Whatever!

I should have been angry. I should have been furious. I should have been ranting with self-righteous indignation. I should have felt like my privacy had be violated, like my world had been invaded, like my self had been stolen and yet the best I could muster was a rather insipid ‘whatever’.

This message appeared in my email box:

Hi Mary,

Someone just used your password to try to sign in to your Google Account using an application such as an email client or mobile device.

Details: Sunday, February 19, 2017 1:21 PM (Eastern European Standard Time)
Egypt

So, someone in Egypt is busy pretending they’re me and the best I can do is wonder what they look like. Are they even a flesh-and-blood person or are they a computer program randomly trying a bunch of pilfered addresses? If they’re real, are they male or female, boy or girl, man or woman? Are they doing this for a living or just for the hell of it? What do they hope to gain? My emails aren’t that interesting. And where did they get my address/password from anyway?

Cyber-attacks on grand scale happen every day. At the Warsaw Summit back in July last year, NATO declared cyberspace as the fourth military domain, in company with land, air, and sea. The battle is on. A quick check of the Hackmageddon site shows the scale of what’s happening out there and it ain’t pretty:

… the discovery of a long lasting cyber espionage campaign in Italy dubbed EyePyramid, targeting the political and economical elite, and the massive cyber attack against Barts Health Trust, the largest NHS trust in England.

Now, with power grids being brought their knees (remember Kiev being plummeted into darkness last year?), with the accounts of millions of being compromised, my thief in Egypt will hardly rate a mention. And knowing that, I couldn’t muster anything close to anger. Because sadly, I see it as a cost of doing business on the Net. At some stage, all of my accounts will be compromised. Live with it, Mary.

And add to the theft itself, the doubt it created. Because of this one incident, I had to change all my passwords everywhere and that was no mean feat, not to mention inconvenient and an hour of my life I’ll never get back. But before the change could happen, I had to find out if the original Google alert was real. Yep. Perhaps the warning was a phishing scam and not really from Google at all. But I checked the email address, proofread the text, and made sure it was from a secure site. And that, ladies and gentlemen is the extent of my preparedness. Sad.

Do I need to know more? Do I need to take more precautions? Or can I be sure that Google is out there, watching my back, knowing that it can’t prevent people stealing my password but it can let me know when it happens…

So much for the initial ‘whatever’. The real anger, frustration, and indignation set in when I started thinking of how much more I whatever – more important things like racial comments, bullying, political stupidity. Are they, too, just the price I pay for living in the twenty-first century? Have my sensibilities been dulled to the point that I’m growing inured to atrocities and injustice? Am I retreating into my own little world, cocooning myself in a bucolic blanket, about as far as I can get from reality without stepping off the world altogether? Is my ever-present craving to hole up in the countryside symptomatic of  my disillusionment with life in general? Has feeling safe become so important that I relish closing the gates on the outside world, just to feel that sense of peace I don’t know anywhere else?

Damn you, Egypt. I had more to be doing this week than second-guess myself.

 

 

2017 Grateful 44

Dithering at a bus stop outside Dublin Airport recently, debating the merits of taking a 16 or 41, a bus driver hollered at us from inside his bus.

– Where are ye off to?
– Malahide Road
– That’s a long road, love
– Between Artane and Donnycarney
– Ah – you want that bus there (pointing to the one in front of him). Get off at Annesley motors on Cloghran and hop on the 27b and you’ll be sorted. How are ye paying?
– We have Leap cards [Irish equivalent of Oyster cards – prepaid travel cards]
– Ye know it’s two fares, right?
– Yep – cheers
– No bother

So we get on the No. 16 and ask the driver to let us out at Annesley Motors in Cloghran. Then we sit down and wait.

In comes our friendly guy. He has a chat with our driver and then shouts down the bus to us:

– Tommy’ll see ye right. He’ll let ye know when to get off. Are ye okay so?

It’s been a while since I’ve merited such attention.

