27 January, 2009

Stop rubbing the car so hard?

It is said that Bucharest has two seasons of the year; dust and mud. We are firmly in mud season. The rain comes down so full of dust from the very air that the average car can become an adobe hut from just one downpour. Add to that the road splatter from the motorists in front of you (and when are there not?) and the streets become a sea of identically-colored turds on wheels, with naught but the windscreen and the license tags cleared enough to stay legal. This brings about a huge upswing in windshield-wiper usage, and the attendant squirting of cleaning fluid onto the glass, which brings me to my observation.

The next time you're driving in Bucharest, or perhaps any similar European hamlet, keep an eye out for other drivers who may be washing their windshields. Stoplights which face into the sun are probably the best places. Check out the sheer number of these cars which squirt their cleaning fluid straight up past the windshield, and clear over the car itself onto the car behind them. I kid you not, it's got to be at least half of them, if not more.

The first time I noticed this happen, I thought to myself, "huh, poor kid must have bent his washer feed tubes last time he worked on the engine or such." But then I went through a few days of those sun-facing stoplights like I mentioned above, and was flabbergasted. Nearly every car which sat there squirting, shot their payload straight over the car onto the hood of the one behind them. I am stone-cold serious and not exaggerating. I really need to get photos of this but it's a fleeting thing, like a Bigfoot sighting... over before you can hit the shutter button.

I can't even blame manufacturing standards, as this phenomenon runs through all makes of cars - from Dacias to VWs, Renault, Citroen, Toyota, and yes, even BMW. I haven't seen it happen on anything more expensive, probably because people rich enough to own them are also rich enough to bribe the mud to stay off their cars. But I digress.

I'm still working on a grand unified theory to explain this, but there are too many variables. The main one is if this is confined to Bucharest or not. All I can tell you is that this wouldn't happen in the US. If your car squirted water on the one behind you, the drops would not hit the bonnet before the driver would be on the phone to his lawyer and the summons printed and stuffed under your wipers for assault, harassment, unsolicited wetting (ever since this one succeeded against God for raining on my mom's neighbor's Hummer, the door's wide open) and of course emotional damage always gets thrown in both to the driver and his car. So the Americans make darn sure their cars squirt correctly.

No, the fact that this phenomenon spans such a range of models and makes, means there must be a common point among all of them apart from manufacture. The first suspect which springs to mind is RAR, the Romanian Auto Registry. From what I understand, no car is unleashed on the road before being inspected and approved by RAR techs. They had my car in their bay for most of the day, probably because it was, at the time, quite foreign to their eyes (more on this another time), but what I'm theorizing takes only a few seconds. Namely, as part of the "routine inspection" of all cars entering Bucharest's corral, some qualified service person simply gives the windshield feeder tubes a twist upward. I hear you ask, "For God's sake, why would they do that?" Well, I didn't say my theory was done, did I? On the list of the most well-known things, just above "water is wet" and slightly below "politicians are corrupt" is that Bucharest streets are overtaxed. The figures, as I have heard them, put the city as having to support over 2 million cars a day on streets which were designed for up to 30 horse-drawn carts. And while the horse-cart contingent has steadfastly maintained their right to the street even to this day,

the fact remains that Bucharest traffic needs to be more efficient. Since pigs will fly before the roads are redesigned, the only other option is to change the behavior of the drivers. Recent studies have revealed that the average Bucharest street is full of needlessly wasted space, up to as much as 6 centimeters between cars during rush hour (4:00 am - 11:30 pm). If these drivers were less selfish about their vast personal space and simply moved closer to each other, then more cars could fit on the same stretch of road, and this cannot help but be more efficient.

RAR to the rescue! By adjusting the windshield washer tubes of all the cars, the only way to get your own windshield wet is to get right up to the car in front of you. The laws of commonality dictate that if you need your windshield washed, then it is likely so will the driver in front of you, and the one in front of him, and so on. Thus, with just a modicum of luck and timing, the result is a neighborly cascade of faintly blue rivulets of cleansing goodness arcing from car to car, pulsing in time with the wiper blades in a drippy ballet straight out of Busby Berkeley. And no more wasted space between cars. It all seems so clear now! The historical efforts to compel society to work together for the common good have not entirely left the building, it seems. But those of the past were too ambitious, too grandiose. Now, starting with something as subtle as bent windshield washers, society is made to want to work together for each other's benefit as well as their own. From here it is only one small step to discover how many other areas of day to day life are missing mutual benefit from proximity. Surely there must be a way to tighten up all that space between people at the queues of the Post Office or the cash registers of Carrefour or Cora and derive some benefit from our newfound closeness.

Oops, sorry, that was the alarm to take my medication. Gotta go...

26 January, 2009

Bucharest Driving, no further introduction needed...

In Part 1 of what will most assuredly be a richly continuing series, I present to you a shining and all-too-common example of Bucharest motorist sensibility...
This caught my eye at the local DIY (Do It Yourself) hardware/houseware place, Brico Store. The little kiosks shown here are for storage of shopping carts, as evidenced by the few remaining carriages. In fact, there were very few carriages at the time, probably mostly because it was just before Christmas and the shopping frenzies here, while not yet as fatal as a Long Island Wal-Mart, do quite sufficient justice to the burgeoning spirit of capitalism that drives the EU's latest market economy. However, it bears mentioning that since these carriages were not the type where you have to unlock them from their chained captivity by means of a coin in a slot (which theoretically increases your incentive to properly return said carriage in order to get your coin back), it cannot be discounted that a fair number of these handy utilitarian transports have possibly taken up permanent residence in the surrounding neighborhood domiciles. But I digress.

