A garden of freshly cut tears

IMG_2967Budapest, Hungary. Monday, 31st August, 2009.

“We don’t know when we will pass this way again, so we’re going to give you everything we got.” In his mid-seventies, face deeply etched by a life that has been lived, Leonard Cohen gave us his all, and more besides. He was on stage for three hours, played six encores, and held a mainly non-English-speaking audience in the palm of his hand for every minute.  In Dublin, additional dates had to be added; I think he sold out three concerts, if not four. In Budapest, another thousand people could have easily fit in the arena where he played one night only.

I saw him live in Amsterdam last year. An outdoor venue. Me, JD and a few thousand aging hippies, high as kites, standing in a field, in the rain. That night was special for many reasons and is forever etched in my bones. I knew I was in the presence of greatness, of humility, and of something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Tonight…tonight, I finally got it.

What Leonard Cohen has is respect. He puts it out, he gets it back. He wasn’t sure when he would pass this way again, so he gave us everything he had. And more. He thanked us, as he did in Amsterdam, for keeping his songs alive all these years. There was none of this ‘Budapest, I love you’ crap that modern-day megastars seems to enjoy bellowing at an audience who have paid through the nose to hear their pitiful, between-song rhetoric. There was none of the egotistical prancing and strutting around the stage (Grafton Street, God, and what’s-his-name come to mind). There was none of the flashiness or pomp that is too often used as an excuse for talent. Am I jaded? Perhaps a little.

The man kept it simple. He bowed to his band. He repeatedly acknowledged their talent and how important they are to him. He even thanked his bus drivers and the girl who looked after their hats. The man knows people; he appreciates what he has; and he understands the importance of humility and respect. So his voice isn’t what it used to be but the poetry that is his music is all the richer. I heard words tonight that I’ve never really heard before although I have ironed my way through his songs a hundred times. But the experiences of  mindless singing along and really listening to what’s being said are light years apart. Tonight, I had the time to listen.

Back in the day, we’d light our matches or wave our cigarette lighters in the air at concerts: the ultimate accolade. Tonight, the luminous screens of mobile phones lit the arena, as people recorded songs to listen to later. I was reminded of something Tiziano Skarpa wrote about in his book Venice is a Fish. He reckons that as tourists, we’re too busy taking photographs to really see what it is we’re looking at; too busy capturing the memory to really experience it at the time. And I wonder, of those who could understand the words, how many really heard them.

Tonight Leonard Cohen spoke to me and said: ‘My darling…I hope you’re satisfied.’

Yes, Leonard, I am.

Ikea should package G&Ts with their put-togethers!

IMG_2638I’ve arrived! I’m now officially resident in Budapest! I got my first Ikea catalogue in the post today. And what’s more, I read it. Scary. I found a book shelf that would fit my kitchen. Not quite the black wrought iron job I had in mind, but it would do the trick. And the job I was waiting on hadn’t arrived (and still hasn’t arrived), so I decided to take advantage of the moment and head east. From my flat, it’s a 7-minute walk to the korut, a 5-minute tram ride to Blaha Lujza tér and then the piros (red)  metro four stops to Ors Vezérs tere. Door to door about 30 minutes. Ikea has opened a shop in Dublin and are expecting so much traffic that they’ve had to delay their opening hours to 11am so that people have a chance to get to work before the hoards descend. Myself, I don’t quite get the attraction! And I’ve just finished work on a marketing book with a case study on Ikea in CEE and it certainly made me think twice about shopping there again… I’m not a chardonnay girl!!!

But it was going to be a quick in-and-out job – I knew what I wanted and could carry nothing more. I was back, job done, in 90 minutes. The only moment of indecision came in the CBA (the corner shop) on the way home: a beer or a G&T – which was more appropriate for the task ahead? You would think I’d know this but, although I have Ikea stuff in my flat, I have never put anything together myself. I have some great friends who know my limitations. In the end I decided on a beer – it was a job I reckoned that would require more brawn than brains!

Four shelves graduating in size (check);  four metal legs (check); and 16 screws (check). Everything present and correct.  I had a quick look at the instructions. Clear.Simple. No bother. It took me a little while to figure out how I was going to do this with only two hands (and yes, it was a little easier when I put down the beer!). I tried propping up the frame, but it kept falling. Metal frame hitting stone floor in the calm dead of night… that’s a sound that resonates! After the third fall, I thought it time to think a little. I laid the frame across two chairs. Good job Maro… not half as stupid as you look girl! Then it was a matter of lining up the holes and getting the screws in with one hand using that funny allen key. At some stage I realised I must have been absent the day God was handing out coordination skills! After many a wonderful cuss word had been set forth upon the unsuspecting universe, I finally had it together. Standing tall….but slightly leaning to one side… mmmm…  I checked the instructions again and saw that the holes where I was to screw it into the wall were not where they were supposed to be. So I took it all apart.