We motor on and Tommy finally calls us out. As he pulls up to the stop, he asks us where we are going:

– Malahide Road. Between Donnycarney and Artane
– Ah sure, why don’t you come on down with me to Beaumont and pick up the 14 That’ll take you to Donnycarney
– But they’d we’d have to walk up the hill instead of down
– Fair point, fair point. I’ll take ye to the next stop – it has a shelter and a timetable so ye can see where ye’re at. No charge. Ye’ll have a wait though. Sure ye won’t come with me?
– Nah. Thanks though. We’re grand

At this stage, the rest of the passengers, all tourists, were trying to figure out who we were and why we were getting such attention.

It was bloody freezin’ as we stood and waited our 12 minutes for the 27B. It was on the screen, getting tantalizingly close only to drop back as it was overtaken by another bus. We watched the countdown. 5 min. 4 min. 2 min. Due. And then it disappeared off the screen and never appeared over the hill. And we were in Cloghran.

A couple of minutes later, a bus pulls up. It had its as seirbhís sign up (out of service). The driver opened the door and the story continued

– What number are ya?, I asked
– What number do you want me to be?
– I’d love you to be a 27B

– Grand so. Hop on.

Not quite believing the randomness of it all, on we got.

– What fare to you want?
– I’ve no clue. I want to go to the Malahide Road. The stop after the turn to Artane Castle
Yeah, but what fare do you want?
– The cheapest

Grand so. That’ll be €1.05

We were on that bus for at least half a hour if not 40 minutes; our €1.05 had run out in the first ten. We wandered in and out of estates, passing the same church at least twice. It was like a mystery tour.

I love Dublin. I love Dubliners. I love the irreverence and their ability to knock some craic out of just about anything. And for those who say that the ‘furriners’ or the ‘non-nationals’ moving into the country will ruin it, only one of those three bus men was Irish. It hadn’t taken the others long to catch on. And for this, I’m grateful.

 

All in a name

I’m a great fan of Oscar Wilde and one of my favourite plays is The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve been known to bet on a horse just because its name reminds me of something or someone I like to remember. I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to see what is behind a curious place name. So when I discovered that the neighbouring village of Zalavár was once known as Moosburg, I laughed aloud. The Alaska me had come full circle.

Driving around the lake recently, we went in search of the museum signposted on the road to Sármellék. We had passed it once before and I’d noted the funny-looking church that I’d mentally added to my Lake-Church photo project. Not quite sure what to expect, what we did find was remarkable.

The history of Zalavár dates back to about 840 AD. At the turn of the twelfth century, it became the county seat, long since relinquished to Zalaegerszeg. Around that time, the Benedictines built an abbey and monastery there and over the centuries other private estates grew in the area. The history reads like a saintly Who’s Who with the likes of Adrian,  Cyril, Methodius, and Benedict all getting an honorable mention. Various churches and chapels were built and dedicated and then razed in the battles and wars that ensued: The martyr Adrian’s Church, the Chapel of St Stephen, the Church of the Blessed Virgin, and a church with no patron at all.

Looking out over the fields at the remnants of the foundations, it doesn’t take much to imagine Zalavár as a thriving metropolis, a far cry from the sleepy village it is today. That so much has survived the ages is a miracle. Excavations over the last 60 years or so have yield a treasure of antiquities that flesh out the history of what was once a very important place indeed. So whether it was Moosburg or Mosuburg or Mosaburg (depending on what you read), Zalavár is worth a second visit when the museum opens at the end of this month.

Rephrasing the ask

When I told my mother that I wasn’t doing guilt any more, she laughed. Deep, down, on some basic cellular level, guilt is hardwired into the Irish psyche. It took (and takes) a lot of effort for me not to be guilted into doing something I don’t want to do. [See, it’s even a verb in Ireland.] I’ve had to retrain those around me to rephrase their ask to get the answer they want in a way that leaves me guiltless.

But it wasn’t always so. When I was still doing guilt, the conversation would go something like this.

I’m going into town to do some shopping.
Grand.

30 minutes later:
I’m heading off now.
Enjoy.

15 minutes later:
I’ll go so.

This is where I’d usually cave and go – Okay, okay. I’ll go!!! But since I gave up the guilt, the ask has had to change and all concerned now know that if they want me to do something, the ask has to be explicit.

