Let the spending begin

Let’s all go out and spend our hard-earned money on stuff. Let’s go mad and buy up every high-tech gadget we can find. Let’s buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes that we won’t be able to fit into once we’ve pigged out for the next month on turkey and ham and goose and cold Brussels’ sprouts. Let’s go absolutely stark, raving mad and unleash the spendthrift inside us, that same wastrel who has been battling with our inner scrooge all year. Let’s throw fiscal responsibility to the wind and do what we despise our governments for…let’s waste our money. Why not? It’s tradition.

Knowing the cost of everything…

Caught up in the holiday frenzy, we spend millions of euro, pounds, and dollars (and billions of forints) on unwanted gifts. We go mad buying for people whose middle names we don’t even know. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, postmen, binmen, milkmen, all come in for something… just because… it’s Christmas. Family, relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, classmates, the list is endless. And now we even have variations on the theme… no, no, it’s not a Christmas present, it’s just a little ‘thank you’ for all your help during the year, for watering my plants while I was away, for feeding the cat, for picking me up from the airport, for listening to me go on and on and on about whatever, for being there for me. What is it about Christmas that brings out this latent generosity in us all? Do we really save up all our gratitude for December? Are we overcompensating for being mean and miserly all year? Are we simply balancing the books? Perhaps if the three wise men had left the gold, frankincense and myrrh at home, we mightn’t be in this mess.

Christmas has been hijacked by retailers. Discounts, special offers, and bargain deals abound. Untold pressure is put on people to buy the best of everything, the latest this, the most expensive that. Kids, passive victims of advertising campaigns want everything they see. Christmas letters to Santa Claus have evolved into lists, complete with make, model, and serial number. They cover all the bases, ending usually with the ubiquitous ‘and a surprise’.

…and the value of nothing

Me? I copped on a long time ago. I was seven. I asked Santa for a cradle for my doll, Lucy. Instead, I got a plastic knitting machine. I learned a valuable lesson: blessed is she who never expects anything for she shall never be disappointed. Now, if you ask me what I want for Christmas, I’ll tell you. And I’ll be specific. None of this… ‘Oh, something for the flat would be nice’. I want a tall, wrought iron book case, with five shelves, narrow enough to fit at the end my kitchen presses and shallow enough not to stick out past the wall (it doesn’t exist). Forget the timid…  ‘Maybe some perfume?’ Nope – I want some Dior Hypnotic Poison 100 ml shower gel and 100 ml body lotion (impossible to find!).  As for jewellery, can you be more specific than a 5-cm diameter circle of Kudu bone set in a raised silver ring? I don’t think so. I’ve learned my lesson: I ask for the impossible and when it can’t be delivered I offer up Option B: mmmm, I know you’d your heart set on buying me something but you could always give me cold, hard cash instead. Cash that I can send to friends who are working, doing good somewhere in the world with people less fortunate than myself. Cold, hard cash: that perfect gift that keeps on giving – one size fits all and the colour goes with everything! But that’s if you’re buying. If you’re making me something by hand, that’s a different matter entirely. I’m one of those annoying people basking in smugness right now who Christmas shops all year round: hand-made jewellery from Lithuania; beaded placemats from South Africa; knitted scarves from Gozo; dío madár from Hungary.  Support local artisans and give something that hasn’t been mass produced and marketed to death. Or better still, do something for me. Cook for me, take me somewhere, wash my windows.

Let’s face it, there’s a helluva difference between need and want. Fulfilling a need is rewarding; satisfying a want is indulgent. And don’t forget the ‘r’ word – we’re in recession, remember! So, if you’re racking your brains about what to give this Christmas, perhaps a suggestion from novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) might help: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.

Boldog Karácsonyi Ünnepeket. Nollaig shona dhaoibh. Merry Christmas.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 December 2010

A series of firsts

Belgrade. 10.23 pm. Minibus finally arrives. The journey back to Budapest begins. I’m tired, cranky, and still plagued by stomach cramps. It’s going to be a long night. My corner of the back seat is vacant. It’s cold. Not three minutes into the journey, the rather large chap in the other corner of the back seat starts talking to me… in Serbian. Intuitively I know that he’s apologising for the ring tone on his phone. It’s an annoying chirping that at first sounds like a bird, then grows into a frog and finally matures into a cricket. I know that’s what he’s saying, but I don’t have the Serbian to respond. I apologise in English. Then he apologises for assuming I was Serbian. The sms’s chirp every five minutes, punctuating the conversation that has  just begun.

