In the foothills of the Alps

In the foothills of the Alps, not far from the Hungary/Austria border, where deer can leap 100o metres and run at 60 km/hr, lies the old mediaeval town of Kőszeg. It’s been around for a while, and has that ye olde worlde feel to it.

It was here, way back in 1532, that Captain Miklós Jurisics and just 50 of his closest friends managed to hold up some 80,000 – 100,000 Turkish troops (depending on who you listen to) advancing towards Vienna. They held out for 25 days! In the end, they allowed the Turks to run up their flag over the castle in a symbolic declaration of victory provided they left immediately afterwards. They did and they did – at 11am the last of the Turks left the city limits and still today, the church bells ring at 11 o’clock to mark the occasion. I had read somewhere that the church clocks were all stopped at 11am as a constant memorial, but that simply ain’t true.

Miklós made his mark, though. It’s down to him that Vienna didn’t meet the same fate as Buda did some few years later.  The castle is named after him, as is the local secondary school. Jurisics Miklós Gimnázium (JMG) was founded in 1677 and is the oldest operating International School in Hungary. It’s a testing center for the US college boards (SAT, ACT,etc.), as well as the British IGCSE exam and in 2006, the Herald Tribune listed it as one of the top ten international schools in the world. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Remnants of the town walls can still be seen and those houses in the shadow of Jurisics Castle have been preserved in their original form. The town square is dominated by the Jesus Heart Parish Church – I wonder perhaps if something was lost in translation here and if it is supposed to be the Sacred Heart? Fond as I am of making three wishes when I visit a church for the first time, I don’t need much enticing to darken their doors. Usually, the plainer the better for me – but this one is something else, hand painted in the most intricate designs. Truly amazing. I can’t even begin to imagine how long it all took – and this was before ‘colour by numbers’! The guide book, much to my amusement, noted that it was ‘unexceptional’ – what it takes to please some folks! The mind boggles!

Walking through the back streets, stumbling on the cobblestones, you really can feel how old everything is. We’d arrived around mid-morning to find the place thriving. The local market was in full swing and the town was bustling. Three hours later, it was empty. This lack of commercialism was nice to see and further evidenced by the honour system which is still employed ‘after hours’. Punnets of fruit on stood tables, the prices clearly marked. Alongside them a collection box where you pay your money – cash only, no change given.  Admittedly there are one or two shops where India meets Tibet, but there are still places selling local crafts and products.  Other than the world fame of the JMG, you’d be forgiven for questioning what century you were in. The only visible graffeti is that etched into the stucco on what’s now a pub originally built in 1688.

There’s something really lovely about this town. Although it’s known as Hungary’s jewel box and you might be tempted to append the adjectives twee or quaint, they just don’t quite fit. I’m not sure what it is about the place, but if you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth a visit.

The law of attraction

I’m off the fags and the fröccs for November. Alone in my sober, smoke-free corner of Budapest, with ample time to find alternate ways to amuse myself, I’ve been driven to desperate measures. On my third mentes ásványvíz (still water) the other night, I found myself drifting into another world as those around me successfully sought to alter the state of theirs. I started to think about adjectives. About how we use and abuse them. Adjectives are like salt – add a teaspoon to a glass of water, it’s undrinkable; add a teaspoon to a lake, it goes unnoticed. Anyway, to amuse myself, I started working my way down the alphabet, picking out adjectives that I felt describe me, at a certain time of day, in a particular type of week:  Aphoristic, Bewildering, Complex, Daring, Extravagant, Faithful, Gullible… and there I got stuck.

The positive side of gullibility

According to G. K Chesterton, ‘Gullibility is the key to all adventures. The greenhorn is the ultimate victor in everything; it is he who gets the most out of life.’ By his reckoning, my life has been nothing but one long adventure starting with my cousin telling me that if I wanted a baby, I would have to go to the doctor for a special diet; the food he told me to eat would make the baby grow in my tummy. I had an excuse for that one – I was only ten. A third-year engineering student told me that traffic lights in Dublin were synchronized with those in Los Angeles; when one turned green in LA, one turned red in Dublin. I had no excuse for believing that one – I was 17; but he was gorgeous! I have spent a small fortune on infomercial products. Even though I rarely wear make-up, I’ve been known to succumb to vague promises of distant beauty. I have tried every stain-remover on the market. Right now I want this steam mop that I saw advertised on Serbian TV. Gullible could be my middle name!

The attraction of quantum physics

It will come as no surprise then that I fell hook, line, and sinker for the law of attraction. Just think positive and it’ll happen. Imagine what you want and it’ll come to you. Treat the universe like one giant mail-order catalogue for which you have unlimited credit. I decided to put it to the test – and a test it would be as I was a) distantly related to the Irishman who wrote Murphy’s Law; and b) living in Hungary, a country not exactly noted for its positivity.  Last month, I decided I wanted some fresh flowers for my kitchen. I was knackered; too tired to make a decision as to what kind of flowers I wanted or how much I wanted to spend. So I walked away from the flower stand, stemless. Not five minutes after I got home, my neighbour rang the doorbell. She had taken delivery of a gorgeous bouquet that had come for me while I was out. Order fulfilled. A colleague asked me what my rates were in US dollars. I said I wished I knew but as I’d never had to quote for work in the States, I was clueless. Not two days later I was asked to bid on a job in Michigan. A double whammy! A client of mine had been rather quiet on the work front yet still actively publishing, just not using my services. I wondered aloud at this and said I’d like to hear from them again. That evening I had three phone calls, from three different people in the same organisation, offering three different pieces of work. Order fulfilled, in triplicate. And believe me, the list goes on.

