Bamboozled into buying a bottle

Reactions to an interview on national television with Irish bottled-water pioneers Ballygowan in the 1980s resounded with exclamations of incredulity. Just who in their right mind would pay for a bottle of water? Who, in a country boasting a tax rate of 56%, would be so stupid as to hand over their hard-earned money for a water you could get for free from a well?  A ludicrous notion, indeed. So what if our French friends were squandering their francs on Perrier and Evian (try spelling Evian backwards….)? So what if our Italian soul mates were glugging down their lire in the form of Fiuggi or San Pellegrino? The Irish would never fall for that lark. But we did. And people the world over fell for it, too.

Now, thirty years later, we have backed ourselves into a corner. We have created a nightmare whereby we have far too many choices. We can choose between Australia’s Tasmanian Rain, Belgium’s Chaudfontaine, and Croatia’s Jana. We can choose between still and sparkling. We can choose between glass and plastic. And we can also choose to pay for water or do without.

Thwarted by a tap

Trying to get plain old tap water these days is like trying to get blood from a particularly insipid turnip. In Lithuania last week, I was the only one at a table of six who managed to persuade the waiter to give me a glass of tap water. I was playing the environmental card: saying no to plastic; saying no to an ever-increasing carbon footprint; saying no the sheer ridiculousness of paying for water. Here in Budapest, my pleas for csapvíz are growing more strident. What started off as a simple request, morphed into a plaintive cry and is now on the edge of becoming a frustrated hysteric.

If the tap water is bad, if it is undrinkable, then yes, I will pay for bottled water. But even then I have certain expectations. I read somewhere lately that new discoveries in astrophysics suggest that water is not native to Earth but rather was imported from the edges of our solar system as ice trapped in comets. The first ‘delivery’ is estimated to have happened more than four billion years ago. So while ‘importing’ water is not exactly a new phenomenon, I still want my bottled water to have been bottled locally…if not in the same city then at least in the same country. I simply cannot get my head around people buying water in a bottle that has been flown half-way around the world for their drinking pleasure. We’re not talking vintage port here, people…it’s water! Or is it?

Swizzled by a spring

In his book, Fine waters, Michael Mascha points out that water is actually not water. At least the premium stuff isn’t. It’s like wine. It has terroir and it is a natural product that originates from a particular place with unique properties. Perhaps the debate about plastic or glass might be the equivalent of the furore around screw tops or corks. While you might serve your champagne at a refreshing 6°C, the optimal temperature for serving sparkling water is 13°C. Forget your pinot gris, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. When it comes to water, we’re talking spring, artesian, well, and glacier. Remove the young, dry, sweet, mature and full-bodied adjectives and replace with still, effervescent, light, classic, and bold. And when at a water tasting (you wouldn’t believe me if I told you of the images this conjures up), remember to replace aromatic, balanced, crisp, and fleshy, with short, long, focused or wide. When, oh when, did we get so pretentious? When did a glass of water become more than a glass of water? When exactly did we start to forsake the faucet?

So while a large portion of the population pays for the privilege of drinking bottled water, I’m drawing the line at paying for tap water! Unless, of course, it’s for a good cause. UNICEF started the Tap Project in New York back in 2007. Participating restaurants ask their customers to pay $1 or more for water they usually get for free. Just €1 is enough to provide clean drinking water for a child for 40 days. According to UNICEF figures, waterborne illness is the second leading cause of death for children under five years of age; over 900 million people lack access to clean water. If you own a restaurant in Budapest and you’re reading this… why not try doing something similar here next year. World Water Week is 20–26 March 2011. You’ve plenty of time to get organised. In the meantime, I’ll go back to practising my Hungarian – maybe pohar hideg víz might do the trick.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 September 2010

Give a little – get a lot

Let the investment bankers amongst you weep! Last week, in Malta, I put €10 in the collection plate – it was a special collection for environmental refugees. Not ten minutes later, walking up the street after mass, I spotted €20 in the corner of a step, nestling amidst the remnants of Satuday night’s partying. What a return, eh? You give, you get, someone said, when I told them of my good fortune. And that got me thinking…

Way back when, before the industrial revolution, before money became our god, and urbanisation made strangers of us all, volunteering was second nature. We gave – we gave of our time, our skills, our energy. We shared – we shared our food, our homes, our experiences.  Clothes were passed on, tools were borrowed, and lives were intertwined. Whole communities survived with the helping hands of neighbours. Harvests were brought in, homes were built, roads were repaired, children were minded, the sick were cared for – we looked out for each other.

Volunteerism stakes a place

In 1920, shortly after WWI, a group of Austrian, English, French, German, and Swiss volunteers – some of whom had fought on opposite sides in the War – began to rebuild a village near Verdun.  And thus the first modern volunteer movement was born: the French Service Civil International (SCI). Many more followed and soon volunteering was once again playing a significant part in contemporary life. Organisations like the US Peace Corps, or Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offered great opportunities for going abroad to ‘help out’. In Ireland, growing up, we talked of ‘going on the missions’ – not in a religious context – but to help out in Africa. There were bake sales and book sales, poker classics and whist drives, table quizzes and raffles, with all proceeds going to someone’s sister or brother, uncle or aunt, who was out on the missions, volunteering.

Those who stayed at home were involved in youth clubs and Scout groups. They volunteered at the hospice and the hospital, the children’s home and the old folk’s home. They coached football, taught adult literacy, got involved in home-help scheme and respite programmes.  The community pulled together and worked as one. We may not have been as well off materially, but in other, far more important ways, we were rich beyond measure.

Commercialism creeps in

One night, as we were all sleeping the sleep of the just, commercialism crept in. Suddenly those 12-month voluntary posts overseas were reserved for professionals – for doctors, nurses, nutritionists, engineers and the like. The rest of us, although willing to serve our time for the betterment of mankind and, if truth be told, for the betterment of ourselves, were asked to pay for the experience. Up front. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem at all with paying my way to get to wherever, but to pay to stay there and volunteer? There is something not quite right with that picture.

At home, governments began to regulate every ounce of community spirit out of us. With restrictive health and safety regulations, background checks, and a leporine multiplication of forms to be filled to hold any position in a voluntary capacity, suddenly volunteering simply wasn’t worth the effort. But hey, all was not lost. We had money. We could help out by donating cold hard cash instead of our time, skills, and experience. Not quite the same admittedly, but if we had a conscience to salve, then cash was the balm to hand.

But gradually, once again, this avenue, too, became the stomping ground of the professionals – this time, the professional money-makers: those who could afford to shell out big bucks for charity dinners; who could afford to bid extravagantly at charity auctions; who had the wherewithal to be charitable.

But what of the rest of us? Where do we fit?

Pessimism postponed

Much an all as I enjoy living in Budapest, I miss that sense of community. That sense of knowing I’m contributing to making my city a better place. That sense of giving. That sense of belonging that only really comes when you’re actively contributing to where you live. So if your Hungarian is as abysmal as mine, and you’re not in a position to pull up a chair to the charity fundraising table, what options are there to volunteer, to help out? The British Women’s Association requires you to have a British passport. The North American Women’s Association is for women from North America. The International Women’s Association, well you have to be female. But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is working to reignite that community spirit here in Budapest by supporting people in their fund-raising activities, not matter how small, and by identifiying opportunities for all of us to donate our time and skills to community-based projects rather than just our money.

A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.

Rudolf Steiner, Austrian philosopher and scientist

First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2010