Cat owners more intelligent than dog owners?

Cats provide countless hours of entertainment. Look at this fella. One of the resident cats at my local Botanical Gardens. He was locked out of the building but bound and determined to get inside. It was hilarious to watch. We all know cats are very intelligent. Just watch that old B&W movie about the old woman with a house full of cats. Her relatives kill her to get her money and then her cats take their revenge. I remember one of her sons/grandsons in the bath and the cat pushing the radio into the water. It was the scariest movie I ever saw which is why I’ve blanked the name. Anyone any ideas?

Anyway, it gave me a healthy respect for cats. And research published in February 2010 shows that cat owners are more intelligent than dog owners… honestly. That’s what it says!

Why I love living in Budapest No. 4

Lomtalanítás…spring cleaning, Budapest style. Boring garage sales, yard sales, or car boots are not for Hungarians. Instead, twice a year, on a day pre-arranged by those in power, housesholds all over the city get to dump their junk on the pavement. Anything goes. Cardboard, shoes, toilet bowls, plants, books, bottles, furniture… nothing is too big or too small.  There is something quite liberating about simply dumping your junk on the street, knowing that it  has a better than average chance of finding a place in someone else’s flat, or perhaps in a bar, but it’s not the lomtalanítás (junk clearning) that fascinates me, it’s the dedication people show in their relentless search for a bargain.

I had visitors last weekend – the lovely RB was in from Chichester – so I wasn’t reading my noticeboard for new posts. I didn’t realise that my lomi was approaching (Monday, 22nd March) until I saw the telltale empty stools and chairs dotting the street on which I live. These random seats were positioned outside each building’s doorway on Saturday, 48 hours before the event itself. The ‘transport’ ,  an old white trabbi,  was parked on the path on Saturday morning. Over the next couple of days it was where the sentries ate and slept, between their shifts guarding the growing piles of junk that collected along the street.

I’ve worked for many big corporates – international companies who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds and euro to instil in their employees such tenacity and singlemindedness, such dedication and self-sacrifice. They needed to be on Ulloi út last weekend to see what I saw. For 48 hours, this clan of Roma took turns to guard their patch. They ate and slept on the job. They vetted each new addition to the piles, putting it kerbside if not worth investing time in, or buildingside if worth taking home. Anything that was of use was stripped. Scrap metals were stripped of all nuts, bolts and screws. Battered drawers were stripped of their handles. Pictures were stripped of their frames. Stuff I would have considered beyond redemption had a value.

I didn’t purge this time… I could have but I wasn’t in the mood. Spring cleaning is not for the fainthearted. You need to be in the whole of your health and the whole of your mind to make the life-altering decision about what goes and what stays. And last weekend just wasn’t the time for me. Act in haste, repent at leisure and all that. I was a little too enthusiastic last year.

They say that if you go towards the hills of Buda, to Disctrict III or even Pest side in District XIII, the pickings are rich. You get a better class of junk that you do down in the VIII. But in the VIII, everyone gets to see your stuff. 

Üllői út is the main road in from the airport. I’ve often wondered what visiting dignataries must think, driving into town on Lomi days in their sleek black cars and seeing pile after pile of junk heaped at regular intervals along the street… and on just one side of the road. The other side of Üllői út is District IX…another world.

What must it look like? And yet, to the city’s credit, when I walked out my door very early on Tuesday morning, it had all gone. Every last scrap had disappeared. Such efficiency makes you wonder.

What puts the ‘ex’ in expatriate?

I was described recently as ‘a well-known face in the expat community’ and that’s bothering me. Am I an ‘expat’? Is there just one community? From the Latin expatriare, ex (out of, from) and patria (pater/father; paternal; fatherland), the word ‘expatriate’ literally means someone who is living outside their native country. Yep. That’s me. But is this all it means? Is expatriate synonymous with exile or emigrant? My thesaurus says yes, they’re all interchangeable, but I’m not so sure.


The Devil’s Dictionary defines an exile as ‘one who serves his country by residing abroad and yet is not an ambassador’. When I think of exile, I think of it as a form of punishment: being sent away from home and being refused permission to return or, perhaps being threatened by prison or death upon doing so. I think of politicians, governments, whole nations; I think of the Jewish Diaspora, the Polonia, and the Crimean Tartars; I think of Byron, Brodsky, and Beckett. And then, of course, there is the tax exile, a species for which I have neither empathy nor sympathy. I am not and never have been in exile.


