CREATOR/DESTROYER: A Journey Through The Roots Of Tragedy

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The TV drama The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which first aired in 2017, is one of the most notable TV series I have watched in the last five years. Although spanning over nine episodes, there is only one episode in this series, which truly stands out. Episode 8 entitled Creator/Destroyer is probably the most riveting and powerful one hour of television I have ever watched.

I was just 14 at the time, but I remember very clearly the day when the iconic Italian fashion designer was murdered. One would think, judging by the title of the series, that the series would focus on Versace. In fact, it puts the spotlight more on his killer Andrew Cunanan played by the actor Darren Criss. Much of the series follows Cunanan as he prays on his victims and murders them in the most shocking ways. Yet the jam in the donut of this series only arrives at the penultimate episode.

The Creator/Destroyer episode is about the early lives of both Versace and Cunanan and how they took vastly different turns. In the case of Versace, we see him grow up in a poor town in Calabria, yet he is brought up by a loving mother who recognises his talents early on and encourages him to develop them. Yet she is also very wise stressing that in order to achieve success he will have to work hard. At times it won’t be easy, but that’s ok if you are doing something you love and are passionate about.

The early life of Andrew Cunanan could not be more different. The figure who has the most influence on his early development is his Filipino father Modesto who is played by the actor Jon Jon Briones. Unlike Gianni’s mother, Modesto is an extremely deceitful and delusional individual with no moral compass. Throughout his childhood, Modesto never ceases to remind his child that he is special and that by merely believing that he is special he will be able to achieve anything he wants. He is never instilled with any grounded or true wisdom. Witnessing this had a profound effect on me as it signalled to me that any child who is exposed to such falsehoods or delusions of grandeur from an early age is doomed. They will soon find life incredibly frustrating and unfair with potentially tragic consequences.

Furthermore, Andrew is spoiled rotten by his father. In this episode we see him treated like royalty. His siblings refer to him as Prince Andrew. When the Cunanan family move to a larger home when Andrew is around 10 or 11, Andrew is immediately assigned the master bedroom. In this particular clip, we see the rest of the family, Andrew’s mother and siblings, look exhausted as they move sofas and other bits of heavy furniture. Andrew, however, doesn’t lift a finger.

Modesto buys Andrew a sports car even though he is too young to drive it. Andrew’s eldest sibling Chris is old enough, but Modesto denies him this privilege and gives it instead to Andrew even though it will be a few years before he is legally old enough to drive it. When Andrew’s mother challenges Modesto on this, he violently pushes her to the ground. It becomes increasingly clear that Modesto has an unhealthy obsession with his youngest child and favours him over his other children, which creates a rift and a lot of tension.

One of the clearest contrasts between Gianni’s mother and Modesto, is when Modesto is with Andrew in his room teaching him the codes of social conduct from a book by Amy Vanderbilt entitled The Complete Book of Etiquette. Whereas Gianni’s mother brings out the best in Gianni’s creativity, Modesto discourages it from his youngest son. When Andrew tells Modesto that he would like to be a writer, Modesto instantly dismisses it and says that unless someone offered him a lot of money to write a book, he should forget about it. Interestingly, in another episode and one of the few occasions where Andrew meets Gianni, Gianni encourages Andrew to write his book and tells him how aspiring for success just for the sake of success is a futile and hollow endeavour.

In Modesto’s world, nurturing superficiality such as how one looks, what one says, how one behaves, is of more importance than nurturing talent or aspiring to any notions of truth and beauty. From this, one can make comparisons with the character Willy Loman from the Arthur Miller play Death Of A Salesman. Like Modesto, Loman is also a person drowning in his own delusions valuing etiquette, presentation and current social mores over developing talent and instilling healthy values in his children. Being a ‘social success’ is what reigns supreme in the world of Modesto and Willy. As Loman says to one of his sons, ‘Be well liked and you will never want’ as if by being well liked great wealth and status will automatically follow. By that same token, Modesto relentlessly conveys to Andrew, ‘to remember that you’re special, and when you feel special, success will follow’.

Via the infectious influence of Modesto on his life, Andrew is already displaying signs of brattish and entitled behaviour from an early age. In one clip when he opens the door to the postman, he snatches the mail from his hand and duly slams the door on him rather than offering as much as a ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’. In another clip, a young Andrew is in his room reading a book by an electric fan. When he leaves the room, he forgets to turn off the fan.

