Let the spending begin

Let’s all go out and spend our hard-earned money on stuff. Let’s go mad and buy up every high-tech gadget we can find. Let’s buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes that we won’t be able to fit into once we’ve pigged out for the next month on turkey and ham and goose and cold Brussels’ sprouts. Let’s go absolutely stark, raving mad and unleash the spendthrift inside us, that same wastrel who has been battling with our inner scrooge all year. Let’s throw fiscal responsibility to the wind and do what we despise our governments for…let’s waste our money. Why not? It’s tradition.

Knowing the cost of everything…

Caught up in the holiday frenzy, we spend millions of euro, pounds, and dollars (and billions of forints) on unwanted gifts. We go mad buying for people whose middle names we don’t even know. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, postmen, binmen, milkmen, all come in for something… just because… it’s Christmas. Family, relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, classmates, the list is endless. And now we even have variations on the theme… no, no, it’s not a Christmas present, it’s just a little ‘thank you’ for all your help during the year, for watering my plants while I was away, for feeding the cat, for picking me up from the airport, for listening to me go on and on and on about whatever, for being there for me. What is it about Christmas that brings out this latent generosity in us all? Do we really save up all our gratitude for December? Are we overcompensating for being mean and miserly all year? Are we simply balancing the books? Perhaps if the three wise men had left the gold, frankincense and myrrh at home, we mightn’t be in this mess.

Christmas has been hijacked by retailers. Discounts, special offers, and bargain deals abound. Untold pressure is put on people to buy the best of everything, the latest this, the most expensive that. Kids, passive victims of advertising campaigns want everything they see. Christmas letters to Santa Claus have evolved into lists, complete with make, model, and serial number. They cover all the bases, ending usually with the ubiquitous ‘and a surprise’.

…and the value of nothing

Me? I copped on a long time ago. I was seven. I asked Santa for a cradle for my doll, Lucy. Instead, I got a plastic knitting machine. I learned a valuable lesson: blessed is she who never expects anything for she shall never be disappointed. Now, if you ask me what I want for Christmas, I’ll tell you. And I’ll be specific. None of this… ‘Oh, something for the flat would be nice’. I want a tall, wrought iron book case, with five shelves, narrow enough to fit at the end my kitchen presses and shallow enough not to stick out past the wall (it doesn’t exist). Forget the timid…  ‘Maybe some perfume?’ Nope – I want some Dior Hypnotic Poison 100 ml shower gel and 100 ml body lotion (impossible to find!).  As for jewellery, can you be more specific than a 5-cm diameter circle of Kudu bone set in a raised silver ring? I don’t think so. I’ve learned my lesson: I ask for the impossible and when it can’t be delivered I offer up Option B: mmmm, I know you’d your heart set on buying me something but you could always give me cold, hard cash instead. Cash that I can send to friends who are working, doing good somewhere in the world with people less fortunate than myself. Cold, hard cash: that perfect gift that keeps on giving – one size fits all and the colour goes with everything! But that’s if you’re buying. If you’re making me something by hand, that’s a different matter entirely. I’m one of those annoying people basking in smugness right now who Christmas shops all year round: hand-made jewellery from Lithuania; beaded placemats from South Africa; knitted scarves from Gozo; dío madár from Hungary.  Support local artisans and give something that hasn’t been mass produced and marketed to death. Or better still, do something for me. Cook for me, take me somewhere, wash my windows.

Let’s face it, there’s a helluva difference between need and want. Fulfilling a need is rewarding; satisfying a want is indulgent. And don’t forget the ‘r’ word – we’re in recession, remember! So, if you’re racking your brains about what to give this Christmas, perhaps a suggestion from novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) might help: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.