So me and mam are sorted. I’d forgotten all about it until recently, when this conversation happened…

It’s a lovely day – do you want to go for a drive around the lake?
Nope. No ta. [I was up to my tonsils and happily cocooned in my den, oblivious to the sun shining outside. I was where I wanted to be and I didn’t want to be disturbed.]

10 minutes later:
You sure you don’t want to come? We could check out …..?
Nah, not today. Tomorrow maybe.

5 minutes later:
Shame to waste the day…
mmmmm, whatevs

In fairness, there were no dramatic sighs or annoying tsk tsks, no sound track to accompany the hopeful questions that were clearly not getting the right answer. But then I remembered… they hadn’t had the training and divine inspiration was in short supply.

So I explained about not doing guilt. And about changing the ask from ‘Do you want to ….’  to ‘Will you…’

Invariably, if I’m working, the latter has a much better chance of happening. So we went. To the lake. And got there just in time to see the sun beginning to set. Fabulous.

 

 

A day of silence

Retreats used to be a focal point of religious life in Ireland. They may well be enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts as busy professionals look to disengage and step outside the online world. Generally, they last for anything from a half-day to two weeks. Most are preached, some are guided (as in silent). And it’s the silence I’m taken with. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a 10-day silent stint somewhere but figured that I should start off slowly – just to see. So when I got a present of a one-day silent retreat at Manresa House in Clontarf (an Oasis Day), I was dead chuffed. That said, it took me two years to get around to booking in and last Saturday was the day.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The last time I’d been on retreat was back in Secondary School and that wasn’t today or yesterday. And back then, prayer and reflection were about as far from our minds as silence.

They told us that we could do as much or as little of the set programme. We could walk the beach at Clontarf across the road, or stroll through the neighbouring St Anne’s Park or simply wander the grounds. And we could have done all three had the weather cooperated. But it was miserable. Teeming rain and howling winds made it a perfect day to be indoors.

Nineteen of us in all showed up. Given the option of a silent lunch or a talking one, I opted for the former. The whole idea for me was to say nothing to nobody. This was my trial. No phone. No laptop. No talking. We had our choice of places to retreat to: a chapel, a prayer room, a library, or the lounge, complete with floor to ceiling windows and reclining chairs.

As I said, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The first of three guided meditations got rid of the residual stress. Left to my own devices I wandered the library and picked up a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel. I cracked it open and read a passage – the answer to something that’s been bothering me for months jumped off the page. I was sold.

The next meditation, coincidentally, was also on a passage from Matthew – a different one. My mind was all over the place but I was getting the hang of it. I’d visited the honor-system book stand and purchased a copy of Antony de Mello’s Rediscovering Life, and each time we were left to amuse ourselves, I’d retreat to a corner and read.

De Mello has it all figured out. The root cause of sorrow is attachment. He tells a story of a guy going into a restaurant with his mind set on tomato soup. But there’s no tomato soup of the menu. He’s mad. He leaves. He goes to the next restaurant. That’s me. I’ve done that. I once tried four Chinese restaurants because I was fixated on having dumplings for dinner. In de Mello’s lingo, I was attached to my dumplings. And I got quite worked up about not finding any. How much better for me had I been detached and simply picked any one of the may other dishes I liked. The angst I’d have saved myself.

I read this before lunch. Which was just as well.

There is one dish that I cannot abide. I can’t abide the taste of it or the smell of it. I’d rather go without that to sit down to a plate of boiled bacon and cabbage. And that’s exactly what was on the menu. Bacon and cabbage and potato with the obligatory parsley sauce. What a great opportunity to practice detachment. Anyway, there was no choice. I’d not phoned in my dietary preferences in advance (usually I go vegetarian for communal dining), so I ate the bacon. And it wasn’t bad.

Later that afternoon we had more guided meditation and then confession. It’s been a while. Although a practicing Catholic, I’m at odds with the institution and find it hard to confess to things I do not repent. But the Jesuits are pragmatists, believing that ultimately it’ll be between me and my maker and if I can live with the thoughts of how that conversation might go, so can they. Not for the first time, I left the confessional without receiving the sacrament but having enjoyed an enlightening conversation that helped square away something else that had been bothering me for a while.  I was batting 3 for 3.