When I think of emigrants, I think of those who, primarily for economic reasons, have chosen to leave behind their native land and live elsewhere; in particular, I think of the mass exodus from Ireland to America and Australia in the 1980s, of which I was a part. This trend reversed in the 1990s when Ireland began attracting emigrants from other countries. With the demise of the Celtic Tiger, many immigrants now leaving and returning home. Our young people are once more packing their bags, not because they want to, but because they think that Ireland holds no future for them. As I left a good job with an international company to come to Budapest and work for myself, I don’t qualify as an emigrant.


So I must be an expat! That word is bandied about a lot. I hear it most often as an adjective to describe a pub frequented primarily by those hailing from Britain or the USA, or an event which a posse of native-English speakers are likely to attend. Some non-nationals don’t see themselves as expats. For them, going to an expat pub or event in Budapest is like contemplating a brief interlude in hell. They didn’t move to Budapest to hang out with people they’d cross the road to avoid at home. They’re here to live the life, the language and the love affair they’re having with all things Magyar. But, hey, I am, too! They avoid the Bermuda triangle between Cooks, the Caledonia and Becketts, or the twilight zone of Raday utca and leave such places to those who like their football and their rugby. Those, who while happy enough with life in Budapest, still miss something about home; something they attempt perhaps to recreate by hanging out with those who share a common interest, a common past. I like my rugby, my gaelic football, and a bit of bacon and colcannon at the Guinness House, so where does that leave me?

Where to draw the line

There’s been a recent flurry of expat events in Budapest – pub quizzes, speech slams, comedy nights, speed dating, poker games, race nights – and what’s interesting about these is that they’re attracting a large number of Hungarians AND expats from non-native-English-speaking countries. (We native-English speakers would do well to remember that we’re only a very small part of the expat community.) These events provide an excellent forum to meet new people, both nationals and non-nationals.  

But I seem to be straddling two stools. I will be forever bound to Ireland (is my refusal to sever this umbilical connection what makes me an expat rather than an immigrant?), and will always enjoy a night on the tiles with some expat mates. Yet I feel a strong need to balance this with an exploration of Hungarian culture. I need to find a way to bridge both worlds and not to lose myself in either. And the key to do that particular door is the language.

Language is liberating

Studies tell us that community involvement and volunteerism are keys to living happy, productive lives: giving back to that place in which you live, no matter how temporarily; doing your bit to make the world a better place for all; paying your dues in more ways than simply paying your taxes (although that would be a start!). Being able to speak the language of the country to which you’ve expatriated opens up doors that otherwise remain closed. We can be physically here but not really part of existential Hungary. It’s not easy. I’m on my fourth attempt to learn Hungarian. I keep reminding myself that just as many expats have chosen to live in Hungary, so, too, have many Hungarians chosen to live abroad. And I’ll bet that they all speak English!

First published in the Budapest Times 29 March 2010

Why I love living in Budapest No. 5

You just never know what you’ll find in this city. You think you have it sussed. You think you know your streets. And then, you walk around a corner and literally, there’s a whole new world in front of you.

The sun is  out, the temperatures have risen, the flowers are beginning to bloom, my nose is running and my eyes are itching. Spring is officially here. Next month, I have my second birthday as a home-owner. I signed the contract for my flat on April 15. Tax day in America. I didn’t move in until November so I’ve been in the neighbourhood for a year and some months. The ‘neighbourhood’ is the eighteenth-century suburb, now District VIII, which was originally called Alsó-Külváros (literally ‘Lower Suburb’). It was named after the heir of the Hungarian throne, Emperor Josephn 11 in 1777 – and now goes by the name Józsefváros. I thought I had it pretty much sussed… but I thought wrong.

Yesterday I went to the local garden centre to buy some plants to replace the ones that didn’t survive the winter in my windowboxes. I’d been there before and have vague recollections of MC mentioning botanical gardens. So KG and myself thought we’d stop by to check them out… just for a look-see. What I thought were the Gardens turned out to be the Natural History Museum. The gardens themselves have a rather innocuous-looking entrance marked by a metal plaque. And, to be honest, from the outside looking it, it looks very much like a construction site. But curiosity won out. This is one of the three sites where Ferenc Molnár’s novel, A Pál utcai fiúk (1907)  originally takes place: Füvészkert (botanical garden). (It’s a book worth reading: translated as the The Paul Street Boys.) So we paid our 600 ft  (€2.20, $3.40, £2.00) and wandered around.

