All eyes on me

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa recently, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm). Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chamelon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of waterbuck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves.Whether their stripes are for camoflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.

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Playing with the elephants

A number of years ago, while sitting in her house in Slough, the indomitable EK promised that some day, she’d take me to play with the elephants. I have to admit, the very words ‘play with the elephants’ conjured up all sorts of wild imaginings. Elephants wielding baseball bats in their trunks. Elephants playing football. Elephants doing the 100-yard dash.  Being South African, EK often paints her thoughts with words, a refreshing change from the formulaic descriptives used this side of the world. But playing with the elephants??? No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get a handle on what she meant.

And then I went with her to Kruger.Now, some less fortunate people go to Kruger on tour. With guides. In groups. I was extremely lucky to have three personal, professional and very entertaining guides in EK and the Springbok Kids (sounds like a band, doesn’t it…and yes, believe me, they sing and bring a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘captive audience’). Between them, they’ve more than 100 years of elephant play time under their oxters and I knew I was in good hands. Being slightly anal, I refused to believe that elephants could hide. They’re massive. How could they disappear behind a tree? But disappear they do. One minute they’re there. The next, gone!

We left the camp each morning between 6 and 7am and motored around all day, stopping for breakfast and lunch. You can only get out of your vehicle at designated rest areas or occassionally, in the middle of a long bridge. The animals see vehicles as just another beast – on four wheels rather than four legs,  rarely venturing off the road. Tame enough. No threat. That first evening, on our way back to camp, we hit on a herd of elephants playing in a river. It was gobsmacking – awe inspiring – to see these massive creatures frolicking around like kids. When they’d had their bath, they wandered up across the road to go home. My more experienced companions were keeping a sharp eye for signs that one of them might charge because despite their bulk, they’re fast! They can travel at 25 mph and at that speed, you wouldn’t want to run into one!

I wondered what animals did all day in the bush. Just eat and sleep and wander around? Perhaps. Only once did I see one doing something approaching work,  using her trunk to move a heavy log – admittedly I had trouble seeing the sense in moving a log from a to b, but then again, working for the sake of working is quite common in human terms, too. But when you consider that a grown elephant needs 300-500 lbs of food each day, finding that food and eating it is a good day’s work in itself.

Close up and personal, even the youngest of them looks old and wrinkled. But they’re happy in their skins. I didn’t see any of them working out or trying to firm up that flab but man, do they have eyelashes to die for – they can grow as long as 2.5 inches, without mascara! I fell in love. For me, elephants are the rugby players of the animal kingdom (am thinking Keith Wood here). Big, strong, bald, great eyes. I could forget about dieting as no matter how big I got; with my elephant beside me, I’d still look tiny.

Typically, they reach puberty at 12-14, have kids up until their 50s, and live to be in their 70s. Quite human. They cry, they laugh, they play. They can look sad, and happy, and bored. They’re the world’s biggest land mammal. They grow to 3-4 metres, weigh 4-7 tonnes (think about 12,000 lbs) and have four toes on their front feet, and three on their back ones. They throw dirt on themselves to protect their skin from the the sun (Lancome, watch out!), and this without the benefits of TV advertising!

Elephants are very family oriented. The herd (of 9-10 animals) is ruled by the strongest female, the matriarch. If a baby is upset, they’ll all hover around and comfort it. But while they take care of their young, watching over them at all times, never letting them stray out of sight, they’re not so tolerant of the young, obnoxious bulls. These are usually kicked out of the house when they hit their teens and hang around in bachelor herds, only going back to the family to mate. (Why does all this sound so familiar?) The older they get, the lonelier they become.  There is something really moving about seeing a lone bull making his way through the bush. His slow, lumbering walk. His big soulful eyes. I couldn’t help but feel for him.

Playing with the elephants turned out to be much more than I’d expected. It was an amazing experience and a humbling one. I’d never quite realised how much of humanity is mirrored in the animal kingdom.

