Wanted: a good man

Jim Carrey, that Canadian-born actor with an extensive library of grins and grimaces, put it well when he said ‘If you ain’t desperate at some point, you ain’t interesting’. And I’ve reached that point of desperation which has elevated my being interesting to stratospheric levels. 

Now let’s be clear from the outset. I am not, I repeat, not desperate to find a man simply because I’m tired of paying single supplements in hotels, cooking for one, or talking to myself all day. Neither am I desperate to find a man because I am fed up being a fifth wheel in this contracting world of couples, have run out of socks to darn, or have an egotistical desire to procreate.  And I’m certainly not desperate to find a man in order to ‘complete’ myself! It’s far more serious than that.

A little too comfortable

I’ve had a couple of OMG moments in the last week which have made me realise that I’m getting way too comfortable being on my own. And before you get your knickers in a knot, I know there’s nothing wrong with being single…just let me explain. 

I was in Ireland doing the family thing.  At mass on Sunday, the priest said something that left me gasping. For the non-Catholics amongst you, there’s a prayer in the mass that includes the line ‘protect us from all anxiety’. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember (at least since Vatican II). With the congregation muttering in unison, it was easy to hear the priest as he boomed his modified version into the microphone: ‘protect us from undue anxiety’.  Now, anxiety refers to a state of uneasiness and apprehension about future uncertainties. And, truth be told, we could all do without it, ergo the prayer to protect us from it. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have become an accepted fact that anxiety is part and parcel of our lot in life and that what we need protection from is ‘undue anxiety’. This new take on it sent me into a tailspin of introspection, which, as history will testify, is very likely to result in drastic action on my part which is completely out of character.

A little too safe

In a conversation about salary cuts, reduced pensions, currency fluctuations, and the scarcity of jobs, I happened to mention what I earned last year, before tax. The figure drew gasps of incredulity – and yes, I had converted it to euro to make it easy for the zerophobes.  It was so small it wouldn’t have enticed most of those present out of bed, let alone to iron a shirt and shine their interview shoes. Yes I work and I work damn hard but about half of what I do, I do for free. I do it because it interests me, because it’s for a good cause, or because I’m learning something in the process. And because I’m single, with no dependants, incur minimal costs, and, as one ex-boyfriend put it, can cook potatoes in more ways than are known to man, I won’t starve. I enjoy a better quality of life than many of my materially wealthier friends who are dotted around the world.

I love my life. I get to do pretty much what I want, when I want, time and weather permitting.  I travel. I read. I cook. I write. I talk. I have no one to answer to but myself; no one to consult before I accept or issue an invitation. In short, I have been blessed with an anxiety-free life.

A little too incredible

But is it sustainable? Is life a little too good? Should I be this content? We’re in a recession for God’s sake. Times are tough. Things are bad. The future is dim. If everyone else is so miserable, at their wits end trying to survive yet another spate of redundancies, keep their creditors at bay, and cope with climate change, what’s wrong with me? What has me so happy?

Why is my life so free from anxiety? Could it be because I live in one of the greatest cities in the world and enjoy my work so much that I’ve forgotten that it’s actually work? Or that I don’t have to commute? Could it be because I really value my quirky friends and supportive family who keep me sane? Or that I consider myself truly blessed? Surely not! It must be because I’m single…mustn’t it? Perhaps I need to test that particular hypothesis.

Man wanted: must be low maintenance, socially adept, honest, independent, solvent, able to punctuate, and in possession of all his faculties.  Ideally will be able to laugh at himself, hold down an interesting conversation, and be capable of making decisions. spontaneity a plus.  All replies considered.

First published in the Budapest Times, Tuesday 25th May 2010

Coming out of the closet

Yellow hornbill

Since coming to terms with the fact that I fancied the geeky Malcolm (the birdwatcher in the 1980s TV comedy Watching) it’s been years since I’ve had difficult admitting anything to myself. I’m not at all backward about coming forward when it comes to sharing my embarassing moments but in all honesty, this latest fessing up has left me somewhat dazed.

I like listening to birds and have always had a strange fascination with owls. But other than the dawn chorus, I’ve never really had a lot of time for our feathered friends. Once, in Valdez Alaska, when I saw about 14 eagles perched on the one tree, I stood in wonder. A robin in the back garden at home that comes calling every winter, he’s special enough to warrant an audible awe. But for the most part, not a bone in my body twitches. The British called birdwatchers ‘twitchers’. In South Africa, they call them ‘birders’. Same idea. Spend the day outdoors with binocs trying to get a check or a tick against  a bird (the rarer the better). Yawn! Yawn! Yawn!