This time I was more careful. The holes were now where they were supposed to be. I put it back together again, a little quicker this time as I sort of knew what I was doing.  But something still wasn’t right. It still wasn’t level. So I looked at the instructions again, and this time noticed the little arrows underneath the legs (isn’t Ikea clever!!!). They all had to be facing a certain way. But they weren’t! So I took it apart again, swapped them around, and put it all back together again.

But something still wasn’t right. So for a fourth time, I checked the instructions (both diagrams) and noticed that I hadn’t matched up the legs properly – the extensions were on the wrong sides. So I took it apart yet again and once more, put it back together. And then, the moment of glory. I set up up against the end of my units and it didn’t fit! And yes, I had measured… but I’d measured from the wall and not from the skirting board. That loud wailing you heard in Hawaii Deb… that was me! And I wasn’t crying because the bloody thing wouldn’t fit; or because I couldn’t read the instructions properly; or because I had to redo it so many times; or because it was a wasted journey; I was wailing because the beer wasn’t cutting it. Ikea is definitely a G&T job!

Why I love living in Budapest No. 10

Türelem is the Hungarian word for ‘patience’ and ironically, in a city where single-mindedness is alive and well, particularly during rush hour, it’s surprising how many Hungarians actually possess this virtue. If you stand back and wait your turn to get on or off a tram, bus or metro during rush hour, you’ll be left standing! You have to ready those elbows and leave your timidity behind. BP in rush hour ain’t for the fainthearted. Come to think of it, the same goes for the airport. I’ve been highly amused at the reaction of other passengers when Hungarians casually saunter up the outside of the queue and join it close to the top (either leaving or coming back to Hungary). Feigning complete oblivion to the muted snarls of the more ‘societal-norm-abiding’ folks, they continue chatting until they’re ready to board the plane. In fairness, it’s just a subset (albeit a rather significant one) of the population that appears to have a brass neck – I’ve been in the company of Hungarians who have been equally amused at these antics; not condoning them, but amused nonetheless.

Hungarian_embroidery

Anyway, I digress. Back to türelem. While on my travels and at the various craft festivals in the city, I see lots and lots of people (folk artists) spending hours and hours cross-stitching, weaving, spinning, making flowers and doing other craftwork that would have me chomping at the bit. Intricate embroidery using a stuffed canvas and numerous threaded spools was particularly amazing.

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Have you ever wondered how they get those pleats into the peasant skirts? I couldn’t believe it when I saw it and had I not seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me! Each pleat is handmade and then once the skirt is pleated, all however many metres of it, they sew on the waistband! Hours and hours of work. Now that’s türelem!

hand_pleating_peasant_skirts

I knit. There are a few men in the world who wore or may even still be wearing jumpers I’ve knitted. My mother used to roll her eyes when she saw the knitting needles coming out…a sure sign of a new man on the scene. I was always partial to a man in a jumper believing (as I still do) that proper jumpers (not the lambswool, pastel, wrap around the neck jobs that never seem to go away – but the real, down-home, chunky Aran knits) are what separate the men from the boys! But my knitting had a fury about it; an obsession of sorts that lit red hot for as long as it took to cast off the final stitches. There was no türelem involved…’twas lust, not love!

IMG_3444folk fest 189

Kitchen

The light in my kitchen is a little strange. I haven’t figured out if this is because of the paint or just because it faces the udvar (courtyard). Mind you, I’m on the top floor so you would imagine that I’d get all the light there was to get, but no. It doesn’t matter though; even if the overhead light is on a lot of the time, it’s still a lovely space.

I have had a fixation with having a blue kitchen ever since I started collecting Denby pottery in 1992. For two years, I bought pieces whenever I had the money. I got it as presents and as ‘thank yous’ for favours done. It stayed in a tea-chest at home from 1994 to 2008 when it finally arrived in Budapest. It’s only now that it’s in daily use that I’ve realised how hard it is to get replacement pieces as Denby discontinue their patterns after a couple of years. It’s a bit like finding a spare part for an old car – you need to wait until someone junks theirs so that you can feed off the pickings!

When I left Valdez, CV gave me the most wonderful wall-hanging that she had outlined in stitch. It must have taken ages. It’s in blues and it needed a home. IMG_3383And I had that wonderful Jon Van Zyle print to hang. That started me thinking: maybe my kitchen should reflect something of how I remember Alaska . So I went for the barren look: ice grey/blue walls; floor tiles that pick out the sparse browny colour of the tundra; lots of blank wall space; a blue marble counter top reflecting the deep blue summer sky (LV thought I was mad buying this as it was the most expensive one in the place, but it was just the right colour and needs must); and plain white units (there are some things Ikea does right!). A number of people have commented on how empty my walls are, so the effect is there.

I struggled somewhat with the appliances though and it took some time find a table and chairs that would blend in the black oven and the dulled stainless steel fridge. But perseverance pays! I found both at Domus, and what a day that was. I mimed my way through the purchase, arranged delivery, paid the bill and even got a VAT receipt, all the time swearing to myself that I’d learn Hungarian. Still, it was only last October….