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Brittany: bicycles and bales of hay

In this particular part of France, in Brittany, you’re more likely to pass a bicycle on the road than a car, which somewhat explains the phenomenon that is the Tour de France. It’s incredibly quiet and very, very bucolic. The towns and villages we drive through are like ageing dowagers; you can still see vestiges of their former beauty but the plethora of a vendre signs on shuttered windows tells its own story. Each village is a rainbow of flowering plants: pinks, blues, purples, reds and yellows. Doors and window frames, once painted bright blues and greens, have faded to a more solicitous shade of weather-beaten glory. Rusty hinges and corroded nails, cling solidly to flaking wood. Ivy creeps up the walls, shading window ledges, providing homes for sparrows and starlings. Tall fields of green maize and golden fields of wheat and barley line the narrow country roads. We brake once, as a bushy-tailed fox crosses the road in front of us. He is the only other traffic we meet on our way to La Trinité-Porhoët.

With its thirteenth century Romanesque church whose floor slopes downwards at an angle of about 10 degrees, La Trinité-Porhoët is just one example of towns and villages that somehow have managed to avoid the clutches of twenty-first century consumerism. You can still see the lavoire where women would come to do their laundry, beating theirclothes to cleanliness with stones, winter and summer alike.

Imagine washing your clothes here in winter!

Or Rohan, where the magnificent Abbey of Timadeuc, built in 1841, is now home to some Cistercian monks and quite famous for its cheese. Monday morning mass at the Abbey is concelebrated by 10 priests. Fourteen monks of all ages sit in the stalls, outnumbering the congregation. The granite simplicity and the absence the usual siren of statues so common in other Roman Catholic churches, give the place a peculiarly blessed feel. The acoustics are wonderful. The monks’ chanting echoes under the stone quadripartite vaulted roof. The semicircular arches make it seem longer than it actually is. I lose myself in the timbre of their song and although my Leaving-Cert French hovers tantalisingly in some far off recess of my mind, I don’t need or want to understand what’s being said. The simplicity of it all is simply beautiful.

About an hour outside Rennes (the closest airport to CM’s small holding in Landes Ardennes), the area around Coëtlogon is mainly farmland. The place is remarkable for its lack of people. Fields of freshly cut hay, stacked in round bales, testify to an activity that has obviously taken place but where are all the farm workers? This countryside is like a rural rendition of the Marie Celeste. The only other beings I see are two peacocks, strutting down the road, lord and lady of all that they survey.

If the French do anything well, it’s eating. Lunch in the medieval town of Josselin, home to the Basilique Notre Dame du Roncier, is nothing short of glorious. Although 60 miles from the coast, moules marinieres et frites seem to be the order of the day. I count 108 mussels on my plate and the chips…the chips… I can see now why the French claim ownership of the ubiquitous French fry. For once, I am not driving, so I quite happily enjoy a simple, uncomplicated dry French wine.

Perhaps, a few years ago, France was cheap. No longer. Oh, you can still get a house that needs a bit of work for a fraction of what you’d pay in Ireland, but everything else seems to have moved to level par. €10 for a brioche at the market. €16 for a spit-roasted chicken. €1.35 for a litre of petrol. And with the gap between sterling and the euro closing daily, those who have left Britain for Brittany are finding it harder than expected to make ends meet. Would I live here, so far from the coast, in such unforgiving heat? No. But it’s a lovely place to spend some time and recharge the batteries, mainly because there’s little to do and nothing to distract you from doing it. Perhaps GPs the world over should consider prescribing a week in Brittany as a tonic for those of us stressed and stretched beyond belief by the anxiety of daily living. Unplugged, disconnected and free from that pressing need to ‘do’, it’s the perfect cure for a manic mind.

An orderly queue of one

I am spending an inordinate amount of time lately in airports and on airplanes. This new-found intimacy with all things aviation has also been a voyage of self-discovery. While I’d like to consider myself a bit of a radical, fearless when it comes to speaking out against the norm, I’ve had to face the fact that, actually, I’m a conformist.