Andrew’s behaviour manifests itself into abnormally high levels of self confidence by the time he’s a late teenager. By this point, he is driving his sports car and wearing high end designer clothes. He is already a shining example of all the Amy Vanderbilt etiquette drummed into him every evening by his father. He looks and feels invincible and many of his high school peers are in awe of him even if its all merely a façade.

Yet things soon take a turn when Modesto unexpectedly flees the country for Manila. Just a few years earlier, he managed to hustle his way into a stockbroker job at Merrill Lynch beating over 500 applicants. Despite not having the conventional academic qualifications or any previous work experience in the financial services sector, Modesto goes into turbo charge mode with the Vanderbilt playbook in the interview stage weaving a powerful story and promising to ‘cross oceans’ and create unimaginable levels of growth for the company. His patter works. Yet with his lack of financial experience cracks occur. He makes dubious trades, engages in fraudulent activity, and, in one case, swindles an elderly lady out of all her savings. In an attempt to reduce his chances of getting caught, he frequently changes firms. With each change, he opts to work for a firm lower down in the ranks from the last. It is deliciously ironic how someone who gives a lot of weight to status and prestige, decides to demote themselves in such a way.

Modesto’s luck soon runs out when the FBI are called into the firm he is currently working for to arrest him. When he is tipped off about their arrival by his secretary, he immediately tries to destroy all the evidence of any dodgy trades and proceeds to call his travel agent to confirm his same day flight to Manilla. An epic chase ensues. On the way he crosses path with Andrew in his sports car who is oblivious to what is going on. Modesto gets into Andrew’s car and drives off to the airport. When Andrew gets home, he finds his mum distraught. In her despair, she tells him that Modesto has fled ‘like a rat’ back to Manilla and left them with no money. What’s more, their home will be repossessed in the coming days. Andrew, though, doesn’t believe any of this and is indignant that his mother is wrong about his father. He also refuses to believe that his father could leave them with no money. Such a notion is simply inconceivable in his world.

Andrew travels to Manila to try and track his father down. When he does finally arrive at his father’s residence located in a down at heel area in the deep outskirts of Manilla, he is shocked to discover how his father, whom he always looked up to, could live in such an impoverished and threadbare dwelling. Afterall, wasn’t his father supposed to be this high-flying stockbroker whom he boasted about to all his friends? Instead he meets his father in a basic room in a rickety old wooden house – the kind of room that a seasoned backpacker on an ultra-tight budget would shell out $3 a night for – where he greets his son and serves him a plate of chicharron or pork skins. Andrew is clearly shocked but continues to tread carefully with his father only meekly asking him if there is any money. His father, acting like a bent second-hand car salesman, tells him there are ‘millions’ yet is vague regarding the whereabouts of this money.

It is only during the middle of the night, when Andrew is unable to sleep, that he wakes up his father and broaches the money issue with him again. When his father admits that there is no money the ice finally breaks. For the first time in his life, Andrew properly confronts his father. The floodgates open: ‘My father is a liar and a thief’ ‘You were everything to me dad but it’s a lie and I can’t be a lie’.

This scene is reminiscent of the scene in Apocalypse Now with Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper where Brando quotes T.S Elliot’s poem The Wasteland. It is Oscar winning material. This particular scene is akin to an initiation or the end of innocence. Adam and Eve thrown out of the garden of Eden. The end of a prolonged smoky dream. For the first time, the wool is removed from Andrew’s eyes revealing the real Modesto and not the distorted and artificial version of him he grew up with. Where once Modesto would put him on the highest of pedestals, this time he throws his own son under a bus with taunts calling him ‘weak, just like your mother’, ‘my special sissy boy’ or a ‘sissy kid with a sissy mind’. Modesto has been challenged and he doesn’t like it. Yet Andrew has finally seen the light regarding his relationship with his father and vows to never be like him.

When Andrew returns from the Philippines to the family home, which is already in the process of being repossessed, he flies into a blind rage grabbing the Amy Vanderbilt book his father used to read to him every evening, and starts ripping all the pages out of the book to shreds. What is interesting is that this moment in his life now marks a turning point, which can go either way. This is highlighted whilst he is applying for a job in a local convenience store. Everything is going fine until the owner asks him what his father does? Instead of telling the truth and being cordial with the owner, he embellishes a fantastical story about how his father is an owner of multiple plantations in the Philippines ‘further than the eye can see’. It is clear from now on that rather from vowing never to be like his father, he is prepared to inherit his traits by dealing in the currencies of lies and deception. He had an opportunity to turn his life around but decided not to.

