Simplicity in death

I don’t know how I got there and I honestly doubt I could find my way there again, but somehow, when in Vilnius, I ended up in Bernadinu kapines (the Bernadine cemetery). Unlike others I’ve visited, I didn’t even know that this one existed. I was walking, looking for the old town. Turning down this street and that, completely lost, without a map. And then I saw a signpost … to the cemetery. I asked directions a couple of times but no-one knew where it was. And then I turned down this road, drawn by the flowers and through a gate saw a cottage, with some washing on the line, and then some crosses. And some more crosses. And then a sign saying it was the Bernadine Cemetery.

Founded in 1810 by the Bernadine monks (famous for breeding St Bernards for rescue work since the 1600s)  it’s now home to artists, academics, university professors and other ‘cultural workers’.  It shut its gates in 1970 and would seem to have remained unchanged since then. The paths are overgrown; the graves, too. The crosses are simple yet more effective than many more ornate headstones I’ve seen. As a cemetery, it has neither the magnficance of those in Zagreb nor the  grandure of those in  Malta. But perhaps its simplicity was what drew me there.

After all is said and done, what do we really need our tombstones to say? We lived, we died. And in that little dash in between those two dates, lies a lifetime. Who visits cemeteries any more? Tourists, like me, who share my fascination? Those still in mourning? I was the only one there that day. And by the looks of the graves, no-one had been there in quite some time.

I spent an hour or so wandering around, wondering. I came to no earth-shattering conclusions about life, the universe, or my place in it. I did, however, come away with a strange sense of peace – the first time I’d felt that in Vilnius, a city that unsettled me in more ways than one. And again, I wondered…

In June 2000, Felix Krasavin, a former Soviet-time political prisoner who now lives in Israel addressed a crowd of 5000 former Lithuanian political prisioners and deportees at the Vilnius Sports Arena. 2000. Just ten years ago. He said that Soviet Fascism killed more people than its German brother. I look at the books on my shelves and I see a gaping hole.

A matter of choice

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. These simple words are often attributed to American novelist Madeleine L’Engel, who died in 2007, two months shy of her 90th birthday. She lived through the roaring twenties, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War. Her mid-thirties coincided with the golden age of the 1950s when colour TV was invented, Disneyland opened, and a vaccine was discovered for polio. She was around during the Viet Nam war, the decade of hippies, drugs, protests and rock and roll. The far out seventies brought with them Star Trek and the Jonestown massacre, while the eighties welcomed Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin wall. L’Engel would have read about the end of the Cold War and the release of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s and seen news accounts of the Oklahoma bombing and the Columbine massacre. And as she entered the new millennium, she probably had ample time to think about choice… and to come to this conclusion.

Bringing it home

Dr Ágnés Geréb might well have something to say on the subject of choice. Recently arrested and facing charges for reckless endangerment committed during the line of duty, Dr Geréb has spent her career making choices.

An experienced doctor and midwife, she has attended more than 2000 home births (i.e. not in a hospital). As I understand the current situation, Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth as the patient had some sort of blood clotting disorder. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.

Dr Geréb was elected to the Askhoka Fellowship in 1997 in recognition of the work she is doing in Hungary with her ‘undisturbed’ birth project. She established the first network of midwives, doulas (mothers experienced in childbirth who provide continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother before, during, and just after childbirth), nurses, and doctors who oversee home birth throughout the country. On 6 June 1998, Dr Geréb won an important legal victory in the area of hospital births: mothers giving birth in hospitals could now request that their friends and relatives be allowed into the birthing room. Her foundation ‘Alternatal’ ensures professional help for those who choose to give birth at home.  She is, in other words, offering women a choice, a choice that is apparently denied them by the state. Or is it?

Personalising the experience

Had L’Engel and Geréb had a chance to sit down and talk about choice, about how human it makes us, I wonder what the outcome might have been? I’m not an expert on the merits of home birth, or any sort of birth for that matter. Thankfully, I can’t claim first-hand experience of the Hungarian medical system. What I am concerned about is the basic right to choose. Pregnancy is not an illness. The right for a woman to choose where to have her baby is surely a basic human right, one recognised the world over. Were I a soon-to-be mother, I would want to deliver my child in a familiar environment; with my family present; with the help of a midwife and a doula. The alternative (unless I had the financial wherewithal to pay for a private hospital) is a state-run, sterile, impersonal environment. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are doctors and nurses out there who genuinely care about their patients; whose commitment to their job isn’t measured by their meagre salaries; who see the birthing experience as something more than just another medical procedure. And I’m sure that for every horror story emanating from maternity wards around the country, there is a glowing report of an equally wonderful experience.  This isn’t about competency; it’s about choice.