It took time, too, to find a plant stand for that gorgeous piece of Cool Mountain pottery from Youghal in Co. Cork; one that would look like it was an extension of the floor tile. But again, perseverance paid off. Another find in the BAV on Jaszai Márie tér. Not one normally blessed with such patience, I’ve watched AMcC wait until she finds exactly what she wants and some of that patience must have rubbed off; or perhaps it is the effect she creates by getting exactly the right piece that sold me on biding my time.

IMG_3739On my travels to NE Hungary recently, I came across some exquisite cross stitch work. I love the detail. Having watched a couple of women actually doing it, I realised how time-intensive it is. Funny, until SJ explained it to me not long ago, I has horrified at the cost of some of the lace and embroidery work in the shops in Budapest. But when you divide that end sum by the number of hours it must have taken to do, what you come up with falls far short of the minimum wage. Photographers charge hundreds for their photos; artists charge thousands for their paintings and yet each napkin, tablecloth, runner, is an original work of art, painstakingly created by hand. Ok, so the patterns may not differ too much, but each one is hand stitched. I have a whole new respect for the threaded arts; such patience is priceless.

The one thing that I’m missing is a narrow, black wrought iron book-case to put at the end of the kitchen units…one that will house my cookbooks. I carry the measurements in my bag, and one of these days, it’ll find me!

Why I love living in Budapest No. 7

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Meat is meat is meat. The Hungarian diet is loaded with meat. Not just the Irish ‘meat-and-potatoes’ meat but proper, honest-to-goodness meat. Meat cooked as meat.  Not meat cooked to accompany vegetables, or to provide a vehicle for some fancy sauce. Simply meat. And nothing but meat.  Deep fried, shallowfried, spit-roasted or grilled…meat and its fat are well-respected. And on state holidays, when the folkartists are selling their wares, the meat lads are frying up a storm. You buy it, not by the piece, but by the kilo. I made that mistake once and never again (I really  need to learn this language!)  …even I, with half-a-day’s hunger on me, couldn’t make a dent in the huge piece of beef I’d mistakenly ordered.

And is it good? Good doesn’t even come close. It’s melt-in-your-mouth stuff. Pork is best; that’s the meat that’s been mastered here. Chicken next. Then duck and goose, followed by beef, with lamb limping along behind. ‘Tis hard to get good lamb outside of Ireland or New Zealand. (This morning, a Saturday morning no less, I was up at 7am to chase down a rumour that Lidl was stocking lamb cutlets! Not the Lidl nearest me though.) But sausage is king. Long, thick sausages, swimming in hot oil, register on your olfactory nerves from a 1000 metres! Smoked horse sausage from Eastern Hungary is nearly as good as the moose sausage I enjoyed so much in Alaska.

But best of all is the crackling! Before moving here, I hadn’t had crackling since my days at BoI Coolock. Across the road in the Sheaf o’ Wheat pub, Tony would roast a side of pork on Thursdays. I’d order a plate of crackling with a side of apply sauce. Them were the days! Here in Budapest you can buy crackling by the kilo (it can be pork or goose). I drive my local shopkeeper mad by asking for just három darab (three pieces), apologetically holding up three fingers (not the middle three as in the rest of the world, but the thumb, index, and middle – the Hungarian way). Three pieces? It’s like asking for one square of chocolate. No. It’s like asking for a half a square of chocolate….or a shaving from half a square! Unheard of!  On Monday last, driven to the edge of frustration, having been misplaced in a lower-intermediate Hungarian lanugage class (when I’m clearly just a baby-step removed from being a complete beginnger), I was having a bad day. Frustration is one of those emotions that I don’t do well with. Anger I can handle. Frustration I have yet to master! And, on the Frustration Scale, I was almost at the upper limit; past the chocolate cure; past the G&T cure. I had reached a place I’d not been to before in Budapest so I had no measure of solace. And then it came to me… crackling! Not just három darab but egy kicsit taska (one small bag). And it worked.

Mind you, my gallbladder woke up quicklyand refused to go back to sleep for two days. I could practically hear it putting those gallstones together! I kid you not – I couldn’t sleep on my right side for nearly a week! But at least  nowI know what shape and form the cure for almost maxing out on the Frustration Scale takes!

I have some good friends who happen to also be vegetarian. VS won’t eat anything that has a face. I heard during the week that down the country,  bacon fat is considered a vegetable (as in it’s not meat – there’s no meat on it – it’s simply fat). I’m still laughing at that! I fully respect their choices. And I won’t roast potatoes alongside the leg of lamb if they’re coming to dinner. And if I stay at theirs, I won’t cook meat in their pans; and if I store it in their fridges, it’s triple wrapped! And then there’s my fellow meat-lovers. WZs is blessed with those skinny genes that fat leaves alone! No matter how much she eats, she doesn’t gain a pound. Whereas yours truly is beginning to show the signs. Where’s the justice????