Boldog Karácsonyi Ünnepeket. Nollaig shona dhaoibh. Merry Christmas.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 December 2010

A series of firsts

Belgrade. 10.23 pm. Minibus finally arrives. The journey back to Budapest begins. I’m tired, cranky, and still plagued by stomach cramps. It’s going to be a long night. My corner of the back seat is vacant. It’s cold. Not three minutes into the journey, the rather large chap in the other corner of the back seat starts talking to me… in Serbian. Intuitively I know that he’s apologising for the ring tone on his phone. It’s an annoying chirping that at first sounds like a bird, then grows into a frog and finally matures into a cricket. I know that’s what he’s saying, but I don’t have the Serbian to respond. I apologise in English. Then he apologises for assuming I was Serbian. The sms’s chirp every five minutes, punctuating the conversation that has  just begun.

It’s his first time on the minibus to Budapest. He’s going to Ferihegy airport. He’s 34. A former professional waterpolo player who is, by his own admission, sadly out of shape. He did his National Service in Montenegro so that he could stay in training. He is married – has been for eight years. He has two kids – 4 and 7.

He holds his passport in his hands somewhat reverently. It looks brand new. It is. This will be his first time on an airplane. He has never flown before. Other than Montenegro, he has never been outside Serbia. He talks of Serbians in the third person plural as if he isn’t one. Although he has lived all his life in Belgrade, he says he never really felt as if he belonged and this feeling has been getting stronger and stonger recently. He doesn’t say why. I don’t ask.

This is the first opportunity he has had to get out of Serbia. It is time. He’s emigrating. To Canada. To work as a truck driver. He will have to study and take his driving HazMat test. It’s expensive and will take a few months.

This is the first time he has left his family. He doesn’t know when he will see them again. He already has a job lined up. He is leaving his family behind him and charting the way. I think that leaving them must be hard. He says that Balkan people are funny that way. At each others throats if together for too long and yet, just two days apart sees them madly in love – absence, he hopes, will make the heart grow fonder.

This is the first time he has spoken to real Irish person. He asks if I have heard the Orthodox Celts – a Serbian band who play traditional Irish music with some rock – He is worried that his English isn’t good enough. He learned it from TV. Apart from a couple of bad pronounciations, it’s better than a lot of native speakers I know. I tell him so. He is pleased. He asks if I know Canada. I say not really. Just the Yukon. He asks if he can have a good life, as a workingclass man – do the Canadians respect foreigners? I tell him that the Canadians I know do. Do I think Canada is a good place to go? I say yes. I think so. It’s avoided the financial crises that have plagued the rest of the world. It’s healthy. It’s a good country. He nods.

He is flying to Warsaw and then to Toronto and then to Edmonton. He could have flown to London and then direct to Edmonton but it was €500 dearer and he has to watch him money. He is 34. Leaving his family behind him. Leaving home for the first time in his life. Nervous. Sad. Anxious. Excited. The sms’s keep coming. He eventually falls asleep. He is woken several times by his phone – but then it quietens and I imagine his children finally going to sleep. Exhausted. Confused. Already asking when Daddy will be home.

I stay awake. I give silent thanks for the life I have and those who are in it.

My Balkan love affair deepens

In the capital city of a country that boasts an average wage of €386, I was gobsmacked to see the monetary reverence with which musicians are treated. Okay, I’m the first to acknowledge that tonight may have been far from typical so I checked and while tonight was indeed a little  fláithiúilach (generous) by any standards, it wasn’t that far removed from the norm when Serbians might drop up to €50 in tips for musicians.

But let me start from the start. Dinner. In  Tajna.  A little restaurant on  Svetogorska. ‘Little’ meaning about 20 tables. An exquisite menu – and that was the impression before I even opened it. Beribboned and bejewelled, this was no ordinary few sheets of A5 landscape. Before I’d even ordered, I was expecting better than usual. The wallpaper, too, spoke volumes for taste and discernment. On the feature wall, larger than life burgundy and cream lilies mixed with butterflies perched on greener than green blades of grass. The supporting palates pick up the burgundy and cream and the overall feel was like being at home. Just, to my mind, what every good restaurant should feel like. Forget the pretension. Give me down home and tasty any day of the week.