Kori Bustard

 Now, having spent eight days travelling through Kruger with three avid birders, not to mention having had dinner with three others in Wakkerstroom, it was probably inevitable that something would rub off on me. But then again, I’ve spent years in the company of red-wine drinkers and I’ve never gotten a taste for that! Mind you, I was rather surprised that none of them were the slighest bit anoraky. They are all intelligent, interesting, amusing people with stories to tell.  So much for stereotypes.

Over the course of eight days or so, my fascination with birds became more and more obvious until on the last day, still searching for a leopard to complete the Big 5 (+ elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion), I had to fess up to praying for a sighting of the Kori Bustard doing his mating dance. I’d seen it on EK’s video from their previous trip to Kruger and so wanted to see him live, in action, for myself.  Stuff the leopard… I wanted to see yer man strutting his stuff. And I’d have gladly taken a secretary bird over a cheetah!

Lilac breasted roller

 Another day, parked on a bridge, ostensibly looking for hippos or crocs in the river below, I spotted this big bird in the distance. It flew closer and closer, black and white feathers with a black beak with bright red band and a flash of yellow. I was gobsmacked. I completely forgot about my camera and just stared, mouth open. The saddleback stork can grow to 58 inches in height and there are only 100 in Kruger (a place the size of Belgium). And I saw one of them! It was amazing. But as big as it was, I was equally taken withthe hornbills, the glossy starlings, the blacksmith plovers and the go-away birds – which spend their time shouting ‘go away’!

Ground hornbills

Child that I am, I got such a kick out of being the one to spot the Kori Bustard EVERY TIME, without binoculars, despite being in a Kombi full of birders! It was during a moment of gloating that I realised what was happening. I was shocked. I was hooked. After two days, I gave in and started ticking them off. After six days, I began to recognise them myself and only had to ask about the new sightings. I spent ages following three yellow hornbills trying to get them to pose. I cursed myself for not having a telephoto lens only once during the whole trip: when we spotted seven ground hornbills…. in a tree!!!

Blacksmith plover

I have a thing for black and white and was dead keen to get a decent shot of some zebras for my B&W hallway.ThenI discovered the blacksmith plover…and those pyjama donkeys had some competition. Unfortunately the closet birder in me didn’t show her face until we’d left Wakkerstroom – and I missed the opportunity to see some cranes. Now that would have been cool. Equally so, to see some vultures…close up and personal. I’ll just have to content myself with rereading Xinran’s Sky Burial.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The more I learn about the world, the more I realise how little I actually know. Last week, what I knew about South Africa had been gleaned from newspapers, TV documentaries, reports by aid organisations, Internet blogs, and the occasional conversation about the state of the nation with some Afrikaaner friends. I have vague memories of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin. I remember the strikes against apartheid and the celebrations when South Africa gained its freedom. I’ve seen the cartoons featuring President Zuma standing under the symbolic showerhead (he apparently believes that showering after sex will prevent the transmission of Aids).  I’m still wondering at FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup there this summer. In short, if my mind were a computer and you did a search on ‘South Africa’ you’d find a complete mismash of information that says far more about me and my misconceptions than it does about South Africa. Everything I have read or heard about the country has been filtered through a perspective that is the product of the life I have lived so far; a perspective that is influenced by my education, my upbringing, and my spiritual beliefs; a perspective that has been largely coloured by the reported experience of others rather than any first-hand experience of my own.

Learning by doing

A South African friend of mine, recognising this huge gap in my education, invited me to join her on a visit home to the grasslands in Wakkerstroom just south of Pretoria. To see another country, not as a tourist, but as a resident, however temporary, is an honour that is all-too-often taken for granted. To see it in the company of someone who is revered (and occasionally reviled) for the work she has done in breathing new life into this small town is a privilege indeed. Were I here as part of a tour group, staying in a guesthouse or hotel, eating in restaurants featured in guidebooks, my vision of South Africa would probably still be intact. My preconceptions – the cities are dangerous; Aids is prevalent; life is cheap; racism is rife; whites are rich; blacks are poor – may have gone unchallenged.

Instead, I have been party to conversations unfiltered by judicious editors or biased press officers. I have stayed in suburban homes built in guarded complexes, often surrounded by two or three layers of fencing. I have listened to horrific accounts of how rage and anger manifest themselves in senseless, brutal assaults on young and old alike. I have seen how differently people react to the threat of violence; how political correctness is severely curtailing growth and prosperity; and how affirmative action, without the necessary provision of skills and knowledge, is eroding hope for a sustainable future. My somewhat naïve questions about the sanctity of elephants have been met with patient explanations of the damage and the danger and the missed opportunities inherent in not allowing herds to be culled. Heated debates on the dire state of public infrastructure, the inability of politicians to cope with growth and development, and the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made in the post-apartheid era all seem somewhat familiar.