This episode is a masterclass of human psychology. I often wonder how different Andrew’s life would have been if he had a parental figure who, like Gianni’s mother, brought him up well. How different things would have been. Yet one can equally speculate with Gianni how he would have turned out had he been brought up by a Modesto father figure who would have knocked out of him any creative inhibitions.

Another interesting point to note is the growth of reality TV and social media stars in the years since both Versace and Cunanan died in 1997. The reason I make this point is because many of these reality TV and social media stars are famous just for the sake of being famous. There’s a rampant narcissism, entitlement, insecurity and perpetual feeling of lack that drives them. These are exactly the traits that Andrew demonstrated and I sometimes wonder had he grown up in the age of the internet, reality TV and social media what his chances would have been of being one of those insipid reality TV bores? I think he would have lapped up this vacuous culture and taken it to his bosom.

One of the most apt comparisons one can make between Gianni and Andrew is from the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The quintessential creator and destroyer story. Andrew wanted to be rewarded without having to properly earn it through honest hard work and putting his all into it. Gianni worked hard, tirelessly and diligently, and against all odds was rewarded and became a fashion icon. Andrew was jealous of Gianni. He wanted everything that Gianni had, but without having to endure any struggle or battles to get there. So like Cain he murdered Gianni.

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Fooled By Randomness

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In one of my previous posts I talk about how hard work is more important than talent when it comes to achieving success. As much as I don’t want to believe it there is a kernel of truth to this. But is it the whole truth? What if it is the power of randomness that is the principle factor in all this? At least this is what the Lebanese-American writer and former financial trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes whose seminal books Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan expand on this idea.

One of the most interesting aspects of success, especially in creative fields, is that it often comes to people we least expect it to. It is not unusual to watch an unknown band live and think ‘what on earth is this crap’. Then several months later that same band is flying high in the charts and many people are fawning over them. On the other hand, you can see an unknown band live who you are totally blown away by and are convinced the band will go on to greater things but success sadly eludes them and they continue to drift into obscurity. These typical scenarios give a lot of weight to Taleb’s theory of randomness.

Even though, at least at a practical level, hard work seems to be the best way to increase one’s chances of getting lucky is that really where it’s all at? Again in the context of musicians, some singer/songwriters worked their butts off on the open-mic night circuit playing at everyplace they could get a gig and then slowly after years of toil and sweat, they were rewarded. The supremely successful singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran is a perfect example here. But he does not escape the laws of randomness. Many other singer/songwriters also break their backs for years trying to make it, but alas their time never comes.

On the other side of the scales one can look at the pre-fame story of Oasis. They’d barely been going for a year or two before they were discovered in 1993 by the head of Creation records, Alan McGee, at a gig in Glasgow. From that point on success came to the band almost overnight. It was as if their success and destiny were written in the stars. The Oasis story is a perfect one of randomness and demolishes the adage of ‘if one works hard one will be rewarded’. Whether one likes Oasis or not, one cannot deny the powerful magnetism the Gallagher brothers possessed; something that seemed God-given and effortless, and millions of people lapped it up.

Life is never linear. Our predictions regarding the life trajectory of others often collapse like a house of cards. Random events beyond our control destabilizes these paths. When we look at the following world events; the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash, 9/11, the recent Genoa bridge collapse etc; they are examples of events which weren’t anticipated and took people by surprise. Taleb calls them Black Swan events.

It is not uncommon to weave a narrative around these events and try to rationalise and justify them, but the truth is they were ruled by randomness and caught everyone off-guard.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved 

 

image: PIRO4D

 

Wonderings In The Northwest Bulgarian Town Of Vidin

The Bulgarian town of Vidin is located in the northwest corner of the country on the border with Romania. Separating the two countries is the river Danube and a modern bridge. Vidin is an overlooked town, which not many people visit. In fact, during my stay I didn’t encounter a single tourist. Entering the town from the train station one is not immediately taken by the town. But spend a day on foot exploring what this town has to offer and one starts to view it in a whole new light. It’s jewels don’t immediately reveal themselves and require a dose of curiosity.

Arriving in Vidin was my first taste of Bulgaria. Unlike Romanian, Bulgarian is not a roman language, but a Slavic one using the Cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately I can decode most of the alphabet even if I can’t speak a word of Bulgarian. I also learn that the Cyrillic alphabet is a derivative of the Glagolitic alphabet founded in the AD 850s by the Saints Cyril and Methodius and then later introduced in AD 886 by the Bulgarian Empire. Today the Cyrillic alphabet is used in many Slavic countries including Russia, Serbia, the Ukraine, Macedonia and even in Mongolia, which is a non Slavic country.