Hungarian road trip (4): Hajdúszoboszló to Budapest

Although I’d said before going to bed that wild horses wouldn’t drag me out of it in the morning, my neighbours had other ideas. So we were up and on the road again before 9am. Getting out of Hajdúszoboszló was nearly as hard as finding some place to stay in it. Actually, truth be told, there must be a ‘special’ way of reading signs in this part of the world – they are few and far between and those that do exist don’t make sense. One minute the town you want is just 20km away, then it’s 21km and then 22km!!!! And the milemarkers have these peculiar +2 things that move them from 270 to 269 back to 271… all while travelling in the same direction. I am convinced that it’s time warp country!

IMG_3628So, although we were heading one way, we ended up in Nádudvar, home to the black-pottery cottage industry. I have seen a lot of pottery in my time in Hungary, but this was a first for me and it’s a grower! The town also has a small cemetery with graves of Russian soldiers killed in WWII. Some of them born in WWI only to die in WWII. What a waste. We were aiming for Hortobágy – home of the Hungarian cowboy. Ok, so I was hearing Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt in my head, and was having visions of Clint Eastwood riding into town. And was I ever wrong. Nope, these cowboys were fellas of another cut entirely! The guide book says it’s been milked by the Hungarian Tourism for everything it’s worth… and that’s true. More tat.. .but this time, tat that you could use, if you had a yard where you could cook the goulash and crack the whips! IMG_3638 Still, it was worth the trip. The town itself is in the middle of a huge national park, home to many diffferent types of birds, including the bustard, which can be as tall as 1 meter and weigh as much as 20kg.

IMG_3655We took a trip on a railway into the park… half an hour in, half an hour to look around, half an hour back. It was a rackety old thing and had it managed to build up any speed at all, it would have been postively orgasmic. There were some serious twitchers in our midst (they actually have a uniform of sorts), but for the most part, it was just something to do. I can’t say it was high on my list but then I’d already gotten all those churches, and fair’s fair. Once in there though, it was gorgeous. So quiet. High reeds and rushes and acres and acres of yellow lily pads. A great place for a cyling trip… if you’re into that sort of thing!

Moving on and closer to home, we went looking for food  into Tiszafüred. Maybe it was because we were tired and it was hot and we were hungry, but things started to take on a little surrealness. Credit card swiped, taken away, forgotten; food ordered, billed for and never received; and what I thought were pickled apples turned out to be apple pickles… and yes, there’s huge difference. It was time to unwind and preferably away from the tourists. After lunch, we headed to Poroszló, parked the car and went for a dip in the Tisza.  It has been years and years and years since Hungary has had a coastline but it certainly knows how to make the most of the water it has. This spot was lovely. IMG_3679Mind you, even the strongest Hungarian sun can’t seem to make a dint on these whiter-than-white legs of mine…no matter how long I spend in it, or how hard I try.

Totally refreshed and ready to brave the city again, we headed back to Budapest. We had travelled over 900km since 6.15 on Thursday and had seen so much of the country. It was nice though, to sit, finally, and have a very large, cold beer at Pot Kulcs having dropped that car back at PM’s.

City trips are great. Weekends away are lovely. But you can’t beat a road trip for the freedom to stop wherever you like, whenever  you like. Next time though, we need to rethink the music!!!

Hungarian road trip (3): Nyíregyháza to Hajdúszoboszló

Up at the crack of dawn, we joined the procession of cars wending their way towards the flea market. According to the guide book (?) we could look forward to ‘a motley crowd consisting of Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians and Roma selling the usual diamonds-to-rust mixture of goods’. In my mind, I’d already found the csillár (chandelier) for my living room, complete with four complementary wall lights, not to mention an eight-place Herend dinnerservice in muted greens. What I found was the usual tacky tat (mostly from China) and lots of vegetables. As we left, the queue of cars to come in was about two miles long! I would have been gutted, had I queued for hours only to leave empty-handed. It wasn’t a complete waste of time though – the chocolate palacsinta (crepe) made a great breakfast!

The plan was to drive to Beregdarác for the village fair and then take it from there. Simple really. The previous couple of days, both the church in Parádsasvár and the one in Mezőkövesd had been closed and as churches (open churches, ones where I can have three wishes and light a candle) are high on my list of things to see, we followed the signs for Máriapócs, home to the weeping Black Madonna (I have a fascination with the Black Madonnas). This particular one though has been removed to Vienna and what remains in Máriapócs is a nineteenth-century copy. This gave us some solace when, after driving around the country for sport (neither of us are great navigators: in fact, when I say I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag at the best of times, KG is only marginally better, but better she is!) we arrived to find the chuch under renovation. And yes, it was closed. What do the faithful do for sanctuary in this part of the world? An open church is as difficult to find as a glass of wine in Parádsasvár after 9pm!