Home thoughts from abroad

Interestingly, I find myself contributing to the conversation with stories of what’s happening in Hungary. I hear myself drawing parallels between post-communism and post-apartheid politics; between the Roma and the Zulu; between the townships in South Africa and the villages of Eastern Hungary. I recognise the insularity of the rich and the powerful; the insecurity of those threatened by the devolution of power; and the humility of those who know enough to realise they have so much yet to learn. Corruption, racism, and the ever widening gap between the very rich and the very poor exist to a greater or lesser extent in both countries, as does a growing if unconscious dependency on China. Likewise, patriotism, nationalism, and cultural history abound.

Both countries are beautiful and surprisingly, a lot alike. The great open plains of the Puszta are mirrored by the vastness that lies under the South African sky. The birding paradise of Hortobágy bears a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Wakkerstroom. There is no time difference. The extreme variance between highest and lowest daily temperatures is comfortingly familiar…at least at this time of year as Hungary moves into her summer while South Africa edges towards winter.

The more I learn about  both countries, the more I realise how little I actually know about either of them. What I have learned though, is that to really appreciate a country, I need to live in it. And to really live in a country I need to make a concerted effort to understand both sides of the story.

First published in the Budapest Times Tuesday 11th May 2010

In vino veritas

Not too long ago, some friends of mine in Ireland – aka ‘de wimmen’ – told me that it would be pointless my going to France with them as I neither drank wine nor ate olives. I was a tad peeved at this but not put out enough to do anything about it. I was happy with the odd gin and tonic and the occasional pint of cider on a hot day. Wine was way too pretentious for me.

The age of innocence

Sometime later, I was in a pub in Oxford with a mate of mine who had recently returned from a trip to New Zealand. He had ‘discovered’ wine and was full of interesting snippets. For instance, did you know that the first vines were planted in New Zealand by a missionary named Samuel Marsden in the north of the North Island in 1819, but that the World Atlas of Wine in 1970 doesn’t even mention New Zealand? Well, now you do! Anyway, according to my mate, the Montana Sauvignon Blanc was as close as you can get to liquid perfection. So, putting personal preferences aside, I indulged him and tried it. Just a glass. That particular combination of green grassy notes and ripe tropical fruit mellowed me.  I enjoyed it. And what’s more, it was now just a matter of downing an olive or two, and I’d earn my place on the ferry to France.

The thin red line

This new-found sophistication – oh no, dahling, I’m not a Chardonnay girl – left me breathless and eager to venture further afield. I began to winter my way around the world of white wine, with an occasional summertime dip into a chilled Rosé. Thankfully I realized early on that I was in little danger of losing my fortune to the champagne gods as I’d rather an Italian Prosecco, a Hungarian Pezsgo or Spanish Cava any day of the week, especially on Sundays! And to those who say that it’s a wine’s duty to be red, I have no answer. The red-wine smell wafting from an open bag of wine gums turns my stomach and even the promise of a thimbleful of the 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam – a bottle of which sold at a Christie’s auction in 1997 for more than $100,000 – wouldn’t entice me from my knitting on a Friday night!

After a while though, I began to notice something peculiar. I actually take on the personality of the wine I’m drinking and become even more susceptible than usual to word association. Give me a glass or two of a Chilean Sauvignon from the Casablanca Valley and, like Bergman’s Isla Lund, I find myself crying dramatically to the nearest Bogart: Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time. Now in a crowded club in Budapest, this may be no bad thing, but not when you’re at a reception for a missionary priest just back from Santiago…

A glass or two of the Spanish Marqués de Riscal and I’m positively dangerous. Hands flailing dramatically like a real-life toreros, I’m liable to punch-uate each sentence quite forcibly, which is all well and good if my listeners are wearing gumshields rather than hopeful smiles. The last poor unfortunate to risk a bottle of Riscal with me is still wondering what hit him…

Being Irish, I’m allowed a little poetic license. We need little encouragement to tell a story, but a glass or two of the Italian Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi will literally have me saying mass. It’s as if I split in two: one part of me can hear the other half tell the stories and just sits back and laughs, all the while sipping. Sometime I really amaze myself. Convincing some Canadian sailors from the HMS Iroquois that I was a novice nun had me rooting in my purse for my rosary beads…

A dark horse

But it’s the white wine from the Hungarian pince Nyakas that has been my undoing.  I just have to see the head of that black horse to feel the stirrings of invincibility that will only later be reined in by insecurities. I’ve said before that Budapest has a peculiar energy to it – an energy that seems to make anything possible. There is a life bubbling beneath the surface of this city that emerges every now and then to push you just a little bit further than you’d thought possible. Hopes and dreams manifest themselves in thoughts and actions. Couple that sense of power with a glass or two of a Nyakas Pinot Grigio and I’m capable of doing or saying just about anything. Which is why I’m sitting here, munching olives, trying to decipher the illegible note I made in my diary last night – did I really book a ferry to France?

First published in the Budapest Times 26 April 2010