It’s his first time on the minibus to Budapest. He’s going to Ferihegy airport. He’s 34. A former professional waterpolo player who is, by his own admission, sadly out of shape. He did his National Service in Montenegro so that he could stay in training. He is married – has been for eight years. He has two kids – 4 and 7.

He holds his passport in his hands somewhat reverently. It looks brand new. It is. This will be his first time on an airplane. He has never flown before. Other than Montenegro, he has never been outside Serbia. He talks of Serbians in the third person plural as if he isn’t one. Although he has lived all his life in Belgrade, he says he never really felt as if he belonged and this feeling has been getting stronger and stonger recently. He doesn’t say why. I don’t ask.

This is the first opportunity he has had to get out of Serbia. It is time. He’s emigrating. To Canada. To work as a truck driver. He will have to study and take his driving HazMat test. It’s expensive and will take a few months.

This is the first time he has left his family. He doesn’t know when he will see them again. He already has a job lined up. He is leaving his family behind him and charting the way. I think that leaving them must be hard. He says that Balkan people are funny that way. At each others throats if together for too long and yet, just two days apart sees them madly in love – absence, he hopes, will make the heart grow fonder.

This is the first time he has spoken to real Irish person. He asks if I have heard the Orthodox Celts – a Serbian band who play traditional Irish music with some rock – He is worried that his English isn’t good enough. He learned it from TV. Apart from a couple of bad pronounciations, it’s better than a lot of native speakers I know. I tell him so. He is pleased. He asks if I know Canada. I say not really. Just the Yukon. He asks if he can have a good life, as a workingclass man – do the Canadians respect foreigners? I tell him that the Canadians I know do. Do I think Canada is a good place to go? I say yes. I think so. It’s avoided the financial crises that have plagued the rest of the world. It’s healthy. It’s a good country. He nods.

He is flying to Warsaw and then to Toronto and then to Edmonton. He could have flown to London and then direct to Edmonton but it was €500 dearer and he has to watch him money. He is 34. Leaving his family behind him. Leaving home for the first time in his life. Nervous. Sad. Anxious. Excited. The sms’s keep coming. He eventually falls asleep. He is woken several times by his phone – but then it quietens and I imagine his children finally going to sleep. Exhausted. Confused. Already asking when Daddy will be home.

I stay awake. I give silent thanks for the life I have and those who are in it.

My Balkan love affair deepens

In the capital city of a country that boasts an average wage of €386, I was gobsmacked to see the monetary reverence with which musicians are treated. Okay, I’m the first to acknowledge that tonight may have been far from typical so I checked and while tonight was indeed a little  fláithiúilach (generous) by any standards, it wasn’t that far removed from the norm when Serbians might drop up to €50 in tips for musicians.

But let me start from the start. Dinner. In  Tajna.  A little restaurant on  Svetogorska. ‘Little’ meaning about 20 tables. An exquisite menu – and that was the impression before I even opened it. Beribboned and bejewelled, this was no ordinary few sheets of A5 landscape. Before I’d even ordered, I was expecting better than usual. The wallpaper, too, spoke volumes for taste and discernment. On the feature wall, larger than life burgundy and cream lilies mixed with butterflies perched on greener than green blades of grass. The supporting palates pick up the burgundy and cream and the overall feel was like being at home. Just, to my mind, what every good restaurant should feel like. Forget the pretension. Give me down home and tasty any day of the week.

One portion of chicken stuffed with bacon, cheese, and olives served with grilled veg and potatoes; one portion of salmon carpaccio with salad; one portion of grilled gilthead (fish) with all the trimmings; two vegetable and mushroom (why the distinction?) risotto; followed by two plates of Belgian chocolates (to die for) and an apple pancake in white wine. Accompanied by half a dozen bottles of a very pleasant, if unpronounceable, Tamjanika white  wine and  a couple of Rakia to start. All rather lovely.

Our fellow diners ranged from a table of three 50-somethings bellying into the vino blanca; a couple of more sedate 40-somethings sipping casually on their red wine; two tables of ‘mature’ couples suitable bedecked in twinsets and pearls; a threesome with a long-bearded academic and his less-erudite-looking coupled friends; and a table of six, petite, 5’2″ Serbian young wans with their token long-haired male hippy male friend. Altogether a rather innocuous bunch out very much for a night of ‘selective’ enjoyment – more about themselves than the restaurant or the music.