In many western countries, such as the UK or Germany, home birth is a legal and respected option; an integral part of the healthcare sytem. In Hungary, it is alegal.  Under Hungarian law, a woman has the right to choose where to give birth. So what’s the problem then? Well, the law makes no provisions for anybody assisting the woman with her home birth; doctors and nurses who choose to help run the risk of being prosecuted for misusing their license; independent midwives may be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. So the danger of prosecution is really on the helpers, not on the birthing woman herself…as we’ve seen with Dr Geréb. A woman can choose to give birth at home. Those who choose to assist her show their humanity, and for that, they pay a price.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 October 2010

Notte Bianca – Lejl Imdawwal

This year, 2010, saw the fifth annual Notte Bianca in the Maltese city of Valletta. The inspiration behind this night of cultural events lies in the concept of openness, opening the city for all to see. Tourists and locals alike have their well-trodden routes through the city and many side streets and off-beat venues tend to be overlooked. Valletta is a world heritage site, one that is being restored to shades of former glory. Churches, auberges, palaces and historical buildings are being restored; streets are being repaved. On this night, every year, the streets are turned into stages. Lights installed for 24 hours cast new shadows. Traders and crafters show their wares. Talent abounds. Whether you’re after some classical music, a bit of vaudeville, or some modern heart-pounding sounds, this extravaganza of visual and performing arts is something to behold.

The city is mobbed. Thousands upon thousands cram the main streets, pouring in from the bus terminus through the city gates. If you stop and concentrate you can hear all sorts of music, in stereo. GP and I had come prepared. We’d poured over the map of the city and the events listing and had our route marked out. We figured if we started by 7pm, we could be done with all we had to see and do by 2 the following morning. It seemed so well organised. A map of the city with numbered venues. A colour-coded programme with details of events. But what was missing was the key link between the two.

Okay, so if you’ve know your Malta, you might immeditely recognise venue No. 57 but for us foreigners, without the decoding number, we couldn’t tell if we’d just missed the performance or we were simply in the wrong place. We walked for miles to hear the Johnny Cash Tribute Band (my call) and when we got there, Johnny had long since left. But ne’er a mention of the time in the programme. Still, wending our way through the back streets, we came accross some fantastic dance recitals and I discoverd urban dance for the first time.

It seemed as if every street we turned into had something new to see. What fascinated me most, though, was that although I’d wandered the streets of Valletta before, I’d never really appreciated how hilly the city is. An older sister of San Francisco. And, as GP so rightly pointed out, so much travelling downhill only meant that at some stage, we’d have to climb back up again. And she was right. I counted 217 steps… every one of them.

Notte Bianca or Nuits Blanches or White Nights or whatever you’d like to call it, can apparently be traced back to St Petersburg in Russia where during the long summer days and seemingly endless twilight (sounds so much like Alaska and have I ever been missing that place lately…) the city would celebrate these ‘white nights’. Other cities – Brussels, Madrid, Paris, Riga, and Amsterdam – have followed suit. It gets people off their couches, away from their TVs and out into the night. Churches host gospel rock concerts; museums give guided tours free of charge; even the ghosts cooperate with hourly walks through haunted streets and alleyways.

Just as golden hour is nature’s way of using light to its best advantage, the lighting technicians in Valletta did well. Very well. And for me, apart from the dancing, this was probably the most fascinating part of the night. We didn’t get to half of what we’d planned. We didn’t pace ourselves, as the organisers had suggested. We didn’t even wear the customary white. But Valletta isn’t going anywhere – and there’ s always next year.

Golden hour in Belgrade

I remember as a child being confused by beauty and attractiveness. I’d stumbled upon the world of Mills and Boon while staying with an aunt one year, and all the female characters were either beautiful or attractive but nothing in the text explained the difference. So I asked my mother. She told me that when a woman is beautiful, people look at her and see that beauty. It’s obvious. When a woman is attractive, people look, and then look a second time, and a third time, because they know they’ve missed something. They are fascinated by what they see and yet can’t quite put their finger on what it is that is so appealing. For me, Budapest is beautiful; Belgrade is attractive.