One portion of chicken stuffed with bacon, cheese, and olives served with grilled veg and potatoes; one portion of salmon carpaccio with salad; one portion of grilled gilthead (fish) with all the trimmings; two vegetable and mushroom (why the distinction?) risotto; followed by two plates of Belgian chocolates (to die for) and an apple pancake in white wine. Accompanied by half a dozen bottles of a very pleasant, if unpronounceable, Tamjanika white  wine and  a couple of Rakia to start. All rather lovely.

Our fellow diners ranged from a table of three 50-somethings bellying into the vino blanca; a couple of more sedate 40-somethings sipping casually on their red wine; two tables of ‘mature’ couples suitable bedecked in twinsets and pearls; a threesome with a long-bearded academic and his less-erudite-looking coupled friends; and a table of six, petite, 5’2″ Serbian young wans with their token long-haired male hippy male friend. Altogether a rather innocuous bunch out very much for a night of ‘selective’ enjoyment – more about themselves than the restaurant or the music.

And then the trio arrived . Yer man on guitar looked like a slimmer version of Keith Wood. So he was Bosnian. But I’d have given a month’s wages to say he was Irish. He acquitted himself on guitar as well as Wood has ever done on a rugby pitch. Yer man on accordion was… himself. And MH, if you’re reading in Darwin, I know you’ve been at the butt end of many an accordion joke, but you’d have loved him. He brought those keys to life. And yer woman…well, if Penelope Cruz looks half as well as she does when she hits 50, she’ll be laughing. They started off in Spanish. I had to ask what language because being as tone-deaf as I am, I knew only enough to know that it didn’t sound what I’d imagined Serbian to sound like in song. They worked the tables. Our trio next door acquitted themselves well. Imagine Auntie Mags and Uncle Séamus doing their party pieces. Not bad at all.

Then it moved to our table. Now, in fairness, I knew two our of our party reasonably well and two not at all. The two I knew, the inimitable duo JK and VR speak English. The two I didn’t know, don’t. But that ceased to matter. Jovo, the rather innocuous looking publisher in the corner got the nod. And started to sing.

Jovo Cvjetkovic moved to Belgrade from Croatia to study veterinary medicine. Four years into a cow’s innards, he opted for philosophy instead. A recognised scholar in Nietzsche and Kant, he is now a publisher in Belgrade (Albatross Publishing). I’d have to be forgiven in mistaking him for a local primary school teacher. White sleeveless jumper over a check shirt with the regimental one button undone, thick glasses and carefully cut grey hair, the man could stand in a room and no one would notice. Until he opened his mouth and sang.

Pavarotti can apparently reach 6 registers on the operatic scale. With training. My man Jovo can reach 7. Without. I’d heard tell from the duo that he was pretty amazing but that has to be the understatement of the year. Had I paid €200 for a ticket to sit and listen, I’d have felt I hadn’t paid enough. A room of about 30 people, in a little restaurant, just outside Belgrade city centre, played host to one of the most amazing musical evenings I have ever had the good fortune to be present at.

Now as usually happens when I’m in mixed company (and I’m not talking sexes here, but rather languages) I drift. Given my limited linguistic skills, I’m usually the one left studying the wallpaper as others converse. But I’d already done this (remember the butterflies and the blades of grass?). Instead, I focused on the tall, willowy woman at the table next to us who was smoking cigarettes as long as her legs. She was totally devoid of animation, sitting there bored out of what had to be an exceptionally large mind (a dimwit could have found something to entertain themselves at Tajna). And then Jovo started. It was like something passed over her and breathed life into her. The elongated limbs unfolded and she came to life. And the more he sang, the more animated she became. I’m not talking rock or pop or jazz but Italian arias, opera, and Serbian and Russian folk songs. I didn’t understand a word he was singing and I’m sure if I did, I’d have died and gone to heaven. But his voice. His passion. His soul. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

His partner sat beside him, holding his hand, as if to anchor him. On the rare occasion she let go, he clutched the table himself as if stopping himself from soaring upwards. Such was the power of his voice. The bould VR was doing his damnedest and when Serbian folk songs were the order of the day, he did well. Very well. On any other evening, had he the floor to himself, he’d have played a blinder. And he would, no doubt, leave people in his wake simpering. But tonight, there was but one spotlight on the stage. And it belonged to Jovo.