And then the trio arrived . Yer man on guitar looked like a slimmer version of Keith Wood. So he was Bosnian. But I’d have given a month’s wages to say he was Irish. He acquitted himself on guitar as well as Wood has ever done on a rugby pitch. Yer man on accordion was… himself. And MH, if you’re reading in Darwin, I know you’ve been at the butt end of many an accordion joke, but you’d have loved him. He brought those keys to life. And yer woman…well, if Penelope Cruz looks half as well as she does when she hits 50, she’ll be laughing. They started off in Spanish. I had to ask what language because being as tone-deaf as I am, I knew only enough to know that it didn’t sound what I’d imagined Serbian to sound like in song. They worked the tables. Our trio next door acquitted themselves well. Imagine Auntie Mags and Uncle Séamus doing their party pieces. Not bad at all.

Then it moved to our table. Now, in fairness, I knew two our of our party reasonably well and two not at all. The two I knew, the inimitable duo JK and VR speak English. The two I didn’t know, don’t. But that ceased to matter. Jovo, the rather innocuous looking publisher in the corner got the nod. And started to sing.

Jovo Cvjetkovic moved to Belgrade from Croatia to study veterinary medicine. Four years into a cow’s innards, he opted for philosophy instead. A recognised scholar in Nietzsche and Kant, he is now a publisher in Belgrade (Albatross Publishing). I’d have to be forgiven in mistaking him for a local primary school teacher. White sleeveless jumper over a check shirt with the regimental one button undone, thick glasses and carefully cut grey hair, the man could stand in a room and no one would notice. Until he opened his mouth and sang.

Pavarotti can apparently reach 6 registers on the operatic scale. With training. My man Jovo can reach 7. Without. I’d heard tell from the duo that he was pretty amazing but that has to be the understatement of the year. Had I paid €200 for a ticket to sit and listen, I’d have felt I hadn’t paid enough. A room of about 30 people, in a little restaurant, just outside Belgrade city centre, played host to one of the most amazing musical evenings I have ever had the good fortune to be present at.

Now as usually happens when I’m in mixed company (and I’m not talking sexes here, but rather languages) I drift. Given my limited linguistic skills, I’m usually the one left studying the wallpaper as others converse. But I’d already done this (remember the butterflies and the blades of grass?). Instead, I focused on the tall, willowy woman at the table next to us who was smoking cigarettes as long as her legs. She was totally devoid of animation, sitting there bored out of what had to be an exceptionally large mind (a dimwit could have found something to entertain themselves at Tajna). And then Jovo started. It was like something passed over her and breathed life into her. The elongated limbs unfolded and she came to life. And the more he sang, the more animated she became. I’m not talking rock or pop or jazz but Italian arias, opera, and Serbian and Russian folk songs. I didn’t understand a word he was singing and I’m sure if I did, I’d have died and gone to heaven. But his voice. His passion. His soul. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

His partner sat beside him, holding his hand, as if to anchor him. On the rare occasion she let go, he clutched the table himself as if stopping himself from soaring upwards. Such was the power of his voice. The bould VR was doing his damnedest and when Serbian folk songs were the order of the day, he did well. Very well. On any other evening, had he the floor to himself, he’d have played a blinder. And he would, no doubt, leave people in his wake simpering. But tonight, there was but one spotlight on the stage. And it belonged to Jovo.

Those of you who know me will know that I’m tone-deaf. It wasn’t the music I was hearing but the raw passion behind it. It wasn’t the melody I was feeling but the mood of the restaurant. It wasn’t the technical dexterity I was in awe of but the change he had wrought on all those present – me included.Conversation moved from patriotism to nationalism; from the Europe that might be to the Yugoslavia that was; from what nourishes the soul to what feeds the brain. And all the while Jovo sang.

I’m drinking nights and nights are drinking me:  just one simple lyric translated that gives an indication of what was being sung. The super cool young wans eventually succumbed and rose to their feet. Had you been made of ice, you’d have melted. Had you been riddled with pain, you’d have found solace. Had you been the most frigid spinster in Ireland, you’d have thawed at the flick of an eyelid. I swear, nothing I’ve ever heard has come close. And it wasn’t just Jovo. It was that magical meeting of minds – that wonderful junction where musicians jam. The chemistry, the feeling, the interpretation – where everyone happens to be on the same page at the same time. Sinatra turned in his grave, I’m sure, as Penelope sang a gypsy version of My Way. Had he been alive, he’d have had to tip his hat in recognition of a superior job.Furrowed brows, clenched hands, pursed lips – all the order of the day. At one stage I found myself wondering if they needed an audience at all. But then,who is music for – the singer or the sung to?