IMG_3483Our luck was in, though, when we got to Nyírbátor. The Calvinist church there is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Hungary and it was open! Now, I’m a tad rusty on my architectural periods but this certainly isn’t what comes to mind when I think ‘Gothic’. Nice ceiling though. Am sure PJF will have a comment or two on this! From there it was on to Mátészalka for some Hortobágyi húsos palacsinta (meat pancakes – what can I say, I’d been in pancake mood since breakfast!). Having eaten our fill, we mosied on to Fehérgyarmat, where the chuch was also closed. Honestly, I was beginning to despair at this stage. Mind you, it did have some rather lovely carvings in the grounds: once again, we were on the outside looking in! IMG_3495From there is was on to Tivador, a little town with the most gorgeous carved wooden street signs and then on to Tarpa, home to yet another Calvinist church, also closed! IMG_3497 Apparently, the Reformation brought Calvinism to Hungary and the Thirty-Years War (1618–1648) established Debrecen as a fortress of the Reformed faith, which explains the number of Calvinist churches in the area.

Eventually we made it to Beregdaróc – the reason for the road trip in the first place. The place was deserted. What could we do but laugh – all this way for nothing. Not a sound from anywhere. And then we turned a corner and met the crowds – the cars, the buses, the villagers, and a Canadian! It was good, down-home fun with lots of music, dancing and crafts. KG had arranged to meet a cross-stitcher (who has won the Kis Janos Bóri prize in her day) so we hooked up with her and went to see her exhibit at the school and then back to her house to sample some hazi palinka. I couldn’t drink, of course. Those damned laws! But I did get a little bottle to take home with me. The Greek Catholic chuch was open and although there were no candles to light, I did get my three wishes!  With all the fun at the fair, it was past five when we left. And, as neither of us can make a decision to save our lives, we just drove on down the road to see where it would take us.

IMG_3608The road led to Csaroda , where a lovely little old woman took a massive key from her pocket and opened the church for us. The cross-stitching in this part of the world is everywhere – and is recognised as a true craft with women gaining folkartist status if good  enough. The church here was full of it. And the painted woodwork was something else. I think that after this trip, plain and simple is the way to fo for a house of worship… forget the marble and the gold. As I child, I remember Fr Jim, a relative of my mother’s, coming home from the missions. When he’d visit a church, he’d pop inside the confessionals and tap the wood; walk up on the altar and check out the tabernacle; he’d even check out the altar cloths! I was horrified that someone, anyone, could be so bold. If he were alive today and visited Hungary, he’d get plenty of ideas of simple houses of worship, where you can simply be, without distraction.

Then it was on to the almost Sussex-like village of Takos for a much-needed coffee and some decision-making. There again, the church (known as the barefooted Notre Dame) was bloody closed  but the café was open. The woman of the house was sitting by the window, cross-stitching. To be female in these parts and not to be able to wield a needle and thread must be akin to being Irish and not knowing how to cook a potato! We decided to head south to Debrecen and make up our mind where to stay along the way. Through an inability to decide, an uncooperative hotelier in Hortobágy, and a wedding en route, we ended up driving to Hajdúszoboszló. The guide book calls it a cross between Blackpool, Bondi Beach and Coney Island. I’ve spent a lovely day in Blackpool watching the bikers take their dancing shoes from the saddlebags and twirling around the dance floor. I’ve never been to Bondi and  I honestly can’t remember Coney Island but truth be told, all I wanted was a bed and it was supposed to have accomodation aplenty! It was like driving through a time warp. Flat land everywhere. Fields of sunflowers and corn. Lights in the distance but nothing to suggest the sheer size of the place. Known as the ‘poor man’s Balaton’ the thermal springs were discovered when some plonker was drilling for oil. The place is surreal. Packed to the gills with the young and the trendy; sidewalk bars and restaurants; amusement parks; stalls selling touristy tat and candyfloss… it was incredible and it was buzzing. So much for those who think this is where the frail and the elderly come to be cured! There wasn’t a zimmerframe in sight. I was stuck to the seat of the car, in danger of hallucinating for want of a beer on what was still a very hot day. I’d driven nearly 275 km, so KG had to go find a room – we drove around and must have checked 12 or more places, none of which would take us in, before we found the Lila Hotel. Now, it’s seen better days, but it was clean. And so what if there were no towels and the wallpaper was peeling off the walls, and the clientele looked liked the bailmen could be coming a callin’, it was a bed. And was I grateful! The beer could wait.

