock – I know TVR, the Romanian state broadcaster will play the match, kicking-off here at 2130 (9.30pm). And sure enough, the Gallic Carrie Bradshaw concludes her charmingly romantic misunderstandings among the exquisite interiors of the 4th Arrondissement just in time for me to press a button several times and fill the screen with a bunch of men in shorts dancing around in a tunnel.

And I’m shaping to do this while the commercials jabber, when Oana (for it is she) informs me that by some disastrous quirk of Romanian cable TV scheduling, there is to be another adventure for Mademoiselle Carrie immediately following. Just my luck for the second-most important global football match in four years to coincide with an obscure French comedy-drama series. Who knew?

I take this well. I now have the chance to observe the transpirations of this football face-off in the company of men – probably men stinking of stale beer, cigarette smoke and B.O. It is an uplifting feeling.

Oana takes it well that I am leaving behind the dubious pleasures of a sweltering, bug-screened room and une chick-flickette française. At 9.20pm I begin to collect together the things I shall need: myself, big shoes (for feet), currency (to exchange for beer), small torch (for any number of reasons), sunglasses (to keep messy hair out of my eyes in the manner of Diego Forlán). These last are handily already on the top of my head.

As I make to leave, Oana says: “You can come back home at the break.”

“What? For 15 minutes?” I respond.

“Not. You can watch the finish here. If there is still the movie I will give [it] up.”

Nice to know.

Outside crickets are rubbing things together and it’s much cooler (this is a blessed release – here, even the banks don’t seem to all have air-conditioning, let alone private residences). I set off for a place I’ve seen heaving during the day, between here and the main road. It has huge, yellow Bergenbier parasols. I enter the indoors bit of the place. There’s no sign even of a television, let alone the soccer-ball. Anyhow, it doesn’t feel quite right here.

(The next day I see this joint and the parasols are all tied up; the place closed and scaffolding up at the front. They’ve inexplicably decided to paint the place at the height of the busy summer period. They’re still getting their heads around “capitalismul” in these parts.)

There’s another place close by I know of. I’ve passed it many times going to and from the apartment. It’s an old boys’ bar in a kind of large, windowless portacabin building, unusual in that, due to its position in a relatively clear plot, it has entrances both at the front and back that appear to be used pretty-much equally.

It’s not just the lack of natural light and its relative smallness that makes this place more akin the restroom of a larger bar. The mensroom theme is continued by the fact that everywhere – floor, walls, maybe even the ceiling, I’m not sure – is tiled. Apart from that there is only a few metallic chairs and tables, the small bar near one door and, most vital of all, the TV clamped high in one of the corners, like a Spanish player at 1-o up and three minutes to play…

Some bump’n’grind music station is playing on the screen as I walk in; this sits strangely with the nobly haggard, predominantly over-60s, all-male crowd in there. One guy has taken chain-smoking to a new level. I can only call it fibre-optic smoking: a seamless succession of Pall Malls pervading this box with friendly noxiousness. Nobody is watching the gyrating rapper-gurlz so I stand expectantly at the bar and am surprised to be met by a small, young woman rather than the old boy or care-worn babushka I was expecting.

Footbol?” I state, patronizingly indicating the TV. “World Cop?”

She looks around for guidance and the least pre-possessing chap in the place jumps into action and approaches me genially as the girl wields the remote control. It’s only right at the end of the night that I can be sure he is the owner of the place – as it is, a decent succession of old and young walk in through both doors and shake his hand like he’s the local cappo.

Espana-Germania, da! Da!” we both say.

He says something else. “Talk to him in English!” the girl laughs.

He invites me to sit with him but an old fella clutching what look like a small glass of water and a small glass of orange squash arrives, shakes his hand and sits in the chair at his table. The cappo shrugs and I take one of the chairs, careful to make sure it’s not one a regular has been using since Ceauşescu. I place it in view of the television. Turns out my first choice is too near the other door for relaxation and, as one of the two remaining spaces is right in front of the toilettes, I perch at the end of the bar – instantly becoming a mild curiosity for those stepping in and out of the joint.

I place my bag between my feet and wrap its strap around one of my chair’s legs. The guys here all seem like good, working men (or indeed good, jobless men) but round here people tend to run in and grab stuff that’s not tied down.

Before I sit, of course, beer is procured. That’s when I see it: something attached to the sole beer tap (a wobbly, wood-and-brass Germanic thing). There’s no brand-name, just a piece of paper sticky-taped to it reading: “1.70 500ml” written in pen. “Good price,” I say to the girl as she pulls the handle and it feebly trickles amber liquid into a mug she’s holding under the tap.

Five minutes later and I’ve “done the math”. With the Romanian lire at almost exactly 5 to the pound, I have in my hand the Legendary East European 34p Pint.

There is little else to report except that I share some knowing looks with the cappo’s old pal regarding a super-yappy stray just outside the open door (eventually he goes out to remonstrate with this pooch); I make some rather confused football small-talk with cappo himself (he, the old pal and I seem to be the only ones watching; I tangentially interact with the local Falstaff – a big, bluff fellow in a tight, red T-shirt and with a tremendous beer belly. He slaps the back of his hand against the tiled wall as he makes a point to some young guy and looks to me for support. I nod.

Just this, except for the fact the sign on the door indicates: “Ora: 08-22”. And sure enough another appalling Romanian business decision is enacted when I see someone flip it over to “Inchis” (“Closed”) at about 10pm. Some time later it’s half-time and 2224. The cappo is up now and fiddling with keys. He looks at me apologetically. I take a gulp of that night's second investment in the LEE34pP (it’s OK, the beer, but not great) and leave with many a: “Mul
țumesc!” (“Thanks!”)

And thank God, Mademoiselle Carrie has retired to her bijou apartement or collapsed on the Champs-Élysées somewhere and I get to see 80s poodle-metal superstar Carles Puyol score one the few goals that genuinely made my jump out my seat in this World Cup.

EFW has also been to Romania - check us out.

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