Main courses and desserts for five €50. Wine and such €60. Musical soul replenishing….priceless. My Balkan love affair continues. If this was a run-of-the-mill Friday evening, sign me up.

But as I said at the start – it wasn’t the food, or the music, or the vibes that moved me most. It was the generosity of those present. 1000 dinar notes (€10) were stuck in the guitar frets, in accordion pleats, in breast pockets … I couldn’t help but do a mental tally. Hundreds of euro. And when I asked why? A simple response: That’s how they make their living. And the silent but accepted second phrase: and that’s how I show that I appreciate what they do. Priceless indeed.

Bussin’ to Belgrade

I’m sitting here in a my hotel room in Belgrade, looking at myself in the mirror as I type (yes, I touch type). I have a cotton bud soaked in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Madame stuck up each nostril and I’m wondering when I will get rid of the stench of B.O. that seems to have seeped into every core of my body.

I’m experimenting with ways to get from Budapest to Belgrade. First time I flew. Seemed a little extravagant for such a short distance and with the two-hour-before-check-in deal, it still took about 4.5 hours door to door. And it’s a scutty little plane to boot (not that I have any fear of flying, but after one particular flight over the North Pole to Deadhorse, Alaska, I prefer to have something more substantial under my arse when I’m that high up in the air). [An aside: You know what happened to ‘thought’? He had a glass arse and ‘thought’ if he sat down on it, he’d break it. – Prof Bartlett Ryle in Frank Delaney’s Ireland.]

Next trip, I took the train. Way cheaper, even going first class. Mind you, the first class thing didn’t seem to bother anyone else as I was the only ‘legal’ resident of my carriage for most of the trip. Actually, for all but one section, I was on my own. I’ve figured it out. Just before you pull into a station, open the window wide open and take off your coat. It helps if you can time the station stop with a series of hot flushes (one of the blessings of age). But as long as you look like it’s just another balmy day in paradise (and this in the middle of winter), you’ll be left pretty much to yourself. The train journey takes  about 8.5 hours all told, including three border stops (two immigration and one customs). But first class has a socket so if you can balance your laptop on your knee, you can work your way to Belgrade.

This time, I took a minibus. More expensive than the train, way cheaper than the airplane and supposed to take only 5 hours. It picked me up at my door (a major plus) just ten minutes after the text came through (in Serbian) alerting me to be ready! An hour and a half later, we were still sitting at Budapest airport waiting for more passengers. I was trapped in the back seat with a man of indeterminate age who  fancied himself as a bit of a cowboy – beaten leather jacket that was jealously hording a lifetime of smells; plenty of aftershave; and the natural scent of a man who’d been rode hard and hung up wet. We finally left at 3.40 and two hours later had crossed the border into Serbia.  I counted 33 trucks lining up to get into Serbia and 27 waiting to get out. What cause then did I have to be bitchin’?

Once across, we stopped for a rest break and a breather! Never did a petrol station smell so sweet. But the respite was brief. Wide awake after his catnap, John Wayne embarked started up a monologue, in Serbian. His animated gesticulations only served to fan the fumes. Belgrade didn’t come soon enough.

Door to door 6.5 hours. Time driving 4.5 hours. The residual smells, priceless.

 

A boutique bird

View from the window

I prefer boutiques to large department stores. I prefer boutique hotels to large chains. But as I’m on a boutique budget, a ‘complimentary’ weekend away at a five-star golf and spa resort in Hungary was not to be sneezed at! Buried in the little town of Bükfürdő close to the Austrian border, Birdland is something else! And I’m sure that for many of its regular guests, that something else is very special indeed.

Walking into the lobby to be greeted by a Country and Western duo belting out Achy Breakey Heart wasn’t quite what I expected. I’m a country gal at heart and Billy Rae is a sweetie, but this was bordering on the surreal. The duo on the reception desk, however, were singing a completely different tune. The rattattoo of Deutsch? Magyar? Angol? was delivered in rapid fire. Once it was established that we were Birdland virgins and ‘foreign’ foreign as opposed to ‘across the border’ foreign, something changed. I could have sworn that the patience quotient dropped a couple of notches. He was quite pleasant and toddled off to get us our welcome flutes of champagne. She was perhaps a tad under pressure, although there was no-one else in line. Not exactly encouraging.