We finished up with a final meditation, what St Ignatius calls the Daily Examen, an elaboration on my nightly grateful ritual. Before we left, we had the option of going to mass. I usually shy away from Mass in English as I’ve been a little disillusioned by the inability of those preaching to make the Gospel relevant. Best, I think, to spend my mass time in communing in my own way, none the wiser.

The celebrant was from Malta. I could tell by his accent. And given that both Brexit and the Trump election were mentioned, his sermon was Relevant with a capital R.

Conclusion: It was a great gift. A very worthwhile way to spend a day. And although I did think more than once that I could enjoy a similar quiet and solitude down  by the Kis Balaton, I realised that there, I’d always find something to do. A day devoted to thinking, reflecting, and yes, the occasional nap, is a rarity, but one certainly worth repeating.

Maybe next time, I’ll try the 4-day one and gradually work myself up to the full 8 days of silence. Bliss.

 

2017 Grateful 45

Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris? Nope, he’s not. He’s dead. Dead and very buried on an island in French Polynesia. But his songs are still doing their thing and at the Gate Theatre in Dublin this week I met the Belgian in spirit for the first time.

I was in town. My mate had tickets. It was a given that I’d go. I asked no questions as I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen bad, really bad theatre. I’ve seen mediocre stuff, but even a mediocre night at the theatre beats a night of thumb twiddling.

So, to Jacques. I wasn’t the only one in the company who’d not heard of him so I wasn’t that put out. Born Jacques Romain Georges Brel, he died back in 1978 at the very young age of 49. Lauded as the master of the chanson (a lyric-driven French song style), his work has influenced the likes of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen, two of my favourite lyricists. McKuen was one of the first Americans to translate his songs, which were originally written in French and Dutch.

Brel himself wasn’t above influence either. Probably his most recognised song, Ne me quitte pas (If you go away), recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Marlene Dietrich and a litany of others, has a melody in part derived from Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Needless to say, I didn’t recognise it. But no surprises there.

The cast of four – Risteárd Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan – were well into it all. The revue was originally performed in Paris in 1968 to great acclaim and there wasn’t anyone in the audience on Thursday night who didn’t enjoy it either. It was magical. The scene was set in Paris, in a crumbling old bar reminiscent of Budapest’s Piaf. It ran uninterrupted for 90 minutes with song after song sung with a passion and enunciation that lent clarity and soul to every word.

The four swung seamlessly between tunes, adopting the roles required by each set of lyrics. Each song told the type of poignant and heartfelt story that never dates. I was particularly taken with The Old Folks and the lines:

Though you may live in town, you live so far away
When you’ve lived too long

As I said, Brel’s songs were originally recorded in French or Dutch and subsequently translated to English so while Elly Stone’s version does the man justice, his original is something else and worth a listen.

McKeon’s version of Carousel left me reeling. I was there with her, on the carousel, going fast and faster to the point of dizziness. Amazing. But like all Brel’s songs, this too was what Cooper calls a ‘playlet’. And what Peter Crawley explains in his review in the Irish Times as creating

 an image of life that is always accelerating, finally moving so fast that it threatens to spin out of control completely.

We met a young girl whose sweetheart didn’t come home from the war. We met a young soldier who lost is virginity in army whorehouse. We even had a glimpse of Brel talking from his grave. I enjoyed every last minute of it and have made a note to self to buy Marc Almond’s album Jacques to hear it all again. If you’re in Dublin in February, it’s a must see.

This week, I’m grateful I didn’t ask questions because it wouldn’t have been something I’d have picked to go to see myself… and although discovering him late, my life is already all the richer for knowing of Jacques Brel.

 

Selflessness in action

The village of Tarnabod sits 113 km east of Budapest. A shadow of its former self, today success and plenty are but a memory. Like other villages in rural Hungary, things are bad in Tarnabod. Jobs are scarce, resources few. And, for many villagers, by the last Saturday of the month, food and money have run out.

In 2011, Gabriella, a then Budapest-based journalist, visited the village to do a piece on child poverty. It was the beginning of a journey that saw her and her best friend and fellow journalist Kata, getting involved in making life a little easier for the locals. Tarnabod és mi (Tarnabod and us) was born. What started as donations of food, clothes, and cleaning materials has grown into solid support. Their relationship with the village is open and trusting, and their help is much appreciated.  When the kids go back to school, Kata & Co., provide school supplies. When the football team needs new boots, they are there. When the village needs hot food, they’re there, too.