It’s the oldest of the gardens in Hungary, founded sometime between 1771 and 1847, depending on what you read!!! and apparently is home to 7000 plants including 150-year-old orchids. What struck me first was the noise – or rather the absence of noise. All we could here were birds chirping. It’s definitely undergoing some sort of renovation (we later saw a sign that reckons it’ll be finished in August 2010 so by next year perhaps, it should be done!) and parts of it are very decrepit. No matter. It’s an oasis in the heart of the city. The palmház (Palm House) is fascinating, if a little humid. It was built in 1866, renovated in 1966 and is amazingly colourful – right down to the piping!  Other buildings were closed (we got there a little late in the day) and unfortunately, neither of us saw anything that might remotely resemble a café.  A return visit is in the diary for the summer! Maybe next time we might dress differently though as two old dears thought we looked as if we worked there!

Walking back  to the flat through District VIII, we hit upon the Law Faculty buildings of Pázmány Péter Catholic University,  a public university of the Catholic Church, recognized by the State, founded in the seventeenth century, and one of Hungary’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education. And I never knew it was there! Perhaps more importantly, if somewhat mundane, there’s a rather nice-looking supermarket (if supermarkets can look nice) tucked away in the back streets behind my flat… again, one I’d never noticed/seen before. And less attractive are the 4000 0r so flats of the Corvinus development that are going up at an alarming rate. God only knows who is going to buy them. Another year or so and the neighbourhood will have changed, yet again! This city is one of the most vibrant in which I’ve lived –  it’s the constant discovery of new places that makes living here so great.

‘Tis all in the flag

Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, ‘the greatest’, but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. Or so said American Journalist, Sydney J. Harris. I have struggled for years to adequately explain the difference between the two states and am happy to have discovered Mr Harris’s take on the matter.

Different perspectives

This coming week is a big one in terms of nationalism and patriotism, both for Hungary and for Ireland. Way back in 1848, on March 15, the great poet Petőfi Sándor called on the Hungarian people: ‘Rise up Magyar, the country calls!’ and so marked the climax of the national freedom movement, and the start of the revolution against the Habsburg regime. The Hungarians’ list of demands featured freedom of the press, the establishment of a Hungarian parliament in Pest, freedom of religion, a national bank, a Hungarian army, and the withdrawal of foreign military presence from the country. Hungary wanted control of its national guard, its national budget and its foreign policy. But the Russians intervened in 1849, siding with Austria, and put paid to any attempts at independence. Every year, on March 15, the streets and the people are bedecked in the colours of the Hungarian flag – red, white and green – the design of which is supposedly based on the French tricolour. Depending on whom you ask, these colours represent either red for strength, white for faithfulness and fidelity, and green for hope; or red for the blood spilled for the fatherland, white for freedom, and green for the lands of Hungary.

Different colours

On my first March 15 in Budapest, I was wandering the streets looking for some ‘fresh’ fish (one of my regular, non-pregnant cravings). I met detour after detour after detour. The tannoys were busy with people on their soap boxes proclaiming whatever…it was all Hungarian to me!  The shops were closed. The churches were empty. The streets were packed to capacity. And I was clueless as to what was going on. It reminded me very much of St Patrick’s Day, except that the colours didn’t match. Very patriotic. I turned a corner and walked into a group of young lads…shaved heads, black boots, black jeans, black tees and black jackets, with tattoos that cause nightmares. Then I turned another corner and found myself looking at a street-load of police in full riot gear. Patriotism had handed the baton to Nationalism and the race was about to start.

Different reasons

St Patrick’s Day – March 17 – is celebrated around the world. It’s a public holiday in Ireland and Montserrat; a bank holiday in Northern Ireland; and an official holiday in Canada, the USA and New Zealand. And, since the seventeenth century, St Patrick’s Day features as an official feast day on the global Catholic liturgical calendar. Irish people everywhere come out in all their glory to drown the shamrock. No matter if it was your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother who hailed from the home country, that drop of blood is enough to qualify you as Irish…on this one day, at least. The law preventing pubs in Ireland from opening on St Patrick’s Day was repealed in the 1970s and since then the holiday has taken a very social turn. For many at home, it’s simply a day off work; and if it falls on a Friday or Monday, an excuse to go away for a long weekend. For Irish emigrants, it has a different meaning. It’s the one day a year that you can admit to being homesick and wallow in all the things you’re missing, all things Irish…bad and all as Ireland is!