The rooms were big; the towels were soft; the robes were fluffy. But no slippers???? How did they get the fifth star without slippers? The room came equipped with a hefty folder showcasing the wellness offers and the rules of the hotel (anything you bring in from outside that is sold on site will be confiscated – I’ve been known to smuggle in a pint of gin in garter belt, but never have I had to stoop so  low as to smuggle in a bottle of water!)

It’d been a busy few weeks. I’d completely spaced the ‘spa’ element of this weekend and had forgotten to get defuzzed. Showing my pins in public wasn’t really on the cards – particularly around all these fair-haired Austrians. And with the fresh snow outside, they’d be forgiven for thinking Yeti had made an appearance. So I tried to book a wax job at the spa. The two on the desk (everything in Birdland comes in pairs) went through the now familiar rattattoo – he was pleasant and she was obviously under pressure although again, there was no-one in line behind me. This time, patience levels were evidently sub-zero. The most they could possible do was a bikini wax – forget the whole leg – or even a half-leg. Didn’t I realise they were full? I could get a free consultation with a ‘plastical’ surgeon though…

Inside the spa, rows of sunloungers bore a liquorice allsorts of bodies. People wandered the corridors in towelling robes. Others sat at the bar, smoking and drinking, enveloped in fluffiness. My fellow diners were a mixed lot – those who’d dressed for dinner in heels and hematite mixing with tattoo’ed cowboys and tracksuited Traceys. The food, admittedly, was good – and there was plenty of it. And I understand the efficiency of a a buffet, but honestly, it did seem to jar a little with the whole ‘spa-ness’ thing given that when I think spa, I think healthy. And how can it be healthy to fill up your plate again, and again, and again?

When we headed out on Saturday morning to explore the hinterland, we left behind us a full car park. When we got back later that afternoon, our spot was still free. No-one had moved apparently. Obviously, when one goes to Birdland, one goes to Birdland – one takes up residency. I’ll know better next time… but wait, there won’t be a next time :0)

In the foothills of the Alps

In the foothills of the Alps, not far from the Hungary/Austria border, where deer can leap 100o metres and run at 60 km/hr, lies the old mediaeval town of Kőszeg. It’s been around for a while, and has that ye olde worlde feel to it.

It was here, way back in 1532, that Captain Miklós Jurisics and just 50 of his closest friends managed to hold up some 80,000 – 100,000 Turkish troops (depending on who you listen to) advancing towards Vienna. They held out for 25 days! In the end, they allowed the Turks to run up their flag over the castle in a symbolic declaration of victory provided they left immediately afterwards. They did and they did – at 11am the last of the Turks left the city limits and still today, the church bells ring at 11 o’clock to mark the occasion. I had read somewhere that the church clocks were all stopped at 11am as a constant memorial, but that simply ain’t true.

Miklós made his mark, though. It’s down to him that Vienna didn’t meet the same fate as Buda did some few years later.  The castle is named after him, as is the local secondary school. Jurisics Miklós Gimnázium (JMG) was founded in 1677 and is the oldest operating International School in Hungary. It’s a testing center for the US college boards (SAT, ACT,etc.), as well as the British IGCSE exam and in 2006, the Herald Tribune listed it as one of the top ten international schools in the world. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Remnants of the town walls can still be seen and those houses in the shadow of Jurisics Castle have been preserved in their original form. The town square is dominated by the Jesus Heart Parish Church – I wonder perhaps if something was lost in translation here and if it is supposed to be the Sacred Heart? Fond as I am of making three wishes when I visit a church for the first time, I don’t need much enticing to darken their doors. Usually, the plainer the better for me – but this one is something else, hand painted in the most intricate designs. Truly amazing. I can’t even begin to imagine how long it all took – and this was before ‘colour by numbers’! The guide book, much to my amusement, noted that it was ‘unexceptional’ – what it takes to please some folks! The mind boggles!

Walking through the back streets, stumbling on the cobblestones, you really can feel how old everything is. We’d arrived around mid-morning to find the place thriving. The local market was in full swing and the town was bustling. Three hours later, it was empty. This lack of commercialism was nice to see and further evidenced by the honour system which is still employed ‘after hours’. Punnets of fruit on stood tables, the prices clearly marked. Alongside them a collection box where you pay your money – cash only, no change given.  Admittedly there are one or two shops where India meets Tibet, but there are still places selling local crafts and products.  Other than the world fame of the JMG, you’d be forgiven for questioning what century you were in. The only visible graffeti is that etched into the stucco on what’s now a pub originally built in 1688.