After locating a place in the town to change my remaining Romanian Lei into Bulgarian Lev, I focus on finding the address of my accommodation with the help of the Google Maps app on my phone. I am glad I didn’t take a taxi. Not only is my accommodation located not so far away, through walking the distance to it, I develop a feel for where I am.

My accommodation is situated in an old grey Communist-era low rise building. Inside the building, it’s less austere. On the level where the flat is located there are several plants on the balcony. Plants never fail to lift one’s spirits. The hosts, a middle age Bulgarian couple, are very warm with big hearts. Their flat is homely and aesthetically tasteful. Its light and warm. My bedroom I discover is very spacious and I have a double bed. It is perfect. I am offered Bulgarian tea. Ten minutes later Krasi one of my hosts returns carrying a vintage traditional blue tray containing a cup of tea, a pot of sugar and a separate plate with a generous wedge of homemade milk cake. It is awfully good and I feel very touched to be at the receiving end of such generous hospitality.

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Bulgarian hospitality

I’ve been up since 5.45am this morning and the temptation is very strong to go back to bed. But I want to seize the remainder of the day. After an interval of time spent in my room having my tea and trying too warm myself up, I leave my room to hit the streets of Vidin. Most of my neighbourhood is full of brutal boxy communist era flats. One could maybe be in a non descript middle Russia suburb. Yet with a smattering of more vintage architecture with an Ottoman tinge. Some of those older buildings look neglected. Vidin is not a wealthy town and is one of the poorer parts of the country yet it also has one of the richest and oldest histories.

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Residential housing block on the outskirts of town

 

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Crumbling Ottoman style architecture 

Back in the centre of town close to the train station, I aimlessly wonder the streets not venturing further than  and find a place to have some late lunch. I spot a canteen type diner with several different trays of local savoury and sweet dishes. I opt for the moussaka with a side of fried potatoes and another milk based cake for desert. After eating my food, I leave the restaurant and wonder some more before calling it a day and returning to my accommodation.

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St. Dimitar monastery in the centre of town

 

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In the centre of town with the Vidin Radio tower in the background

The next day is when things start to get cooking for me in this town. I walk back to the town centre and head for the old town district of Kaleto where the medieval Baba Vida fortress is located. Its the best preserved medieval fortress in Bulgaria. I approach the old town from an old walled entrance dating back to the times of the Ottoman Empire.

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The entrance to the old town 

One of the most distinct and unusual landmarks in the old town is a derelict and abandoned synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1894 and for a time was Bulgaria’s second largest synagogue. Vidin had a thriving Jewish community for five decades since the 15th century with the arrival of the first Jews from Spain. Most of the town’s Jewish population emigrated to Israel after the Second World War. There were plans to restore the synagogue back to its former glory during the 1970s and a decade later work was in fact carried out, but it was abruptly cut short with the fall of the Communist regime at the end of that decade.

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The abandoned Vidin synagogue 

Nearby the synagogue is a tall monument overlooking the river Danube. The so called ‘Monument of Freedom’ was built during the Communist regime. It is a structure in the Brutalist architecture genre and a relic from the Communist era of Bulgaria’s history.

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‘Monument Of Freedom’

What is amazing though is the view of the river Danube, the second longest river in Europe after the river Volga in Russia. The river covers most of the border between Bulgaria and Romania, before discharging itself into the Black Sea in northern Romania close to the Ukrainian border. On a clearer day one can fully see the bridge in the distance connecting Bulgaria and Romania.

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The river Danube separating Bulgaria and Romania

Only a short walk away is the town’s main landmark, the Baba Vida fortress, which literally translates to ‘Grandmother Vida’. The fortress dates back to the 10th century and was contracted on top of the site of an old Roman landmark called Bononia. The origins of the castle is based on a legend focused on a Bulgarian King and ruler of Vidin who had three daughters; Vida, Kula and Gamza. Before he died he divided his kingdom between his three daughters. His eldest daughter, Vida, was given the town of Vidin of whom the town is named after. And it is in this town that she built this fortress, where she lived unmarried and insolation. The fortress, Grandmother Vida, is named after her.