Hungarian road trip (2): Parádsasvár to Nyíregyháza

IMG_3412For once in my hotel life, I was ready for breakfast before it was ready for me. Parádsasvár goes to bed early and wakes up late! Breakfast didn’t start until 9.15! Fully fortified and laden with crystal, we set off on the road to Nyíregyháza…a journey of about 190km, without detours! One of the best things about roadtrips is being able to stop whenever and wherever you fancy. My shout was for the National Memorial Park at Recsk. It was here, between 1950 and 1953, that the Bolshevik dictatorship’s death-labour camp operated, far from public eye. When Stalin died, Nagy Imre closed the camp (he, himself, was later executed by the Communist government). It’s a strange place. Very simple. You can clearly see the foundations of the barracks and the kitchens,  and some of the original barbed-wire fence still exists. There is one barracks standing (I think it’s a replica, as from what I gather, the original camp was completely destroyed – the physical evidence disposed of). Athough the exhibit is in Hungarian, you don’t need to understand the language to imagine what must have gone on there. Wolf Pangloss has some interesting stuff to say about it on his blog. And it all went on, just 5km outside the town. Robbie Burns had it right when he spoke about man’s inhumanity to man.

Duly chastened, we continued on to Mezőkövesd, home to Bóri Kis Jankó, IMG_3442Hungary’s answer to Grandma Moses. For nearly 80 years, she stitched her famous ‘100 roses’ patterns and now, in the Hudas district of the town, other artisans display their work and demonstrate their crafts. Legend has it that, one winter, the devil kidnapped a Mátyó lad. When his girlfriend begged the devil to send her boy back, he agreed but only on condition that she swapped him for her apron and a flower (mmmm….interesting…the going rate for a man in those days!) The devil thought he was being clever as flowers are in pretty short supply in this area in winter. But the girl was smart; she embroidered a rose on her apron and got her man back.  The traditional costume of the region still includes an apron with a rose (for both lads and lasses). Why doesn’t this sort of stuff still happen?

Anyway, this collection of thatched and whitewashed cottages houses the best of traditional craftwork in the Mátyó region. The thatch is different to what we have in Ireland – more of a hollowed-out reed. Interesting. The detail is really something, though, in everything…even down to the carved wooden gates! I was particularly taken with Tibor Fehér’s ceramic bells and have added one to my travel tree. KG was in her element, her being in the business and it was impressive watching her talk with the embroiderers in Hungarian. We were half-expecting to see some old dears sitting outside, cross-stitching in the sun but we were out of luck. One reason to go back – another would be the pizza! If you ever find yourself there, and hungry… go to Pizza 6  on Szomolyai u. 3. Am salivating at the thought of it.

After all that lovely traditional culture, we ran slap bang into another sort of culture as we drove into Nyíregyháza. Me being a rugby fan, KG having little obvious interest in sport, and the region’s expert on all things soccer was in India, the chances of our knowing that Ferencváros were playing Nyíregyháza (soccer) that evening were non-existent. We were circumnavigating the city (the seventh-largest city in Hungary) trying to find our  panzió when we ran into two busloads of FV supporters being ‘escorted off the premises’ by riot police…scary-looking chaps in kevlar vests, helmetes, brandishing semi-automatics! At least, given the state of them, I hope they were being taken away from the match rather than being escorted to the stadium. The convoy crossed in front of us and it was like watching a particularly nasty movie. Some (?) FV fans are ultra-right-wing, violent racists – young kids and grown adults, boys and girls, men and women – whom you wouldn’t want to meet in daylight, let alone in a dark alley. (I met the lovely Kriza Bóri recently, who directed Dübörög a nemzeti rock, a documentary that scared me shitless. Her interviews with the FV fans made my blood run cold. How such mindless hatred can exist is beyond me.) Once the convoy passed, we motored on and again, ended up in the middle of it – this time nearer the stadium (The signposting in Nyíregyháza is woeful.) Driving slowly up a crowded street, a couple of opposing fans were doing a Siege of Ennis  advance/retire across the road in front of our car. At one retire, we passed through. In the rearview mirror, I saw a chap guy take off his belt, wrap it around his fist so that the buckle swung free and then launch himself across the road. All hell broke loose. These lads were old enough to know better. The car behind us had a front-row seat.

IMG_3474We eventually found our hotel… a small 26-room affair billed as a ‘former communist retreat’ – Ózon – near to Sóstófürdo. It was rather lovely. In a country where customer service hasn’t really caught on, this place has it in spades. They couldn’t have been nicer and the food… my God, the dinner I had is up there on the top 10 meals in Hungary… and high up there… No. 3 spot!!!! Before dinner though, we headed up the road to Sóstófürdo to the salt lake, which wasn’t really salty. But the thermal baths were a peculiar shade of green though… a nice way to start the evening after a long, hard day on the road! And yes, there is a soccer God…. FV were beaten 3-1 by the home crowd. Nice one!

It was another early night. Hungary has a zero-tolerance approach to drinking and driving so not as much as a chocolate liquer or a spoonful of sherry trifle is advised. We could have left the car at home and walked, but then we thought it prudent not to wander the streets that particular night. Anyway, I was knackered: I remember as a child asking my dad why he was tired – all he had done was drive all day!