Those of you who know me will know that I’m tone-deaf. It wasn’t the music I was hearing but the raw passion behind it. It wasn’t the melody I was feeling but the mood of the restaurant. It wasn’t the technical dexterity I was in awe of but the change he had wrought on all those present – me included.Conversation moved from patriotism to nationalism; from the Europe that might be to the Yugoslavia that was; from what nourishes the soul to what feeds the brain. And all the while Jovo sang.

I’m drinking nights and nights are drinking me:  just one simple lyric translated that gives an indication of what was being sung. The super cool young wans eventually succumbed and rose to their feet. Had you been made of ice, you’d have melted. Had you been riddled with pain, you’d have found solace. Had you been the most frigid spinster in Ireland, you’d have thawed at the flick of an eyelid. I swear, nothing I’ve ever heard has come close. And it wasn’t just Jovo. It was that magical meeting of minds – that wonderful junction where musicians jam. The chemistry, the feeling, the interpretation – where everyone happens to be on the same page at the same time. Sinatra turned in his grave, I’m sure, as Penelope sang a gypsy version of My Way. Had he been alive, he’d have had to tip his hat in recognition of a superior job.Furrowed brows, clenched hands, pursed lips – all the order of the day. At one stage I found myself wondering if they needed an audience at all. But then,who is music for – the singer or the sung to?

Main courses and desserts for five €50. Wine and such €60. Musical soul replenishing….priceless. My Balkan love affair continues. If this was a run-of-the-mill Friday evening, sign me up.

But as I said at the start – it wasn’t the food, or the music, or the vibes that moved me most. It was the generosity of those present. 1000 dinar notes (€10) were stuck in the guitar frets, in accordion pleats, in breast pockets … I couldn’t help but do a mental tally. Hundreds of euro. And when I asked why? A simple response: That’s how they make their living. And the silent but accepted second phrase: and that’s how I show that I appreciate what they do. Priceless indeed.

Bussin’ to Belgrade

I’m sitting here in a my hotel room in Belgrade, looking at myself in the mirror as I type (yes, I touch type). I have a cotton bud soaked in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Madame stuck up each nostril and I’m wondering when I will get rid of the stench of B.O. that seems to have seeped into every core of my body.

I’m experimenting with ways to get from Budapest to Belgrade. First time I flew. Seemed a little extravagant for such a short distance and with the two-hour-before-check-in deal, it still took about 4.5 hours door to door. And it’s a scutty little plane to boot (not that I have any fear of flying, but after one particular flight over the North Pole to Deadhorse, Alaska, I prefer to have something more substantial under my arse when I’m that high up in the air). [An aside: You know what happened to ‘thought’? He had a glass arse and ‘thought’ if he sat down on it, he’d break it. – Prof Bartlett Ryle in Frank Delaney’s Ireland.]

Next trip, I took the train. Way cheaper, even going first class. Mind you, the first class thing didn’t seem to bother anyone else as I was the only ‘legal’ resident of my carriage for most of the trip. Actually, for all but one section, I was on my own. I’ve figured it out. Just before you pull into a station, open the window wide open and take off your coat. It helps if you can time the station stop with a series of hot flushes (one of the blessings of age). But as long as you look like it’s just another balmy day in paradise (and this in the middle of winter), you’ll be left pretty much to yourself. The train journey takes  about 8.5 hours all told, including three border stops (two immigration and one customs). But first class has a socket so if you can balance your laptop on your knee, you can work your way to Belgrade.