There’s something really lovely about this town. Although it’s known as Hungary’s jewel box and you might be tempted to append the adjectives twee or quaint, they just don’t quite fit. I’m not sure what it is about the place, but if you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth a visit.

The law of attraction

I’m off the fags and the fröccs for November. Alone in my sober, smoke-free corner of Budapest, with ample time to find alternate ways to amuse myself, I’ve been driven to desperate measures. On my third mentes ásványvíz (still water) the other night, I found myself drifting into another world as those around me successfully sought to alter the state of theirs. I started to think about adjectives. About how we use and abuse them. Adjectives are like salt – add a teaspoon to a glass of water, it’s undrinkable; add a teaspoon to a lake, it goes unnoticed. Anyway, to amuse myself, I started working my way down the alphabet, picking out adjectives that I felt describe me, at a certain time of day, in a particular type of week:  Aphoristic, Bewildering, Complex, Daring, Extravagant, Faithful, Gullible… and there I got stuck.

The positive side of gullibility

According to G. K Chesterton, ‘Gullibility is the key to all adventures. The greenhorn is the ultimate victor in everything; it is he who gets the most out of life.’ By his reckoning, my life has been nothing but one long adventure starting with my cousin telling me that if I wanted a baby, I would have to go to the doctor for a special diet; the food he told me to eat would make the baby grow in my tummy. I had an excuse for that one – I was only ten. A third-year engineering student told me that traffic lights in Dublin were synchronized with those in Los Angeles; when one turned green in LA, one turned red in Dublin. I had no excuse for believing that one – I was 17; but he was gorgeous! I have spent a small fortune on infomercial products. Even though I rarely wear make-up, I’ve been known to succumb to vague promises of distant beauty. I have tried every stain-remover on the market. Right now I want this steam mop that I saw advertised on Serbian TV. Gullible could be my middle name!

The attraction of quantum physics

It will come as no surprise then that I fell hook, line, and sinker for the law of attraction. Just think positive and it’ll happen. Imagine what you want and it’ll come to you. Treat the universe like one giant mail-order catalogue for which you have unlimited credit. I decided to put it to the test – and a test it would be as I was a) distantly related to the Irishman who wrote Murphy’s Law; and b) living in Hungary, a country not exactly noted for its positivity.  Last month, I decided I wanted some fresh flowers for my kitchen. I was knackered; too tired to make a decision as to what kind of flowers I wanted or how much I wanted to spend. So I walked away from the flower stand, stemless. Not five minutes after I got home, my neighbour rang the doorbell. She had taken delivery of a gorgeous bouquet that had come for me while I was out. Order fulfilled. A colleague asked me what my rates were in US dollars. I said I wished I knew but as I’d never had to quote for work in the States, I was clueless. Not two days later I was asked to bid on a job in Michigan. A double whammy! A client of mine had been rather quiet on the work front yet still actively publishing, just not using my services. I wondered aloud at this and said I’d like to hear from them again. That evening I had three phone calls, from three different people in the same organisation, offering three different pieces of work. Order fulfilled, in triplicate. And believe me, the list goes on.

The dangers of unbridled optimism

I started reading more about it. At first I was impressed to see that many of these positive-thinking gurus were using ‘law of attraction’ in the same sentence as ‘quantum physics’. Surely if there was some science behind it, it had to be real. Then I read where some leading motivational speakers were urging us to ditch all the negative thinkers in our lives, where pastors were making their churches complaint-free zones, and where being happy and positive at work was becoming de rigueur.  And then I began to get a little scared.

I can’t imagine myself being positive all the time. I can’t imagine a world where no one complains. I can’t imagine a world where no one ever has a negative thought. We need balance. We need contrast. We need negative people to challenge us. Perhaps if there’d been a little more negative thinking, instead of the unbridled optimism that was part and parcel of recent financial governance, the world wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2011

 

A grave situation

Traffic jams in Budapest are a common enough occurrence. A traffic jam in a cemetery though? That’s something I’d never seen before. Cars queuing to get out of a place people are literally dying to get into. Police on point duty waving their neon-colour batons in an attempt to maintain some sense of movement in a place usually known for its inertia. At 5pm on Monday, 1st November, it was all happening at Újköztemető, the ‘new’ public cemetery out by the airport.