Hungarian road trip (1): Budapest to Parádsasvár

IMG_3404I love to drive. When I lived in Valdez, Alaska, I would drive 306 miles to play two rounds of golf and then drive home again. My perspective on distance changed immeasurably. Alaska does that to you. Now that I’m Budapest-based, I miss driving. There’s no need for me to have a car in the city as public transport is great (and yes, I’d be hard-pushed to find a Hungarian who would agree with me, but compared to Dublin or London…it’s great). So when the ever-generous PM offered me the use of his trusty steed, and the adventurous KG mentioned a village fair in North Eastern Hungary, 2+2 quickly added to ‘when are we leaving?’

We left Budapest shortly after 6pm on Thursday.  I was a tad nervous navigating the city – Budapest’s drivers are short on patience and it’s  been a while since I’ve driven on the wrong side of the road.  But we managed. We stopped to buy the requisite matrica vignette (the toll ticket) and tank up. We got the ‘all clear’ from the petrol pump guy who kindly checked the oil and water (and yes, they’re in the same place as in Irish and American cars – there’s globalisation for ya!). While KG was in paying, a very bubbly Alexandra came over to beg a lift to the next petrol station. She and her French-Canadian boyfriend Pascal had left Budapest that morning (hours ago) heading  to a Rainbow festival in the Ukraine (peace, love, harmony, show your disgust at materialism etc) and were still trapped inside the Outer Ring Road. No worries, says I, after due consultation with KG. Happy to oblige. I could cope with youth and optimism and bubbliness and keep my cynicism in check for ten minutes!

IMG_3403KG and I were heading to Parádsasvár, a town about 105km north of Budapest, to St Hubertus Panzió – the first leg of a journey that would take us close to the Ukraine border in the north-east.  The town itself is mostly famous for the late-nineteenth-century Kastélyhotel (the Palace Hotel) and although the budget didn’t permit a night there, we had planned to pop over for a nightcap…being neighbourly, like. We hadn’t bargained for the gated grounds and reservations-only policy. The guide book had mentioned the ‘Secret-serice style security’ but who believes guide books? We could only peep in through the bars from our vantage point at St Hubertus Panzió (pictured). 

IMG_3390It was easy to believe that the ugly sisters were having a ball across the road in the Palace. The hotel lights up on the hour in the hours of darkness and the lights flash on and off to music for about two minutes. I wonder if Ybl Miklós, the architect responsible for this ‘restored hunting lodge’ and also the State Opera House in BP is turning in his grave or laughing at the good of it? On the other hand, SHP had a certain Cinderella feel to it anyway! We had to eat on arrival as the restaurant closed at 9pm and the ‘bar’ with it! The airconditioning control in the room was under lock and key (shame on those of you who took advantage of it and have made the rest of us suffer!). And it wasn’t until we returned from our ‘late-night’ recce of the village (at 10.21pm!!!) that we realised the gates shut at 10pm. I reckon that had the intrepid KG been American, she’d have been the model for  Nancy Drew. Having tried every door and doorbell we could find to no avail, KG climbed over the gate and managed to attract the attention of a man with a cardkey, who kindly came down and let me in. (I’m not near as nimble and her 32s are longer than my 28s.)

Aside from the Palace, Parádsasvár is also famous for its Takacs crystal. And, as de wimmen are coming over in October en masse and I only have six place settings, I thought it prudent to invest in a set of eight wine glasses and, sure while I was there, why not eight dessert wine glasses. I know that Messes Macker and McCabe are rather partial to a sweet wine with cheese after dinner! Lovely, lovely stuff. And guess what? Their Christmas tree ornaments also light up… no music though! Parádsasvár does seem to have a thing about lights!

August 6, 2008, I partied hard and remember going to 6am mass on my way home on the 7th after dancing myself through the night. August 6, 2009, I was in bed, asleep, before midnight, having managed to contain my child-like excitement at the thoughts of three more days of driving to places unknown. I had driven with the best Hungarian roads had to offer; witnessed the surreal musical light show at the Palace; and practically aided and abetted a B&E. All on 4dl of a rather decent dry white from Egér. Am I getting older and wiser, or just older?

Last night, I had a dream

IMG_3019I dreamt that I finally got it together with SF. I finally got that kiss. I worked with him in London for a couple of years back in the day and was mad about him.  He was my James Dean – my rebel without a cause. Or, in his case, a rebel with all too many causes. It wasn’t that all-consuming, hormone-driven lust thing. More the slow burn type that creeps up on you and just takes root as a massive crush that simply refuses to go away. Some days, I was mad about him; others, I was mad at him!

When the office moved to Vauxhall, we’d get in early in the morning and take it in turns to make a fancy coffee on the new-fangled coffee machine. Then we’d retire to the ‘garden’ and have a cigarette and talk about the world… and her mother…and her sister or brother, depending on where we were at in our respective lives.  We planned to ride Route 66 on our Harleys; he even went so far as to take motorbike lessons and get his licence. Me, I’m still talking about it. We talked a lot about what ifs – he was so much better with plans than me. Our ideas of what the future might hold differed a lot but had one thing in common – both of us wanted to live beside the sea. We talked about it for hours.