Strategic positioning

If I don’t have an assigned seat, I will queue.  I live in fear of being sandwiched between two talkative strangers on a flight that lasts longer than it takes for me to order and drink a gin and tonic. If my flight starts with a bus journey from the gate to the plane, I don’t worry about it. Nine times out of ten, if I’m strategically positioned next to a door opposite the driver, I’m one of the first up those gangway steps. But if we’re talking about direct-access planes and unassigned seating, I’m first in line. Queues, I have discovered, are the personification of civilisation. To each who waits his or her turn, come many rewards: the sure knowledge of where you are in the pecking order; a clear estimate of how long it will take you to reach the desired goal; and a somewhat pathetic sense of accomplishment once your bags are stowed in the last available overhead space. Where else in our manic, twenty-first century lives are we assured of the orderliness afforded by a good queue… the certainty, the cleanliness, the precision?

Mikes Gyorgy, that artful Hungarian writer who so beautifully captures the essence of being English, nailed it when he wrote: Some nations have queuing down to an art form. An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. The English queue; the Americans wait in line. Both nations respect the ritual and pay homage to this embodiment of patience, this physical manifestation of civility.

Was Moses Magyar?

Some Hungarians, on the other hand, seemed to have missed out on this queuing gene. The rest of us mere mortals may patiently stand in line, but not them. Marching straight ahead without so much as a by your leave, they solider through. Elnezest is the golden word… the Hungarian version of ‘Open Sesame’. It’s like watching the parting of the Red Sea and makes me wonder if Moses were Magyar. When this happens at Ferihegy, it goes unremarked; most of those lined up like regimental soldiers have either lived here long enough for this particular phenomenon to have lost its pallor, or are tourists returning home, too knackered to care.

In Dublin Airport on Monday, boarding a flight to Budapest, I saw a couple of stylishly dressed Hungarian queue-jumping women elnezesting their way to the front. Heads held high, they charged ahead, measuring their progress in persons, the bolder of the two carving out a path for her more timid friend to follow. In their wake, they left a legacy of disbelieving frowns and incredulous glances, as their meeker Irish counterparts froze, transfixed by their audacity. Those who had charted their progress from the back of the queue were moved to comment once they themselves had been successfully navigated. Loud declarations that ‘there is a queue, love’ or ‘who the blazes do they think they are?’ reverberated around the waiting area. But our fearless Magyars pressed forward, seemingly oblivious to the caustic comments and the seething anger emanating from dozens of Irish eyes, eyes no longer smiling.

Dress for success

In Rennes airport on Friday, I was queuing patiently in a tunnel outside the terminal building. It was blistering hot. Most of my fellow passengers were either Irish or French. Conditioned as we are to queuing, there wasn’t as much as a murmur of complaint. A well-dressed man of indeterminate age began to weave his way through the line. The worn sheen of his leather suitcase spoke of years of exotic travel. The silk pocket handkerchief peeping from the breast pocket of a beautifully tailored suit shimmered in the sunlight. His gold-rimmed sunglasses reminiscent of the 1950s reflected our collective awe. He was neither a tall man nor a big man but from his immaculate white hair to the tips of his manicured fingernails, he oozed presence. He turned occasionally, beckoning to his companion, urging her to come forward. He quietly side-stepped each one of us, yet we were the ones apologising for standing in his way. As I followed his progress to the top of the line, I noticed that unlike Monday’s Maygars, this man left a trail of bonhomie. There was no acrimony, no resentment. Never once did he say ‘excuse me’. Perhaps Hungary’s one concession to politeness, the elnezest, has outlived its day.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2010

Coffee with culture

Way back in 1674, the Women’s Petition against Coffee sought to prohibit men under 30 drinking the drying, enfeebling liquor. Coffee led men to waste their time, spending their money on a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water. A Prince of Spain once passed a law that men should not repeat the grand kindness to their wives, above nine times a night. Yes, nine times a night! But with the advent of coffee, men apparently were no longer capable of performing those devoirs which their duty and our expectations exact.Coffee, it would appear, far from being the stimulant it is today, actually hampered a man’s performance in bed.