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Baba Vida fortress

Throughout the town’s history the fortress has served as an important strategic base. During the 500 year long Ottoman rule of Bulgaria, the fortress was used as a prison and a base to store weapons. It is an impressive structure and little changed since its foundation. I spend some time walking around the complex and climbing one of the narrow stone staircases to reach the top level. At one point I almost lost my balance on the steps. There are not many protection railings as it isn’t designed for mass tourism. As a result one needs to be on their guard when inside.

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At the top of the fortress

Other sites in the old town include the Krastata Kazarma museum, built in the classic Ottoman style. It was a military barrack during the Ottoman rule. Today it is the town’s ethnographic museum.

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Krastata Kazarma museum 

Else where in the old town is a mosque named after Osman Pazvantoğlu. Osman was an Ottoman soldier who was the governor of Vidin in the late 18th century. There is also a library in town named after him. Very near the mosque is an orthodox church named after St Panteleymon.

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The Osman Pazvantoğlu Mosque

 

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St Panteleymon orthodox church

On the edge of the old town by the Danube, is the Nikola Petrov art gallery. Petrov was a Bulgarian painter born in Vidin in 1881. Sadly his life was cut short by tuberculosis and he died at the age of just 35. The gallery has many of his works in its collection. However when I visited only a few paintings in one room were on display.  One small painting by Petrov on display is his painting of the Baba Vida fortress.

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Nikola Petrov painting of Baba Vida fortress

Two other paintings on display that catch my eye are a painting by Ivan Ivanov of the mosque in the old town of Vidin from 1938 and another painting by Stoyan Venev from 1960 featuring a mother and her child at the shore of the Danube by the entrance to the Baba Vida fortress

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Ivan Ivanov’s painting of the Osman Pazvantoğlu Mosque from 1938

 

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Painting from 1960 by Stoyan Venev located by the entrance to the Baba Vida fortress

After visiting the art gallery, I take a walk along the banks of the river Danube. During my walk I cross paths with two young men. One of them is very drunk and proceeds to give me a slurred a rambled discourse of the history of Vidin in broken English. His friends asks me, ‘What the fuck are you doing in Vidin, man?’. He then adds that he spent three years living in Derby. He looks at his friend already halfway through his drunken impromptu history lesson and says, ‘Just ignore my friend. He’s crazy. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about’. I wish them both goodbye and good luck and I head back to my accommodation on the outskirts of Vidin.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved 

 

Are People Wrong About Snapchat?

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Snapchat has had a torrid year so far. If one were to look at the company purely within the paradigm of its financial fundamentals there is a lot to be concerned about. There is also the risk that the company runs out of money and ceases to be a going concern. One cannot rule out this likely outcome. It’s current share price certainly reflects the very bearish sentiment many have towards the company. At one point the share price recently went below $6 a share. When the company went public last year, the initial public offering price was at $17 a share. Back then the sentiment of the general public towards the company was different. There was such a frenzy around the IPO at the time that the price duly rocketed above $25 a share. Since the beginning of this year though the share price has been on a downward trajectory.

It has been the victim of a number of mishaps such as an unpopular app redesign, key influencers leaving the platform, and even, since quite recently, the number of total users slowly dropping. One of the most damaging things to happen to the company though was Instagram copying it’s key ‘Stories’ feature.

The Facebook Group is an enormous global digital media juggernaut consisting of the Facebook platform, Instagram and WhatsApp as its primary platforms. Snap is a mere minion by comparison. This is a true battle between David and Goliath. Snapchat owns just a sling and a stone whereas the Facebook Empire has Kalashnikovs, WOMDs and other state of the art weapons. On the face of it, Snap doesn’t stand a chance. Or does it?

One thing that does stand out about Snap is that it is designed and created in such a way to be the communication platform of the future. For ten years, smartphones have come to dominate our lives and they still do. But what is the next step? I am tempted to go in the direction of Smart Glasses and Augmented Reality. Google tested the waters with this earlier this decade with their Google Glass product, but it was too ahead of its time and people weren’t ready for it. The biggest misconception about Snapchat is that it is a social media company. It is not. It is a camera app.

Both Facebook and Instagram are designed in a way that is made for the smartphone. Of course people share photos and videos, but they also share written text and messages. The other social media platform Twitter, is purely text-based and relies on the keyboard on your smartphone. Snapchat, on the other hand, is made in a way that can bypass the keyboard and the smartphone. It’s Snapchat Spectacles product enables one to record videos completely bypassing the smartphone. It already has lenses that react to sounds yet earlier in August it launched lenses with speech recognition capabilities. Snapchat is often ridiculed in the media as a platform that is ‘frivolous’ (and Facebook isn’t?) and only used by fickle people. Yet when it comes to technological innovation, it is ahead of Facebook and with far less leverage at its disposal. It would be deliciously ironic if the people who are ridiculing Snapchat today begin to adopt it like everyone else in the event of a massive turnaround in the company’s fortunes. Consensus views can always radically change.