We went to the seaside one weekend – me, him and a few mates. He showed up in Victoria Station in a naff football shirt (if it’s not a rugby shirt, why bother?) Ithought he looked awful. Light years away from Jimmy D. He didn’t care. He had his own version of ‘cool’. Another evening, we went to the races. Me, him, and a bunch of mates. One night, we went to the theatre in Kilburn, to an Irish play – me, him and a couple of mates. Always in a crowd. I would ‘arrange’ these outings just to get him to come along. On a couple of very rare, and very special occasions, we went for a drink after work, or to dinner, or to the theatre…just the two of us. And then we’d talk a lot more – God, religion, families, hopes, dreams, fears. Still waters ran very deep with him. And every conversation revealed something new. Don’t get me wrong: he was far from perfect. He could be a right pain the arse; he certainly had his moments. I never really sussed what it was that set him off, but in those days he had the monopoly on contrariness. He was cool, though. Really cool. I tried everything I could think of to make him take a romantic interest in me and for every two steps we took forward, he’d take three huge leaps back. But it didn’t matter. That was half the fun.

Then he got sick. It started with a cough. He knew without being told. I would light candles for him when I travelled and send him a postcard to tell him I’d done so. He thought this was hilarious. He didn’t believe in God and he reckoned the candles wouldn’t do him any good; but if doing it helped me, then he was fine with it. I was in St Thomas’s Cathedral in Chennai on October 2, 2005. I had bought five candles and had lit four. I always kept his until last. I was in great form. Happy out. Loving India. And then, suddenly, I was bawling. Hysterical. In floods of tears. I couldn’t get the candle to light. After a minute or so, it passed. The candle lit. I said my prayer. And left. Clueless.

Back at the hotel a few hours later, his mate called me to tell me  that he had died. Contrary to the last, I am convinced that he stopped into Chennai on his way and kept blowing out the bloody candle. Maybe he was right. Maybe they didn’t do him any good in the end. But they helped me a lot. I still light one for him on occasion – just out of badness!

IMG_3032Last night, I dreamt of  him. Before he died, his voice had gone all raspy. We laughed about how sexy it made him sound. In my dream, he had that same voice. Thankfully,  he wasn’t wearing the football shirt! We were out with friends and had wandered off on our own. We ended up in a prison of sorts where women were making clothes for the missions. For some unknown reason, we were there to meet the warden. She was rather sweet actually, despite the Victorian garb. As we left, we walked through a turnstile and passed through the gift shop (I know… in a prison???) There was a sale on diaries. It was July. Diaries were half-price and priced in forints (down from 80,000 to 40,000; about £130). I couldn’t make up my mind between a blue  flowery one and a purple one. He got impatient. There was a party to go to. I opened the blue one and saw a photo of him inside.  I decided to buy that one. Ever practical, he pointed out that it would cost as much again next year for a new refill. He wondered what I needed a diary for. I said I was buying it because it had his picture in it and I would have it to remember him by. He said I didn’t need a picture. And he kissed me. In the prison giftshop. And he was Sean Connery in Hitchcock’s Marnie; Al Pacino in Frankie and Johnny; the best of James Nesbitt, Sam Waterston and Keith Wood rolled into one. It was pure and simple and lovely. The world stood still.

It took ages to find the car in the underground car park – we hadn”t driven to the prison so we didn’t know where it was parked –  but we were driving back to the party! I drove; he gave directions. Everyone was wondering where we’d been. They’d never have believed us, so we didn’t bother explaining. The evening carried on. He was so attentive. As funny and as witty as ever. Life and soul when the mood took him; quiet and comtemplative when it didn’t. But he was there. Not just physically, but there in mind and spirit. He was present. He was listening. Not that puppy-dog ‘hanging on every word’ listening, but really paying attention, in his own unobtrusive way. Aware of and involved in what was going on around him, he would glance over every now and then, and give me that knowing look – the one that cut through all the bullshit and got to the very core of who I am. He knew me. He really saw me. He lit my cigarettes. Our hands would touch. He ‘d smile. I got up at one stage to go to the bar and as I stepped behind him, I leaned over to ask him what he wanted and he kissed me again. This time in front of everyone. He smiled. He didn’t have to say anything. He was a very private man and this….this said everything! I floated away, just as the bell for last call was ringing. I woke up. I was practically levitating.

I’ve thought of him all day today. When I was in a meeting this morning, trying to sort out a difficult production timetable for a text book I’m working on; when I was bartering with my Afghani carpet-seller trying to get him to budge on a Chobi I really wanted; when I was wading through the rivers of rain that deluged Budapest this afternoon; when I was so annoyed and angry that I was fit to kill someone at the Internet shop; and when I had a celebratory glass of vino this evening. He was with me all day. And I’m still smiling.  I know now he’s got my back…he’s watching out for me. I have great faith in my candles, mate… ta much!