Perhaps, though, it was men’s absence from the marital bed that hindered their performance. Perhaps it was because men chose to spend their time in coffee houses, which as well as places to drink and meet, were sites of political discussion, literary review, and late-night high-brow chat. The Spectator magazine was founded in a coffee house. Lloyds of London began life in one. They were cultural places to plot, discuss, and argue…

Hot gossip and grand designs

Coffee kick starts the day, focuses the mind, and readies the body for action. It witnesses the highs and lows of daily living. It’s party to hot gossip, innermost secrets, vengeful plans, and grand designs. It’s a perfect partner in solitude. The world is put to rights by someone, somewhere, every minute of the day as they take the time to sink into a comfy chair and sip their way to sanity. Is there a nicer way to start the day than with a classic Americano, its dark black sheen in stark contrast to the white ceramic cup? Is there a more relaxing mid-morning interlude than a frothy cappuccino that oozes opulence? Is there a better pick-me-up than the liquid gold of an afternoon espresso? And where better to enjoy this simple pleasure than in Budapest, with its tree-lined streets and pavement cafés.

Whether you prefer the old-world luxury of the Centrál kávéház or the retro feel of Ibolya on Ferenciek tere, both offer a refuge from the teeming masses. They are oases of calm in a city that is becoming increasingly westernised, with manic materialism and sterile sameness the order of the day. A little further up the road, Bali Café on Károly körút, contends with the heavyweights Costa Coffee and Coffee Heaven. These international chains are sucking the lifeblood from the city. Budapest’s laid-back café culture will soon be enjoyed only by tourists and those diehards who want to preserve the sanctity of a cup of coffee. The rest of the city, the harried workers and those too busy to stop and smell the coffee beans roasting are being slowly annihilated by ‘the enemy’-  a paper coffee cup, aka coffee-to-go.

Starry-eyed in Starbucks

All week, I’ve heard people talk about the new Starbucks in WestEnd; how exciting it is to have the world’s most famous coffee chain come to Budapest. In some people’s minds it seems to show that the city has arrived.  How short-sighted, I say. It is but the beginning of the end. In my mind, Starbucks and its ilk are responsible for the homogenisation of the world’s coffee culture, destroying individualism, wiping local joints off the table and replacing them with carbon-copy cut-outs. Those cardboard cups with their plastic lids hold within their simple design a force of destruction more powerful than any legislated social change. Like Tesco’s, McDonald’s and other mass-produced industrial landmarks, Starbucks is soulless, another extension of our fast food culture, which is completely counter-cultural to what coffee houses were founded to do.

I moved east because I wanted to get away from the mass consumerism that has engulfed the so-called western world. I wanted to disassociate myself from that throwaway culture, where everyone and everything is moving at an increasingly faster pace and the common chorus screams ‘I don’t have time’. I wanted to go some place where it was normal to sit and dissect the world over a cup of coffee, or simply smoke a cigarette and read a book or newspaper, while enjoying the bittersweet taste, senses undisturbed by bland uniformity. I wanted some place where I could drink in a little atmosphere along with a shot of caffeine, places like District V’s Csendes or District VIII’s Csiga.

Back in 1674, women were ready to ban coffee to preserve the grand kindness that men should do their wives. Me, I’d swap that grand kindness for the simple, pure taste of a dupla cappuccino from Café Alibi on Egyetem tér, with its caramel-and-chocolate-syrup butterfly painstakingly hand-drawn in the froth. This is feeding neither a physical dependency nor an addiction. It is a coffee unspoiled by commercialism; a coffee with culture.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 July 2010