Snapchat may currently be down in the dumps on the surface, yet there is a lot going on behind the scenes that we are not privy to. You can write off Snapchat all you want today, but don’t be surprise in the event that you find yourself with a different point of view a few years from now.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Visiting The 1989 Revolution Museum In Timisoara

The Romanian city of Timisoara located in the western part of the country close to the Hungarian and Serbian borders is a pleasant place to spend a few days. The centre of town is filled with a wealth of beautiful ornate architecture dating back to its Habsburg past. Some of those buildings are semi-dilapidated yet a lot of this beautiful architecture and much of the city is undergoing a large regeneration project in time for 2021; the year when Timisoara will be the official European City Of Culture.

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Piata Victoriei

Piata Victoriei is one of the highlights of the city. Its a beautiful long rectangular square with a wealth of ornate, diverse and unusual multi-coloured buildings and rows of pleasant restaurants, cafes and shops. It’s an ideal place to watch the world go by as they say. The most unmissable feature of this part of town is the prominent Metropolitan Cathedral; an imposing Byzantine-influenced orthodox cathedral constructed between 1936 and 1946.

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The prominent orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral

Directly facing the monastery on the other side of the road, back on the Piata Victoriei is a memorial to the revolution of December 1989 against the repressive Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. It is this event in the country’s history that gives the plaza its name. This revolution, which began here in Timisoara, is a very important event in Romania’s history since it eventually led to the crumbling of this regime and the end of Communism in the country.

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Memorial on Piata Victoriei to the 1989 Revolution

The initial protests in the city took place on December 15th 1989 with a few hundred people protesting against the harassment of the Romanian born Hungarian pastor Laszlo Tokes by the Communist regime. Laszlo was a notable and outspoken figure representing Romania’s Hungarian community. For many years he was a target of the communist regime for his exposing of human rights abuses by the regime towards the Hungarian minority population of Romania.

In March 1989, Tokes was forced by the religious authorities of the time to move from Timisoara to another parish in a remote part of the country. Tokes didn’t budge. The authorities issued him with an eviction notice from his home in Timisoara stating that he had until December 15th 1989 to leave. It was on this date that members of his congregation protested his eviction on the streets of Timisoara. Eventually passers-by joined in and what originally began as a protest against the eviction of Tokes manifested into an even bigger protest against the repressive communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Very quickly similar protests spread like wildfire across other Romanian cities including the capital, Bucharest. Despite Ceausescu’s efforts to supress the protests by ordering the military to fire bullets into the crowds, his efforts were in vain as he was up against the vast majority of the population of his country who wanted change and an end to his oppressive regime.

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By the 1989 Revolution Museum

The 1989 Revolution Museum is a permanent exhibition dedicated to these events. When I first entered the museum located in an old and crumbling building, I was escorted by an elderly man from the museum to a room with a TV screen. On the screen he played a 20 minute documentary featuring visual recordings of the events between the beginning of the revolution until the fall of the Ceausescu regime. It is a dazzling sight to see what looks like almost the entire population of Timisoara out in the city protesting.

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The city of Timisoara at the apex of the December 1989 revolution 

 

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Pictures of the Communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu in the museum 

 

 

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A pre Revolution Ceausescu parade in Timisoara’s main square (today named Piata Victoriei)

Ceausescu had initially misjudged the potential magnitude of the protests in Timisoara. On 18th December he left Romania for a state visit to Iran putting his wife and subordinates in charge of trying to diffuse the protests in Timisoara. When he returned to Romania just a couple of days later the protests had become larger and more intense.  During a speech he gave in today’s Revolution Square in Bucharest on December 21st, some people in the crowd began to chant ‘Timisoara!’. Slowly more people joined in. Ceausescu, unable to suppress the chants, pledged to raise the national minimum wage but the crowd wasn’t having any of it. For the remainder of his speech he was constantly heckled until realising that he was powerless to engage the crowd, he left the stage and ran for cover. On December 22nd the protests had spread to all the major cities in Romania. Ceausescu and his wife embarked on an epic escape from the braying mob until they were captured by the army and tried on Christmas Day. After their capture they were duly executed by a firing squad.