Photographers talk of the golden hour – that last hour before sunset or that first of light in the morning – where photos take on a magic of their own. I’d just had a conversation in the office with NK and was determined to find that time – to see for myself what actually happened. So I took my camera and headed up to the Kalemegdan Fortress. Serbian author Momo Kapor (who died earlier this year) reckoned that viewed from the water, from where the Sava enters the Danube, Belgrade resembles a ship – and its stony prow – Kalemegdan Fortress – cuts the waves of these two rivers.


Where the Danube and the Sava meet

For centuries, Belgrade’s people lived inside the Fortress walls.   Legend has it that Attila the Hun’s grave lies under the Fortress where the two rivers meet.  The name Belgrade (or Beograd, in Serbian),  means a ‘white fortress’. Apparently,  Hungarian King, Béla I, gave the fortress to Serbia in the eleventh century as a wedding gift (his son married Serbian princess Jelena). Much of its history though is rooted in the Ottoman Empire. The name Kalemegdan derives from two Turkish words, kale (fortress) and meydan (battleground) (literally, ‘battlefield fortress’). With such a varied pedigree, it’s little wonder that it hosts the Belgrade Race Through History, an annual 6 km footrace; one way of highlighting the history and culture of the area.

Much of the Fortress is now a city park. And despite its size, it’s very homely – something I don’t get from Varos Liget in Budapest.  People walking dogs, reading, running, chatting, smoking, singing – almost every available bench taken. It’s like a massive, open-air community centre. I didn’t spot many tourists – most of those there seemed to be local: young and old alike, joking, laughing, each one enjoying that magical hour after work or study, before going home to whatever awaited them.

I still haven’t quite figured out what so intrigues me about Belgrade – but I’m sure it’ll be an interesting journey.

The right to be undistinguished

Most countries have one capital city. Lithuania has had four. Vilnius is the modern-day capital. Perched on the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site (and, although I spent some days there recently, it wasn’t until the taxi ride to the airport that I found what I’d been looking for). Back between the two World wars, Kaunas, with its 1.7km long pedestrian street running east to west was the capital while the emerging state was seeking international recognition. Before this, it was Trakai, located between Vilnius and Kaunas, and before that, the first capital city, Kernave, is now also a world heritage site. Today’s Vilnius is a heady mix of old and new. It’s a strange city, one that unsettled me in ways I still can’t fathom.

Much of Vilnius is hidden. Old walls hidden behind new plaster. Houses, flats, and garden hidden behind street-facing buildings. It seems as if there’s another layer to it that you’re not supposed to see. Downtown, the oldtown, is full of amber shops. But no-one seems in the slightest bit interested in selling you anything. I tried five – telling them I was looking for a big green amber ring – and I may as well have been asking for a piece of the moon. And it’s not as if it was a language issue. Speaking English seems to be a prerequisite for a job in that part of town.

Vilnius is home to many magnificent buildings, mostly churches. I had a feast day with my ‘three wishes’ thing. This one, St Anne’s, took almost a century to build and was finished in 1581. The facade is made up of bricks in 33 different shapes. Apparently, Napoleon wanted to carry the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand when he first saw it during the Franco-Russian war of 1812. He must have had a big hand, that man.

I wandered in the direction of what I thought was the old town. Along a side street, I came across copies of the alternative Lithuanian constitution in many different languages, including English. Perhaps that, more than anything, gave me an insight into the mentality of the city. 8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown. 5. Everyone has the right to be unique. 12. A dog has the right to be a dog. Other alleyways had been commandeered as art spaces where teapots and rubber tyres were put to good use.

When walking the streets of Vilnius, it’s important to make like a periscope. Stop and look around. Look up and down. Take the time to look into nooks and crannies, to walk down lanes and through gateways as you simply never know what you will find.

It’s an old city, with a recent past. A visit to the genocide museum was quite surreal. The guide, a young attractive girl with good English mixed up her tenses and spoke of how unfortunate it was for the prisoners as ‘we like to torture’. This inadvertent use of the present tense made me wonder how much actually has been relegated to the past. A report from a commission formed in the KGB prison a few days after the arrest of the head of the partisans in 1956 noted ‘ the right eye is covered with a haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball.’ That the Lithuanians fought and fought hard for their freedom cannot be doubted. As recently as 1972, Romas Kalanta, a member of the student resistance, set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet system  and conformist society. I was only six then.. but it was still in my lifetime. I’m now 44 and I can’t think of any cause I’d willingly set myself alight for.

