Weather too hot to handle

I was born with a limited supply of patience and I live in fear of it running out before I die. So I ration it. I use it wisely. Others may choose to squander their allotment in their youth, gradually turning into cantankerous old codgers as middle age departs and old age sets in. Not me. So adept am I at rationing my given allotment that many people think I possess no patience at all. And that’s not true. The any-season-but-summer me is patient to the point of proctalgia; but come June, I’m literally too hot to handle.

Simmering semaphore

Once the temperature in Budapest hits the high twenties, I get flustered and easily irritated. Although usually happy to repeat my limited Hungarian in palinoiac fashion until I utter something approximating the correct pronunciation, I now disintegrate into a blithering idiot if I have to repeat myself even once. My hands take on a life of their own, my facial muscles spasm, and my voice gets higher and higher until I’m practically whinnying in frustration. On any given day in winter, spring or autumn, when my patience is at its best, it might take me five attempts to pronounce the word tej in such a way that it will result in a bag, bottle or carton of milk but no matter. That’s the any-season-but-summer me, the one that’s calm, cool, and collected. But by June, when it’s 27°C in the shade, I would rather milk the cow myself than endure what the heat has morphed into humiliation. To my utter shame, albeit just once, I found myself thinking the unthinkable: why doesn’t everyone in this wind-forsaken urban heat island speak bloody English!

Parboiling prose

When it hits the thirties, I begin to lose my sense of reason. The beatific smile I usually bestow with just the right amount of forgiveness on the poor unfortunate who dares to crowd my space on public transport is but a memory. It is replaced by a withering look that is guaranteed to raise the hackles of the most complacent commuter. Forget perspiring; I’m positively glowing. By the end of my journey, complete strangers have united against me, muttering incoherently to each other, plotting my demise.  Someday, some summer, I’m sure I’ll make the headlines.

The smell of red wine makes me gag. The smell of boiling bacon makes me queasy. The combination of the two in the form of body odour wafting from a lump of lard who’s had a few glasses too many the night before and whose extras pounds are cooking in the heat, is enough to turn my stomach. I know my manners. I know better than to visibly react to something that someone perhaps can’t control. But in this heat, when I find my 5’5” frame neatly spooned into a sweaty armpit, be it male or female, I register the full spectrum of emotion from animosity to belligerence, visible for all to see.

Baked bellyaching

When it hits the forties, I am incapable of coherent speech. I bore myself senseless with my moaning and run the risk of alienating friends and acquaintances. Even the postman thinks twice about knocking. I’m crankier than a teething baby with her tongue caught in a rattle. I’m cantankerous, unpleasant, short-tempered, and prone to using more colourful expletives than usual. I can’t abide the heat, especially the oppressive heat of the city. It brings out the worst in me. It gets to where I can’t stand my own company and can barely tolerate anyone else’s. I’ve tried the baths, but they’re too crowded. I’ve tried waiting until evening before I venture outside but so do the mosquitoes and they’re usually famished. The overnight swings in temperature play havoc with my psyche: low twenties today, mid-thirties tomorrow. Make up your mind, weather! Even the normally tepid Hungarian coffee tastes too hot.

But there is a plus side. Although I’m not a fan of air conditioning, in my search for some reprieve I’ve discovered places I would normally walk by. Budapest is empty at the weekends with everyone either on the Island or down at the Balaton. It’s so pleasant….in the shade or in the shops. The city’s diversity, kept under wraps in colder weather, comes out in full force. Open-air music abounds and if you happen to stumble across the likes of the world famous Taraf de Haidouks (who played an amazing free gig at Magdolna tér in District VIII last weekend) you’re set up.  I may have been too hot to handle that night, completely devoid of patience, and crankier than all git out, but seeing Dinu work that cimbalom was worth every bead of perspiration and every ounce of discomfort. Even when Budapest is bad, she’s good!

First published in the Budapest Times 21 June 2010

The sum of all our choices

Ok – so it’s not an American breakfast, but it’s all I had on film!