The facts are that while the shopping cart house may have been empty, so were a significant number of normal parking spaces adjacent to it, which can even be seen in the photo. So I'd love to know what compelled our humble motorist to deem himself superior enough to naturally assume Brico Store had custom-built a covered parking space for him, their most valued customer? It was a gray cloudy day, granted, but not raining at all, so the excuse of a roof from the elements won't fly here. It's not even a particularly significant make of car, just your run-of-the-mill Opel economy job, the door of which our brainiac probably gave a good dent to from whacking it against the central crossbar of his carriage-kiosk garage. Sharp-eyed readers (yes, both of you) may note that the license tag on the Opel is not Romanian and perhaps I should be more forgiving of the stranger in a strange land who may not know our ways. To which I humbly reply: bollocks. The very fact that you read this is living proof that Bucharest contains its fair share of obnoxious foreigners who can still function quite suitably in this society. And parking, despite the impression you may get from even a moment's observation in any of the area's new mega-hyper shopping malls springing up like mushrooms in a fresh damp dungpile, is not rocket science. Put your car between the lines, how hard can it be?
Okay, maybe you're right, this is not the best city in which to pose that particular question. After all, I did say this was going to be a rich and full series, didn't I?

16 January, 2009

Budget Irish Cream

After all, what is "Irish cream" but basically whiskey, sugar and cream? Yeah, yeah, the purists and/or marketers will tell you it has to be Irish whiskey, and that there should be added flavors of chocolate, coffee, nuts, pizza, whatever to the mix. But when you're puttering about the flat on your day off and you decide you have a taste for the stuff (it happens and you know it) but the weather outside is frightful so a trip to the store is offputting, boozy beggars can't be choosers and necessity indeed gives rise to invention.

First is the question of whiskey. All respectable Budget Bachelors (or those who at least live like one) have some in a cupboard somewhere, it's part of the requirements of commanding the title. But the chances of it being genuine Oyrish are prolly just what you expect. Fear not, I've done it with any number of Scotches and even Jack Daniels and haven't been arrested yet by the Grain Police.

Next is the cream, without which Irish Cream would be a misleading sham, wouldn't it? Best is the real thing, simple sweet cream.

Living in Romania compels me to clarify: we must call cream "sweet cream" because (now keep up) around here the plain word "cream" (smantana) really means "sour cream." If you want regular fresh non-soured dairy cream, you ask for "sweet cream," or "smantana dulce." Despite the included term "sweet," this does not imply any added sugar in any cream. The nearest equivalent in nature of which I can think is in the petroleum industry where crude oil is labeled "sweet" if sulfur is not found in it or "sour" if it is. However, this is not quite analogous because said oil terminology is not biased towards sweetness or sourness; there is a fair and equal descriptive term for each. With Romanian cream, the "generic" term means sour cream, and non-sour cream gets the complex name. The implication here is that to Romanians, sour is accepted as cream's natural state, and non-sour is a novelty, if not an aberration, that you need to ask for special, by a term that isn't even accurate, at that. This reminds me of how I also hear the word "castraveti" used to describe pickles almost as often as to describe fresh cucumbers. Again, the state of being sour appears considered not particularly different from ordinary, to the possible extent that sour IS considered ordinary and non-sour is special. It gets downright thoughtful if you dare to extrapolate this trend... is "sour" considered the norm over "sweet" in other areas of life here? Say, not just foodstuffs but in more behavioral areas? Wouldn't it just completely explain the attitudes one gets from the average Bucharest shop staffer, ministry drone, motorist, etc?

But I digress.

Sweet (fresh, non-soured, but without added sweeteners) cream is certainly the truest ingredient for your homemade Irish cream. But you have to work in your own sweetener (ironic after all this etymology) and I suppose you could heat the cream til sugar melts in it and then wait for it to cool, or just stir it in cold til your hand falls off. But all respectable Budget Bachelors (or those who at least live like one) are not only known for being frugal, but lazy as well, and like to find the least effort necessary to get the best results. I found mine by accident after a party for which I made homemade whipped cream. In this case, "homemade" meant running an electric hand mixer through a pre-mixed whipping cream which already contained cream and sugar mixed together. Granted, it also contains gelatins to stabilize and thicken the whipped results, but it's not like it's poison or anything. Bit of extra protein in fact. Anyway, after said party I had a bit of unused whipping cream left in the container, roughly about the same as the amount of Chivas in a similarly post-party bottle. Too little of either to do anyone any good, so I did what I usually do in these cases... pour them together and see what happens.

The result, a surprisingly passable Bailey's wannabe. To my palate, it actually seemed a bit more "honest" somehow than the commercial stuff, maybe from no added third-party flavors like nuts, cocoa, etc. The sugar in the whipping cream was just the right amount, a bit less than Baileys which again, to me, was a good thing as Bailey's runs at roughly one cavity per shotglass. Consistency was spot on, not too thick or thin. I categorized it as "something I'd do again" and in fact I have. Today. Right now. Day off, you see. I usually do something ill-advised on my days off anyway, so this fits in. Not so much that I've once again mixed up my own Irish Cream, but that I was so impressed by it (or at least, it was so potent) that I was compelled to get online, and after roughly the last 2 years, finally research blogging sites and software before landing here to set up a blog just so I could write about it.

So, welcome to Ken's long, long overdue blog. Well, I actually did it once before on MySpace but it seemed very mis-targeted for my needs. Hopefully this will be better. So far so good. Can't promise the rest of my stuff will be this cohesive in future... apparently I may tend to ramble.

- K -