Same dates

All around the world, people wear the green, white, and orange of the Irish tricolour. Apparently, this flag was first presented to Thomas Meagher, the mayor of Waterford in 1848 (can this be a coincidence?) as a gift from a group of French women sympathetic to the Irish cause (mmmm…the French again!). It wasn’t until the Easter Rising in 1916, when it was raised in Dublin, that it came to be regarded as the national flag. The green is said to represent the Catholics, the orange the Protestants and the white the peace between them. The day is about unification and togetherness, a common past and a common future.

Here’s hoping that this week, everywhere, patriotism gets an airing and nationalism is left at home.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig daoibh go léir.

First publishd in the Budapest Times 15 March 2010

Pulmonary rape

I’ve been accused of a lot of things in my time. Some I readily owned up to; others didn’t warrant dignifying with a response. Some I immediately discounted, given the dubious mental state of the accuser(s); while others I took to heart. I’ve resolved most of them to my satisfaction but one or two return unbidden at the most inconvenient of times.

Practice makes perfect

I smoke. I don’t smoke every day, or every week, but I smoke and have done so intermittently since 1984. My Orwellian character was a drop-dead gorgeous third-year engineering student. In the University pub one night, he offered me a cigarette, which I took. I was planning to put it in my scrapbook, to preserve it for posterity. Then he held out a light. What could I do? I was young, innocent, and very impressionable. I took my first drag, just as he asked me my name. As I opened my mouth to answer, my words were lost in a billow of smoke. How uncool! I was mortified. I spent the rest of the night in front of my bathroom mirror, practicing, lighting cigarette after cigarette, taking a drag, and saying my name. When I finally managed to hold the smoke in nether land until I’d had my say, I felt I’d accomplished something remarkable. And indeed I had – like Bill Clinton, I can say, hand on my heart, that I don’t inhale and that not inhaling has cost me a small fortune!

Guardian of the ashtray

I’m a very considerate smoker…when I smoke. In mixed company, I’m the self-appointed guardian of the ashtray making sure that cigarettes don’t smolder and that smoke doesn’t blow in the direction of the non-smoker(s). When I’m smoking, I try to smoke when others have lit up, matching my cigarette with theirs, and thus increasing the amount of ‘smoke-free’ time. I won’t smoke around children or pregnant women, and only sheer desperation would drive me to smoke in a car with a non-smoker passenger. So this accusation of pulmonary rape hit me quite hard: destroying her health by forcing smoke into her lungs against her will? I ask you! I don’t remember asking her to sit beside me!

Choose your poison

Passive smoking happens but its effects are open to debate. A 1998 WHO study showed that not only might there be no link between passive smoking and lung cancer but that it could even have a protective effect. But were these findings made public? Not so as you’d notice. Exhaust fumes are far from healthy and yet you don’t hear anyone complaining about people driving! Stand at any tram stop in the city for just five minutes and see how much toxic air you inhale. Open your street-facing windows on a still day and watch as the smog settles on your sofa. Catch a bus in the heat of the summer and choke on the chemical combination of stale sweat and cheap deodorant. Deliver me from the anti-smoking, self-righteous, judgmental zealot, who screams ‘pulmonary rape’ as she waddles towards her SUV, her hairspray cutting a hole through the ozone, her perfume wilting weeds in her wake! Passive smoking, luv? There are worse things in life!

Preventable death by heart disease nearly matches smoking-related deaths in the USA, while obesity-related deaths are climbing…but where’s the accusation of ‘artery rape’? Big industry contaminates our rivers and our seas, clears our forests, and pollutes our air to make products that we can’t get enough of. And yet you’d have to listen very carefully to hear even the faintest echo of self-gratifying consumers crying ‘environmental rape’. But I’m raping her lungs? As the great Ambrose Bierce once put it: hypocrisy… prejudice with a halo!

Intellectuális reggeli

Let’s forget about those who smoke automatically, out of habit, not out of pleasure, with little thought for anyone but themselves: those who exhale great plumes of smoke indiscriminately as they walk along the street or stand waiting at a tram stop; those whose hair and clothes smell like week-old ashtrays; those you will to be silent because their breath smells like they’ve had dirty socks for dinner. Let’s focus instead on those who enjoy and appreciate smoking for what it is and remember that Budapest is one of the few European capitals where smoking is still allowed in public places. It’s a freedom that’s likely to disappear in the not-too-distant future, one that should be treated with respect. My local café, Francesco’s on Ferenc Tér, offers an intellectuális reggeli: a coffee, a newspaper and a cigarette. It’s heaven on a hectic day. And as I sit angelically on my cloud of smoke, with my cigarette for company, I give silent thanks for the simple, uncomplicated pleasure it affords.

First published in the Budapest Times, 1 March 2010