At 2.07 km2, it’s certainly the largest of the 17 cemeteries Wikipedia lists for Budapest and one of the largest in Europe.  Whole families came and went, carrying flowers, lighting candles, paying their respects. Young couples stopped in before heading out for the evening. Groups of elderly men lolled about, undaunted by the cold, finding warmth and solidarity in collective memories. School-aged children skipped blithely ahead of their parents through sculpted lawns and landscapes looking for nagymami’s grave. The evening air was full of chatter, daubed with the scent of chrysanthemums and melting wax. An elderly man sat motionless on a bench talking to those who had gone before him. One grey-haired woman had brought her thermos and, wrapped up in her blanket, had settled in to have her late-afternoon tea with a partner long since passed. For them, this was more than a flying visit. They’d come to spend some quality time with their dead,  a weekly vigil rather than an annual outing.

A world apart

Just a short walk from this hub of activity on Kozma utca sits another cemetery. At the turn of the 20th century, the remains of many of the city’s Jewish dead were exhumed and reburied here. Although this cemetery is home to some 300,000 Jews, walking among its dead is an entirely different experience. Much of the cemetery is overgrown. There are few well-worn tracks. Briars and brambles have lost the run of themselves. Tall reeds and grasses grow in curtains partially concealing names and dates. Curiously, many of the tombstones are wrapped in black plastic and sealed with duct tape, their epitaphs hidden from the world.

I passed by Hajós Alfréd’s grave and was struck by the relative anonymity in which he now lies. The first Hungarian to stand on the Olympic podium and receive a gold medal, the architect responsible for the monument for the martyrs of the Hungarian Holocaust now lies amongst those who seem to be largely forgotten. His tombstone is no less impressive for want of an audience, though. Further on, I noticed Bródy Sandór’s headstone, clearly marked Író to distinguish him from those less distinguished sharing the same name. His grave lies beside a pathway so he is seen by more than most here in Kozma utca. Yet the flowers that weren’t on his grave were all the more conspicuous by their absence. I would have expected more to remember his greatness. His description of a portrait artist as one who ‘turns souls inside out like the ordinary mortal does his socks’ is worth a petal or two. Next time, Sandór, I promise!

A loss of place

I’ve had a number of conversations recently about cemeteries and about the relative merits of cremation versus burial. One question that repeatedly pops up is whether cemeteries are for the living or the dead? When relatives move away, by choice or otherwise, those left behind and buried six feet under are often at the mercy of public authorities or small groups of caring souls who tend to their graves. Family graveside visits have become annual outings rather than weekly events. People are too busy living their lives to tend to the graves of those who have outlived theirs. Soon there is no-one left to care what happens to the plots. Those buried beneath are past caring.  Cremation seems a lot simpler. A momentary scattering of ashes: once done, what remains is a memory, easily tended.

Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book The Dominion of the Dead, makes this point: For the first time in millennia, most of us don’t know where we will be buried, assuming we will be buried at all.  From a historical or sociological point of view this is astounding. Uncertainty as to one’s posthumous abode would have been unthinkable to the vast majority of people a few generations ago. Nothing speaks quite so eloquently of the loss of place in the post-Neolithic era as this indeterminacy.

It is to recapture this loss of place that I spend so much time in cemeteries. Can anything be more certain than a life already lived?

First published in the Budapest Times 8 November 2010

Simplicity in death

I don’t know how I got there and I honestly doubt I could find my way there again, but somehow, when in Vilnius, I ended up in Bernadinu kapines (the Bernadine cemetery). Unlike others I’ve visited, I didn’t even know that this one existed. I was walking, looking for the old town. Turning down this street and that, completely lost, without a map. And then I saw a signpost … to the cemetery. I asked directions a couple of times but no-one knew where it was. And then I turned down this road, drawn by the flowers and through a gate saw a cottage, with some washing on the line, and then some crosses. And some more crosses. And then a sign saying it was the Bernadine Cemetery.

Founded in 1810 by the Bernadine monks (famous for breeding St Bernards for rescue work since the 1600s)  it’s now home to artists, academics, university professors and other ‘cultural workers’.  It shut its gates in 1970 and would seem to have remained unchanged since then. The paths are overgrown; the graves, too. The crosses are simple yet more effective than many more ornate headstones I’ve seen. As a cemetery, it has neither the magnficance of those in Zagreb nor the  grandure of those in  Malta. But perhaps its simplicity was what drew me there.