The museum is full of ephemera related to the Revolution including photographs and newspaper articles as well as art works by contemporary Romanian artists related to this time period.  After watching the video I spend some time visiting all the rooms inside the museum and learning more about this period in Romania’s history.

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Photographs from the museum 

Visiting the museum is most definitely worth the visit if you ever happen to be in Timisoara. It is a raw and authentic experience regarding a very important time period in Romania’s history.

 

 

by Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

 

SOURCES

http://20years.tol.org/2009/10/26/laszlo-tokes/

A Day Trip To Felcsút

The Hungarian village of Felcsút is located 50km outside of Budapest and a 1 hour bus ride from the capital. It isn’t featured in any guide books and besides, with the abundance of things that Hungary’s seductive capital has to offer, why would anyone want to sacrifice a day in some one horse village in the middle of nowhere? But Felcsút isn’t just any other village. It is where the current Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán grew up. Since he became prime minister in 2010, a lot of money has been pumped into this sleepy settlement, mainly in the shape of a football stadium and a 6km long railway line.

Orbán is a controversial figure both at home and abroad. Opinion in Hungary on him is intensely polarized where people either love him or hate him. The latter accuse him of being a dangerous demagogue and a threat to the country’s democracy and free speech. Even though Hungary is a member of the European Union he has been very critical of it and has often come to blows with Brussels for not abiding by the rules as a member country. One example is his refusal to take in more migrants during the 2015 Refugee Crisis. Instead he constructed a razor fence around parts of the country’s borders much to the ire of Brussels. His supporters though see Orbán as a no-nonsense leader who isn’t afraid to speak his mind regardless of the consequences and also as someone who isn’t a pushover and is willing to put their country first. He is viewed by some as Europe’s answer to Donald Trump.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán 

From Nepligot bus station in Budapest, I board a knackered white bus destined for this village. As the bus leaves behind the final surrounding districts of the city we are in rural Hungary proper. Lots of open fields and not much else. Nobody on the bus or even at the ticket desk of the bus station in the capital spoke any English. Without the internet data on my phone and the Google Maps app, I would have most likely missed my destination and probably would have resorted to scrambling for a way to desperately return back to Budapest. Once out of Hungary’s cosmopolitan capital or any of the country’s major towns, the chances of finding someone who speaks English drops dramatically. For the record I don’t know a word of Hungarian. Its an impenetrable language which doesn’t stick easily to my poor little brain. I even find it a challenge to remember the word for ‘thank you’. This is not a country you would want to get arrested in.

I know we are approaching Felcsut the minute I see the blue dot on Google Maps edge closer to the name of the village on the digital map. We stop at a small roadside bus stop, but in my ignorance I assume this is not THE bus stop for my destination. The bus carries on and turns onto a road moving away from the location of the village on my map. Its going now at some speed and the blue dot on the map is moving away from Felcsut at an alarming rate. I have no choice but to interrupt the driver. I walk down the bus ailse and as I approach the driver I blurt out the name of my destination. He slams the brakes and the bus screeches to a halt. Thankfully I latch myself to a nearby railing to avoid being catapulted towards the driver’s window. With haste I grab my bag and jump out of the bus.

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Arriving in Felcsút 

As I walk closer to the village I see a sign indicating the infamous Pancho Arena football stadium being only a kilometre away. The stadium is big with a seating capacity of 3,500. That is more than double the population of the village itself which has a population of just 1,200. For this reason it is seen by many Hungarians as a sensitive subject often dismissing the stadium as an Orbán vanity project. Many argue that the money should have been allocated instead towards the healthcare or education system of the country and not a football stadium. Orbán is a football fanatic and often tries to watch as many important matches as he can in between his busy schedule. In fact it is not an uncommon sight to see him at some games at the local stadium during weekend matches.

When I approach the stadium it is empty with the next game scheduled until the weekend. Yet the entrance to the stadium is open and so I enter. In the enclosure of the stadium there are photographs, trophies and other assorted bits of football related memorabilia. As I walk into the seating area the most striking feature of the stadium is not the football pitch but the wooden beams around the stadium. They are truly a work of art and give the arena the air of a religious place of worship and not solely a place to watch football. The beams and general design of the stadium were taken from designs by the noted local Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz.