Perhaps what unsettled me most about Vilnius was the fact that I was so ignorant of its history, of its fight for freedom, a freedom I have taken for granted. The Lithuanian armed anti-Soviet resistance of 1944-1953 was one of the biggest and longest guerrilla wars in Europe in the 20th century. The last resistance fighter refused to surrender and shot himself in 1965, the year before I was born. The last hiding partisan came out of his hide-out in 1986, when I was 20.

The two keepsakes I brought back from Vilnius both broke en route. I am superstitious. And I’m wondering what that says….

To smell or not to smell

Like most sentient beings, I react immediately to smell. I associate smells with people and places. As I child, I could tell when a particular great-aunt had come to visit long before I saw her. The musk she wore both signalled her coming and lingered long after she had left.  As I was growing up, the neighbouring farmer, even starched to within an inch of his life in his Sunday best, always smelled of cow manure and boiled bacon. The mix of pipe tobacco and whiskey belonged as much to the old men of my childhood as the smell of lavender oil and cigarettes belonged to old women.

Driving from Dublin airport down to see my parents in the summer, I can pinpoint where I am and how far I’ve travelled by the smell. The heady mix of chocolate and potato crisps as I cross North Dublin; the bittersweet tang of hops from the Guinness brewery as I drive up the quays; and that clinging aroma of freshly cut silage as conurbation gives way to countryside and I get closer to home. But smells are omnipresent. The merest hint of fresh garlic or lemon soap finds me in France. A whiff of basil or parmesan cheese and I come over all Italian. The scent of salt water tinged with plumeria takes me to Hawaii, while that same salt water with a hint of coconut sends me to Spain. The glorious smell of freshly chopped cilantro conjures up images of Mexico just as quickly as the waft of freshly cooked lángos tells me I’m back in Budapest.

Pungent promises

The smell of something can transport us back in time and temporarily suspend reality, or catapult us into the future full of expectation. So much of the pleasure we get from eating starts with the aroma of fresh bread, sautéed onions, and roasted meats. So much of the pleasure we get from our gardens comes from the fragrance of freshly cut grass, cherry blossoms, and roses in full bloom. So much of the displeasure we get from progress comes from the pong of exhaust fumes, polluted rivers, and chimney stacks. Why then can we never seem to smell ourselves? This has to be one of the greatest mysteries known to man.

Back in the day, long before progress jammed us all into metal boxes on tracks and wheels and ferried us to work to spend our days in air-conditioned cubicles, the smell of fresh sweat, the perfume of cowboys and construction workers, was regarded as a signature of hard work and manly labour. Back then, when perfumes and colognes were saved for state occasions and holidays, we took the time to check. We were masters at masking a quick sniff of the armpit; experts at exhaling into a cupped hand; and connoisseurs when it came to frustrating our own flatulence.

Sweat sensations

(c) Alexandra Owen (Tanzania 2011)

On my first hunting trip in Alaska, I was told to always stand upwind so that the moose wouldn’t catch my scent. Good advice. In Alaska. But what do you do when you’re trapped on the No. 7E between Blaha and Keleti, sandwiched between an armpit and a foul mouth? Or worse still, bellied up to the bar with someone on a diet of Iron Bru and garlic who hasn’t seen the dentist in a while? More and more often, I let my ear take the brunt of bad breath by feigning deafness.

Maybe I missed that article in the tabloids about a sharp increase in halitosis and diaphoresis in 2010,  but I don’t think I did. There are those who genuinely suffer from these conditions and my sympathies lie with them yet those who have legitimate complaints are very much aware of their condition. It is the vast majority who cannot blame their lack of personal hygiene on a medical condition that bemuse me.

More than a hundred years ago, American author Elbert Hubbard  defined perfume as any smell used to drown a worse one. How little things have changed. Spraying deodrant or perfume or colonge on an unwashed body is about as effective as trying to collect water in a collander. It simply doesn’t work. If, as I firmly believe, we cannot smell ourselves, then we need to rely on our friends and family or even complete strangers to set us straight. But we think it rude to point out the obvious and instead suffer in silence, distancing ourselves from them, cutting conversaton short. And so we become complicit in the great unwashed. Perhaps it goes deeper than I’ve imagined. To tell or not to tell….that is really the question.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 october 2010