Photo by Péter Horgas / Tarnabod és Mi

The Saturday I was there, it was -12°C. I watched as Chef Daniel, from Revolucíon Budapest, one of the city’s top Tex-Mex restaurants (Akácfa u. 57), and his team tried valiantly to get the barrel fires going. They were there to cook a hot stew for the villagers (all 600 or so of them). They’ve been doing this every month in winter and every second month in summer since 2015.  They worked outside, on open fires, in freezing temperatures. When the food was ready, word went around and the people came to collect.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Up the road, in the tanoda (study hall), Zsuzsa and her gang from Caledonia Social Bites prepared hot chocolate. We were lucky. We got to work inside. In the next room visiting singers, musicians, and storytellers entertained the kids. The place rocked. Two of the local young lads have gotten places in a gymnastic school in Budapest – one is particularly talented and destined for great things. They both come from large families with unemployed parents. This scholarship is their way out of the cycle of poverty in which the village is mired. And that’s Kata’s aim – to show the kids that they can have a life outside the village, that theirs can be a different world.

As we worked, I met other volunteers from other groups, all there to contribute in their own way. Volunteers like 20-year-old Selina, German born of Turkish descent, who’s spending her gap year working in Tarnabod. An Order of Malta programme funds her food and accommodation and gives her pocket money in return for the work she does at the preschool, the kindergarten, the primary school, and the tanoda. There are far more glamorous places to spend a gap year, but a 10-day student exchange to Debrecen sealed her fate. Selina fell for Hungary in a big way and wanted to contribute to the greater good. She’s one of a group of 12 young people on the programme from Spain, Germany, and Poland aged 18–29 who are volunteering around the country, giving of their time and energy and getting invaluable life experience in return. The kids love her and she gives every ounce of that love back, and more besides.

A car pulled up. Heni and Szilvia had arrived from Debrecen with bags of clothes. They got involved with Tarnabod és mi after experiencing first-hand how activism and volunteerism work. For nearly 80 days straight they worked their day jobs and then helped man the train station in Debrecen from 6pm till 1am helping refugees figure out where they were going. With a multinational student cohort at the local university, they had lots of willing translators and interpreters who juggled exam schedules to be available. Since then, the pair have continued to do what they can for those in need. They joined forces with the Bike Mafia in Debrecen to feed the homeless and are in the process of setting up an NGO.

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

A couple of weeks ago, a Roma family in the village of Sáp heard a knock on the door. Officials came and removed their 8 youngest kids and 2 grandkids to places unknown, saying that the house wasn’t fit for kids to live in (the family had just moved in). For three days, the parents didn’t know where the children had been taken. The dad’s boss posted a request for help on his Facebook page, a request that was brought to Szilvia’s attention. Thanks to local volunteers and community donations, within 6 days the house had a new fitted kitchen and new floors. It was fully furnished and carpeted. The cupboards were stocked with food, the wardrobes filled with clothes. The kids are expected home soon.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo
Photo by Szilvia Vékony

The hot chocolate went down a treat. It did this jaded heart good to see so many smiling, laughing faces, despite the odds. Because the odds ain’t good. And despite there being people willing to give of themselves and their time for no other reason than to help others, naysayers, politics, and egos can thwart the best of intentions. What’s needed is action. What’s needed are more people like the Tarnabod crew – people who do more than sit around a table and discuss the whys and wherefores of possibilities; people who recognise a need and act on it.

Yes, there will be those who show up for the photo opp. And perhaps the gloved volunteers who went to draw with kids in a refugee camp did more harm than good.  But as long as the Katas in this world make things happen, there is hope.  And today, more than ever, we need to work together, to give of ourselves, to do what we can to redress the imbalance and mitigate the fear being fomented by those in charge of our world.

PS: The villagers badly need gloves – all sizes. The collection point is Jurányi Produkciós Ház, II. District, Jurányi u.1. Give what you can. Make a difference.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2017

When a minute makes a difference

There’s a saying in Italian  that loosely translates to ‘everything you leave is lost’ – ogni lasciata e persa. Determined to keep the number of regrets I have in life to a bearable minimum, I’m a big fan.