The dangers of unbridled optimism

I started reading more about it. At first I was impressed to see that many of these positive-thinking gurus were using ‘law of attraction’ in the same sentence as ‘quantum physics’. Surely if there was some science behind it, it had to be real. Then I read where some leading motivational speakers were urging us to ditch all the negative thinkers in our lives, where pastors were making their churches complaint-free zones, and where being happy and positive at work was becoming de rigueur.  And then I began to get a little scared.

I can’t imagine myself being positive all the time. I can’t imagine a world where no one complains. I can’t imagine a world where no one ever has a negative thought. We need balance. We need contrast. We need negative people to challenge us. Perhaps if there’d been a little more negative thinking, instead of the unbridled optimism that was part and parcel of recent financial governance, the world wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2011


A grave situation

Traffic jams in Budapest are a common enough occurrence. A traffic jam in a cemetery though? That’s something I’d never seen before. Cars queuing to get out of a place people are literally dying to get into. Police on point duty waving their neon-colour batons in an attempt to maintain some sense of movement in a place usually known for its inertia. At 5pm on Monday, 1st November, it was all happening at Újköztemető, the ‘new’ public cemetery out by the airport.

At 2.07 km2, it’s certainly the largest of the 17 cemeteries Wikipedia lists for Budapest and one of the largest in Europe.  Whole families came and went, carrying flowers, lighting candles, paying their respects. Young couples stopped in before heading out for the evening. Groups of elderly men lolled about, undaunted by the cold, finding warmth and solidarity in collective memories. School-aged children skipped blithely ahead of their parents through sculpted lawns and landscapes looking for nagymami’s grave. The evening air was full of chatter, daubed with the scent of chrysanthemums and melting wax. An elderly man sat motionless on a bench talking to those who had gone before him. One grey-haired woman had brought her thermos and, wrapped up in her blanket, had settled in to have her late-afternoon tea with a partner long since passed. For them, this was more than a flying visit. They’d come to spend some quality time with their dead,  a weekly vigil rather than an annual outing.

A world apart

Just a short walk from this hub of activity on Kozma utca sits another cemetery. At the turn of the 20th century, the remains of many of the city’s Jewish dead were exhumed and reburied here. Although this cemetery is home to some 300,000 Jews, walking among its dead is an entirely different experience. Much of the cemetery is overgrown. There are few well-worn tracks. Briars and brambles have lost the run of themselves. Tall reeds and grasses grow in curtains partially concealing names and dates. Curiously, many of the tombstones are wrapped in black plastic and sealed with duct tape, their epitaphs hidden from the world.

I passed by Hajós Alfréd’s grave and was struck by the relative anonymity in which he now lies. The first Hungarian to stand on the Olympic podium and receive a gold medal, the architect responsible for the monument for the martyrs of the Hungarian Holocaust now lies amongst those who seem to be largely forgotten. His tombstone is no less impressive for want of an audience, though. Further on, I noticed Bródy Sandór’s headstone, clearly marked Író to distinguish him from those less distinguished sharing the same name. His grave lies beside a pathway so he is seen by more than most here in Kozma utca. Yet the flowers that weren’t on his grave were all the more conspicuous by their absence. I would have expected more to remember his greatness. His description of a portrait artist as one who ‘turns souls inside out like the ordinary mortal does his socks’ is worth a petal or two. Next time, Sandór, I promise!

A loss of place

I’ve had a number of conversations recently about cemeteries and about the relative merits of cremation versus burial. One question that repeatedly pops up is whether cemeteries are for the living or the dead? When relatives move away, by choice or otherwise, those left behind and buried six feet under are often at the mercy of public authorities or small groups of caring souls who tend to their graves. Family graveside visits have become annual outings rather than weekly events. People are too busy living their lives to tend to the graves of those who have outlived theirs. Soon there is no-one left to care what happens to the plots. Those buried beneath are past caring.  Cremation seems a lot simpler. A momentary scattering of ashes: once done, what remains is a memory, easily tended.

Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book The Dominion of the Dead, makes this point: For the first time in millennia, most of us don’t know where we will be buried, assuming we will be buried at all.  From a historical or sociological point of view this is astounding. Uncertainty as to one’s posthumous abode would have been unthinkable to the vast majority of people a few generations ago. Nothing speaks quite so eloquently of the loss of place in the post-Neolithic era as this indeterminacy.

It is to recapture this loss of place that I spend so much time in cemeteries. Can anything be more certain than a life already lived?

First published in the Budapest Times 8 November 2010