Don's Diary

April 21, 2000

Monday

Wake up in state of disorientation in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu. Turn over and rumple Terry Eagleton's Illusions of Postmodernism, which appears to have served as a pillow.

Join Mark Curry of Westminster University to lead British Council-sponsored seminars with Romanian academics. Under the umbrella of "postmodern issues", we will share up-to-the-minute pedagogic innovations, discuss pressing issues in the field and give a puff for contemporary British writing (everyone gets a copy of New Writing 9).

It is an exhilarating day, with a radical disjuncture between topics - globalisation, shopping and technological innovation. At the lavish reception, incongruously, we are told 57 varieties of queuing joke from Ceausescu's time.

Tuesday

A student audience. The level of English language capability, never mind intellectual resourcefulness, is in advance of that of our charges in the United Kingdom. Not only instruction but administration and social interaction seem to take place in English.

For this audience, postmodern issues matter: they represent challenges to totalitarian power and the opening of economic and cultural exchange with the rest of the world. The sessions culminate in reflections on how to understand identity and form moral positions in such changed conditions.

Wednesday

To Bucharest University for a session hosted by Mihaela Irimia and the ground-breaking British studies MA programme.

Our hosts are keen to check they are up to date, and eager to find out what comes next. Mark and I suggest, sheepishly, that this ought to be up to them.

Back at our hotel, we are, oddly, given rooms at opposite ends of the building and feel for the first time ill at ease. Turning from Eagleton to the OECD Report on Romania, I realise that my pocket money ($60, largely unspent) represents a month's salary for a senior academic, most of whom therefore work two full-time jobs. Their resilience and good humour amaze me still more.

Thursday

London: mail, washing, bills and books for review. I apply for some jobs, listen obsessively to Transylvanian folk tunes and think about the report on our trip. Portentously, this begins: "This was not so much a visit, as the beginning of a relationship." As the follow-up emails begin to arrive, from Sibiu, Bucharest, Constanta, I decide not to change it.

Friday

To Paris, for "La Nuit des Publivores". This annual festival of television advertising is a vast, Rocky Horror Show-like in-joke, spawning its own counter-culture.

I attend with Jean-Christian Bouvier, aficionado and semiologist-critic of the genre. As we cheerily deconstruct the event I begin to feel discomfort. The kitsch and manic celebration of consumerist fantasy, the levelling of local cultural difference: is this what comes next for Romania?

Sean Matthews was until recently a visiting scholar in the department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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