Walking through early-morning Birgu at the weekend, we decided to take the high road rather than stroll by the water. We came around a corner and while I was busy checking out the decal on the bonnet of a parked car, my friends had spotted another niche with part of a procession display sitting on the ground beside it. Two chaps walked up. We got chatting and they invited us in to see their workshop.

Back in August a couple of years ago, the island was beset by a freak storm. It was two days before 10 August, the Festa of St Lawrence, and all the church statues were out in place. The storm wreaked havoc and the statues were damaged. Noel, a printer by trade, is now voluntarily restoring them to their former glory and his work is quite something.

I never gave much thought to how they managed to capture folds in the clothing so accurately but now know that they use burlap. They use everything from paper maché to chalk to fibreglass to make their effigies, mixing the colours to remain as true as possible to the originals and then coating with linseed oil to reflect the natural light. The festivals are quite the spectacle and were this one not at the height of the summer, I might be tempted to drop by.

Noel learned his trade from a  local master and today spends his free time at the workshop. Once a church on the waterfront, the place still has a latent holiness going on. What a lovely place to work. And to think, had we been just a minute later, the boys would have passed through the gate and locked it. We’d wouldn’t have had the chance to chat and the invitation inside wouldn’t have been issued. What a difference a minute can make.

Classic regeneration

My disdain for planners has been noted. Seeing modern atrocities sitting next to traditional masterpieces does my head in. And yes, I can appreciate how, in their day, those same traditional masterpieces might well have been been regarded as modern atrocities themselves, but this does little to cheer me up.

That said, I’m quite partial to a decent re-do. I like it when old buildings get a facelift. Not the Macedonia-style facelift where they’re built new to look old, but the genuine thing. I was quite keen to see what the Maltese had done with the battlements at Birgu and was genuinely impressed with how tastefully it all turned out. The city’s houses and archways and battlements boast of dates from the sixteenth century. [The American University is currently revamping a large harbour-front edifice that I had marked for my lotto spoils. I only hope they do as I had intended and keep it simple.]   Walking beneath the arches amidst the olive trees early in the morning with nothing to listen to but the sound of birds chirping is probably as close as it gets to heaven on an island beset by tourists, traffic jams, and building developments. The combination of blue skies and white stone is one I don’t think I could ever get tired of. Add to that the startling blue of some of the houses and you can’t but realise that you’re in the middle of the Med.

Wending my way through the streets, pedestrianized by virtue of their narrowness rather than by public order, was like walking back through time. For many, the day had yet to begin. And as the streets rose and fell and the walls popped out of nowhere, slivers of water could be seen through the gaps. It was truly magical.

 

Different in daylight

January visitors to Budapest commented that the city was sooooo different to the Budapest they’d visited in the summer. And yes, it is. Completely different. No less interesting or beautiful though, just different. The same goes for Birgu (Città Vittoriosa) in Malta.

The last time I was there, it was night time. We’d taken a boat across to enjoy the Festival of Lights, when people prop open their front doors, light up their hallways and front rooms with candles, and give the world a peek inside. It’s a fascinating idea, one which the cynic in me screamed ‘reconnaissance’ figuring that it had to be equivalent to Christmas for art thieves. Although, presumably, all the good pieces would have been removed from sight. That said, some people’s egos may have decreed otherwise.

This time though, putting the couple of free hours I had this trip to good use, I was there early morning – in sunlight. And what a difference the daylight made. The niches, a tradition that dates back to Roman times, are plentiful. [I read somewhere recently that religion gave Malta the statues and the streets provided the Maltese with the space to put them up.] But in Birgu, the niches give way to the paintings and the pottery (all holy, of course). Walking through the streets is a joy because you simply never know what you might happen upon.

And the secular equivalent of these holy curiosities has to be the doorknockers. Some were obviously new, but others had a polished patina that could only have been achieved by decades, if not centuries, of elbow grease.

And then, of course, there’s the oddity. That thing that no one can explain. But it wouldn’t be Malta if the quirkiness could be explained. It brings a whole new appreciation for the concept of bathing in public.