When I first went to the USA, choices in Ireland still came in pairs: tea or coffee, catholic or protestant, married or single, cash or cheque. Sitting down to my first all-American breakfast in New York, I was ill-prepared for the verbal onslaught. The harried waitress delivered my options like an AK-47 spewing bullets.  Coffee – black or white, regular or decaf, milk or creamer? Eggs – fried, poached, scrambled, over well, over easy, over medium, sunny side up? Toast – white, wheat, wholemeal, rye, sourdough, granary? It was too much then, yet 20 years later, these options seem quite limited. Have you read a coffee menu lately? Could it be any more complicated? As for bread…I can list 15 different types beginning with the letter B!

Making choices is hard work. The April 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites research who found that were are more fatigued and less productive when faced with myriad choices. Life was a lot simpler then a cup of tea and a slice of toast were the order of the day.

Northside or Southside?

It stands to reason that the choices we made yesterday pretty much determine where we are today. And it seems like yesterday that, having decided to move to Hungary, I faced the potentially life-shaping choice between living in Buda or in Pest. Dublin is also a city of two parts, although the Northside and the Southside are colloquial geographical expressions rather than official administrative areas. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, lived on the Northside; Bono and the lads from U2 went to school there; and that hunk of Irish attitude, Colin Farrell, was born there. The Southside boasts the literary greats James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and the fictional Ross O’Carroll Kelly. Rivalry abounds and the jokes fly both ways: What do you call a Northsider in a suit? The defendant. How does a Southsider get a week off work? He phones his mother!  We talk about having to get a visa to cross the Liffey and ironically, I feel the same way about crossing the Danube.

Eastside or Westside?

I’m a Northside girl who leans towards the west. So, when I first arrived in Budapest, it was only natural that I looked towards Buda. I asked around. I consulted those in the know (locals, estate agents, long-term expats) and the consensus was that if I could afford it, I’d be better off living in Buda. It was more salubrious, they said; a better investment.  It was leafier, greener, and the air was better. And there were fewer Roma (yes, shockingly, that was an actual sales pitch!). But I wanted grit, diversity, earthiness, and attitude. I wanted to live, not retire. So I settled on the Eastside, in Pest.

Begrudgingly, as I was flying in the face of conventional wisdom, they spoke to me of districts. They told me not to buy in district VIII (aka ‘the ghetto’), as that was where the majority of the minorities lived, along with the hookers and miscellaneous petty criminals. They said that V was lovely, but I probably couldn’t afford it. They said that XIII was nice, too, but that heirs apparent were camped on doorsteps waiting to move in once their elderly relatives moved on.  They said that VI was almost as good as V but less expensive. Ditto moving down the line to VII; even the pastel-painted IX ranked up there as having some potential. I should buy anywhere but district VIII. So 57 flat-views later, I bought…in district VIII.

Style or substance?

Baglyas Gyuri (Beyond Budapest Sightseeing) was quoted in the New York Times recently. He rightly described district VIII as ‘the city’s best part: a laboratory of diversity, art, music and architecture’. If it’s salubrious you want, check out Keleti pályaudvar and step back in time when you step into its gorgeous old ticket hall; visit the ‘little Basilica of Esztergom’ on Rezső tér; and sit a while in the Golden Salon of the Public Library on Szabó Ervin tér. For green and leafy, there’s the Botanical Gardens on Illés utca, Orczy kert (behind the old Ludovica Military Academy) or the wonderful Kerepesi cemetery. Diversity is the key to unlocking the hidden gems of district VIII…gems like the new African Buffet at Bérkocsis utca 21 or the beautifully bricked music mecca, Grund Hostel, on Nagytemplom utca 30.

Given the 23 districts I had to choose from, I picked well. District VIII is where it’s happening. It has both style and substance and a personality all of its own. If Albert Camus is to be believed, and life is the sum of all our choices, then living in the ghetto definitely adds up!

First published in the Budapest Times 7 June 2010