After all is said and done, what do we really need our tombstones to say? We lived, we died. And in that little dash in between those two dates, lies a lifetime. Who visits cemeteries any more? Tourists, like me, who share my fascination? Those still in mourning? I was the only one there that day. And by the looks of the graves, no-one had been there in quite some time.

I spent an hour or so wandering around, wondering. I came to no earth-shattering conclusions about life, the universe, or my place in it. I did, however, come away with a strange sense of peace – the first time I’d felt that in Vilnius, a city that unsettled me in more ways than one. And again, I wondered…

In June 2000, Felix Krasavin, a former Soviet-time political prisoner who now lives in Israel addressed a crowd of 5000 former Lithuanian political prisioners and deportees at the Vilnius Sports Arena. 2000. Just ten years ago. He said that Soviet Fascism killed more people than its German brother. I look at the books on my shelves and I see a gaping hole.

A matter of choice

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. These simple words are often attributed to American novelist Madeleine L’Engel, who died in 2007, two months shy of her 90th birthday. She lived through the roaring twenties, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War. Her mid-thirties coincided with the golden age of the 1950s when colour TV was invented, Disneyland opened, and a vaccine was discovered for polio. She was around during the Viet Nam war, the decade of hippies, drugs, protests and rock and roll. The far out seventies brought with them Star Trek and the Jonestown massacre, while the eighties welcomed Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin wall. L’Engel would have read about the end of the Cold War and the release of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s and seen news accounts of the Oklahoma bombing and the Columbine massacre. And as she entered the new millennium, she probably had ample time to think about choice… and to come to this conclusion.

Bringing it home

Dr Ágnés Geréb might well have something to say on the subject of choice. Recently arrested and facing charges for reckless endangerment committed during the line of duty, Dr Geréb has spent her career making choices.

An experienced doctor and midwife, she has attended more than 2000 home births (i.e. not in a hospital). As I understand the current situation, Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth as the patient had some sort of blood clotting disorder. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.

Dr Geréb was elected to the Askhoka Fellowship in 1997 in recognition of the work she is doing in Hungary with her ‘undisturbed’ birth project. She established the first network of midwives, doulas (mothers experienced in childbirth who provide continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother before, during, and just after childbirth), nurses, and doctors who oversee home birth throughout the country. On 6 June 1998, Dr Geréb won an important legal victory in the area of hospital births: mothers giving birth in hospitals could now request that their friends and relatives be allowed into the birthing room. Her foundation ‘Alternatal’ ensures professional help for those who choose to give birth at home.  She is, in other words, offering women a choice, a choice that is apparently denied them by the state. Or is it?

Personalising the experience

Had L’Engel and Geréb had a chance to sit down and talk about choice, about how human it makes us, I wonder what the outcome might have been? I’m not an expert on the merits of home birth, or any sort of birth for that matter. Thankfully, I can’t claim first-hand experience of the Hungarian medical system. What I am concerned about is the basic right to choose. Pregnancy is not an illness. The right for a woman to choose where to have her baby is surely a basic human right, one recognised the world over. Were I a soon-to-be mother, I would want to deliver my child in a familiar environment; with my family present; with the help of a midwife and a doula. The alternative (unless I had the financial wherewithal to pay for a private hospital) is a state-run, sterile, impersonal environment. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are doctors and nurses out there who genuinely care about their patients; whose commitment to their job isn’t measured by their meagre salaries; who see the birthing experience as something more than just another medical procedure. And I’m sure that for every horror story emanating from maternity wards around the country, there is a glowing report of an equally wonderful experience.  This isn’t about competency; it’s about choice.

In many western countries, such as the UK or Germany, home birth is a legal and respected option; an integral part of the healthcare sytem. In Hungary, it is alegal.  Under Hungarian law, a woman has the right to choose where to give birth. So what’s the problem then? Well, the law makes no provisions for anybody assisting the woman with her home birth; doctors and nurses who choose to help run the risk of being prosecuted for misusing their license; independent midwives may be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. So the danger of prosecution is really on the helpers, not on the birthing woman herself…as we’ve seen with Dr Geréb. A woman can choose to give birth at home. Those who choose to assist her show their humanity, and for that, they pay a price.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 October 2010