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Pancho Arena football stadium 

 

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The unique wooden beams of the stadium 

A long path by the stadium leads all the way to small railway station, Puskas Akademia, named after the local football team. This station is part of the 6km long Val-Valley railway line. This project is more controversial than the football stadium since it has been stated that 80% of the investment towards it came from EU funds. I am the only person on the platform. There is no ticket office at this station just a small wooden hut with a time table of the daily train times on the side of the hut. All the information is in Hungarian yet I soon make out via a combination of Google Translate and raw guesswork that the next train should arrive in half an hour.

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Puskas Akademia station stop as part of the Val-Valley 6km long light railway line

Twenty minutes later I am joined by two elderly ladies. I timidly ask them whether they speak English? To my amazement one of the ladies, Zsuzsi, speaks perfect English. She lived in London for one year in 1976 and reminisces fondly about her time in the city. A vintage style train soon approaches. When we board the train we are the only people in the carriage. I do wonder sometimes, unlike the football stadium, what really is the point of this railway line especially if so few people on average use it? Yet the hot potato aspect of this project aside, I am reminded of the countryside tourist railway train I once took last year in the breath-taking region of Mokra Gora in the neighbouring country of Serbia. That was a truly unforgettable memory.

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One of the trains

Once inside the deserted carriage we all pose for photos. There is also a stove-like heater inside. A lady conductor enters our carriage to issue our tickets. I soon learn that there are about four stops in total on this line. However since my time is limited I buy a ticket for just until the next stop. I stay on the train for 25 minutes as it slowly chugs until the next stop. During this time we pass through the wild autumnal fields of the surrounding countryside. It is a beautiful sight with a rich kaleidoscope of colours. These are the kind of fields Vincent Van Gogh would have painted in all their glory.

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Inside the train carriage with its own stove heater

 

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Yours truly inside the train

 

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The surrounding countryside

At the next stop, Felscut station, I disembark and say goodbye to the ladies. I have 40 minutes until the next bus to Budapest leaves from the northern end of the village. I briskly walk the few kilometres on the side of the main village road. Most of the places I pass along the way, save for the football stadium, are private residences and the odd church, school and grocery shop. Thankfully I make it to the bus stop on time. The bus arrives five minutes later to take me back to Nepligot bus station.

 

By Nicholas Peart

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The Pimped Up Bar Mleczny

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Pizza King Express is maybe the best place to eat in Budapest. I will probably get shot down in flames for saying this. At the ‘traditional’ restaurants serving Hungarian cuisine you will likely hear more English than Hungarian and will pay more money. You may also encounter surely staff if the place is popular. But not here. The staff here are a bunch of jokers and the food is ridiculously cheap even with a lousy pound sterling. A slice of pizza is 200 Forints (less than 60p). A tiramisu (enough for two) – yes, you better believe it – is 300 Forints (a little north of 80p).

During Communist times in many Eastern European countries you had these places called bar mlecznys, which in Polish literally translates to ‘milk bars’ – dirt cheap restaurants serving pretty basic food, but perfectly good. They used to be very popular with students or anyone without much money. Most of these places are a thing of the past now. There are a few still kicking around. For me Pizza King Express represents a new kind of ‘pimped up’ bar mleczny. That is, it may not be as threadbare as a traditional bar mleczny. Maybe I am stretching it using the words ‘pimped up’. But you get my drift. It has the same prices as the traditional bar mlecznys of yore filled by the same type of people who used to visit the originals. The only difference is that the menu is more global. Dare I say more ‘Westernised’. You can get pizza, kebabs, baklava (delicious sweat cake), tiramisu and rice pudding and all for just a few coins. Its a fraction of the price of Pizza Hut, which is next door, and a better and more delicious experience.

Hungary is not a rich country and wages are feeble. Budapest can be an expensive city if you are a local in menial employment. For that reason places like Pizza King Express are a godsend for locals. Its funny that most congregate here for a slice of cheap pizza and less at the ‘traditional’ Hungarian establishments no matter how good or tasty the food may be at those places.

The original bar mzlecznys were not only a product of Communism. They were a feature of when that part of the world was a much less connected place and people had limited access to information. In today’s post-communist globalised world with this tool called the internet, that has all changed. Younger generations from former communist countries are more aware, savvy and knowledgeable about the world, other cultures and how other people around the world live and their tastes. Pizza King Express caters for this younger generation as well as others who don’t want to spend too much money. In a paradoxical way, it is more ‘authentic’ to eat here than at the traditional restaurants, which promote themselves as ‘authentic’. It may be a pedantic and trivial observation, but there is a kernel of truth to it.

 

By Nicholas Peart

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