This time, I took a minibus. More expensive than the train, way cheaper than the airplane and supposed to take only 5 hours. It picked me up at my door (a major plus) just ten minutes after the text came through (in Serbian) alerting me to be ready! An hour and a half later, we were still sitting at Budapest airport waiting for more passengers. I was trapped in the back seat with a man of indeterminate age who  fancied himself as a bit of a cowboy – beaten leather jacket that was jealously hording a lifetime of smells; plenty of aftershave; and the natural scent of a man who’d been rode hard and hung up wet. We finally left at 3.40 and two hours later had crossed the border into Serbia.  I counted 33 trucks lining up to get into Serbia and 27 waiting to get out. What cause then did I have to be bitchin’?

Once across, we stopped for a rest break and a breather! Never did a petrol station smell so sweet. But the respite was brief. Wide awake after his catnap, John Wayne embarked started up a monologue, in Serbian. His animated gesticulations only served to fan the fumes. Belgrade didn’t come soon enough.

Door to door 6.5 hours. Time driving 4.5 hours. The residual smells, priceless.

 

A boutique bird

View from the window

I prefer boutiques to large department stores. I prefer boutique hotels to large chains. But as I’m on a boutique budget, a ‘complimentary’ weekend away at a five-star golf and spa resort in Hungary was not to be sneezed at! Buried in the little town of Bükfürdő close to the Austrian border, Birdland is something else! And I’m sure that for many of its regular guests, that something else is very special indeed.

Walking into the lobby to be greeted by a Country and Western duo belting out Achy Breakey Heart wasn’t quite what I expected. I’m a country gal at heart and Billy Rae is a sweetie, but this was bordering on the surreal. The duo on the reception desk, however, were singing a completely different tune. The rattattoo of Deutsch? Magyar? Angol? was delivered in rapid fire. Once it was established that we were Birdland virgins and ‘foreign’ foreign as opposed to ‘across the border’ foreign, something changed. I could have sworn that the patience quotient dropped a couple of notches. He was quite pleasant and toddled off to get us our welcome flutes of champagne. She was perhaps a tad under pressure, although there was no-one else in line. Not exactly encouraging.

The rooms were big; the towels were soft; the robes were fluffy. But no slippers???? How did they get the fifth star without slippers? The room came equipped with a hefty folder showcasing the wellness offers and the rules of the hotel (anything you bring in from outside that is sold on site will be confiscated – I’ve been known to smuggle in a pint of gin in garter belt, but never have I had to stoop so  low as to smuggle in a bottle of water!)

It’d been a busy few weeks. I’d completely spaced the ‘spa’ element of this weekend and had forgotten to get defuzzed. Showing my pins in public wasn’t really on the cards – particularly around all these fair-haired Austrians. And with the fresh snow outside, they’d be forgiven for thinking Yeti had made an appearance. So I tried to book a wax job at the spa. The two on the desk (everything in Birdland comes in pairs) went through the now familiar rattattoo – he was pleasant and she was obviously under pressure although again, there was no-one in line behind me. This time, patience levels were evidently sub-zero. The most they could possible do was a bikini wax – forget the whole leg – or even a half-leg. Didn’t I realise they were full? I could get a free consultation with a ‘plastical’ surgeon though…

Inside the spa, rows of sunloungers bore a liquorice allsorts of bodies. People wandered the corridors in towelling robes. Others sat at the bar, smoking and drinking, enveloped in fluffiness. My fellow diners were a mixed lot – those who’d dressed for dinner in heels and hematite mixing with tattoo’ed cowboys and tracksuited Traceys. The food, admittedly, was good – and there was plenty of it. And I understand the efficiency of a a buffet, but honestly, it did seem to jar a little with the whole ‘spa-ness’ thing given that when I think spa, I think healthy. And how can it be healthy to fill up your plate again, and again, and again?

When we headed out on Saturday morning to explore the hinterland, we left behind us a full car park. When we got back later that afternoon, our spot was still free. No-one had moved apparently. Obviously, when one goes to Birdland, one goes to Birdland – one takes up residency. I’ll know better next time… but wait, there won’t be a next time :0)