Strawmen and superstition

There are those who credit me with a modicum of intelligence and more than a smattering of sense. They are usually taken aback when I throw the odd superstition into the conversation – and it seems that around the New Year, I have more and more to say for myself. I’m just back from Ireland, laden with pieces of blessed straw, knicked from the crib in the village church. If you put a piece of crib straw in your wallet, you’ll not want for money all year. It works. Honestly.Early this morning, the lovely MI dropped over with lentils and ham hocks so that I’d be all set for tomorrow – Hungarian tradition has it that eating these on the first day of the year will ensure health and prosperity. And judging by the millions of dead porkers I saw at the markets today, everyone is cashing in on this particular one.I’ve already had my St Martin’s goose, so roll on prosperity.

Christmas traditions are a breed of their own. St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day in the UK) falls on December 26. Legend has it that St Stephen was fleeing from soldiers and hid in a bush. A wren in the furze flew off and gave him away and the poor bird has been hunted ever since. In some parts of the country, groups of wren boys go from house to house and collect money for charity (in the good old days, the money went to sponsoring a dance for the village that same evening). Liam Clancy immortalised the traditional poem in 1955:

The wran, the wran
The king of all birds
St Stephen’s Day
Was caught in the furze

So up with the kettle
And down with the pan
And give me a penny
To bury the wran.

About 10 years ago, in a forest outside my village at home, they started a wren festival where the wren boys and the strawmen battle it out to get the wren. The battle on the green is warmed up by traditional Irish music and dance and anyone who feels a bar in them or wants to dance a reel or jig is welcome to take to the forest floor. Mind you, tradition being what it is, it’s hard to figure out which is the ‘real’ thing. In other parts of Ireland, strawmen only come out for weddings; in more places, they only come out to welcome the newlyweds home from honeymoon. But in Kildare, they do battle with the wren boys.

Is tradition any less because it’s not pure? I wonder. This is my first New year in Hungary and I’m wondering what the tradition is here. Judging by the number of tourists in town today, Budapest is a place people flock to for the holidays. Judging from the cacophony of horns outside, the world and her mother got a bugle from Santa. And the popping of fireworks coupled with the howling of dogs is a something worth hearing.  Many years ago a Chinese friend of mine told me that I should wear red undies on NYE – and this is the first year I’ve remembered. And I’m wearing some new red clothes. I’ve resolved not to cry under any circumstances. I have all my bills paid and will not be paying any bills tomorrow or lending anything to anyone. I don’t plan on doing laundry or dishes but it might be a stretch not to wash my hair. I’ll be draining a bottle tonight and dancing in the open air. I have my fridge well stocked and if I’m at home by midnight, I’ll be sure to open all the doors. The jury is still out on whether I’ll be looking out the window tomorrow in the hope of seeing  a man walking by on the street. But, of course, I will be doing a token amount of work (just to cover the old career thing!) Whew! What a list. Sometimes being superstitious takes a lot of effort!

Happy New Year to you and yours.

Living room: A horse in the corner

I have finally completed my feng shui homework and it’s taken me so long that I can’t really remember why I needed a horse in the corner of my living room, the corner where my reputation sits. I have a vague recollection of the feng shui maestro explaining that ló  is Hungarian for horse. And that I should pay careful attention to the type of horse I put there as udvarló (literally a courtyard horse) is Hungarian for suitor. I daren’t venture any further in to what might be verging on Freudian interpretations of similarities between horses and suitors. Suffice to say that I took her at her word and have been searching since August for a horse I could bond with.

I tried all my usual haunts – the BÁVs, Petőfi Csarnok, the antique shops around town, even my mother’s living room – but it wasn’t until I was walking up the main street in Chişinău, Moldova, a few weeks ago that I found what I was looking for. It was sitting under some plastic, sheltering from the rain. The stall owner was also sheltering somewhere because he or she never made an appearance. I stood a while and looked and decided that I’d pass by this place again on my way back and in the meantime, would think about him. And so I did – and almost immediately, out popped not one, but two stall owners and the haggling began. My horse was born in 1960 in St Petersburg in Russia. He’s silver plated (there was a number 9 used repeatedly but I’m not at all sure what that relates to – something to do with the silver) over something heavy… sitting on a wooden base.

Such is the economic situation in Moldova that a lot of older residents are selling off their silver and brass to make ends meet. That in itself is quite sad to see and I wondered then, and I still wonder, what sights my horse has seen. If only he could talk. Am well impressed with him though. And I was fortunate enough to have enough euro in my wallet to take him home. My stall owners, having exhausted their English and my French, nabbed someone from the street to translate. She seemed to think I was getting a good deal. But that didn’t matter really. Good deal or not, he is just what I’ve been looking for and now has pride of place in my living room, underneath one of Kerényi Zoltán’s photographs, on his own pedestal. What more could an udvarló want?

A stuffed dog and the baby Jesus

Years and years and years ago, my Christmas revolved around the annual visit with my my aunt and grandaunt to the moving crib on Parnell Square in Dublin. I would wander goggle-eyed through the fourteen scenes from the bible, each depicted by moving characters. Eve tempting Adam with the apple and him feebly shaking his head. Noah and his family building the ark. Daniel in the lion’s den. The angel appearing to Mary. Joseph and herself being refused at the inn. All the characters move in some way and the combination of bible scenes and the real stuffed dog who saved three people from drowning is slightly peculiar if not a tad surreal.

The background paintings for each of the 14 scenes depicted are the work of Dublin artist Cormac Larkin. I took my nephews there this week and although it wasn’t nearly as big as I remember, it still has that certain something that makes it part of Christmas. It’s been on the go for years and yet so many people have never heard of it or visited it. And it’s free! So if you’re in or around 42 Parnell Square, you might drop by and have a look for yourself. It’s worth it.

Maybe it’s age – but this Christmas I find myself wanting to do the traditional stuff – the visit to the zoo, the crib, and out with the Wren boys on Stephen’s Day. I wonder what’s driving this? Perhaps the fact that there’s so much misery and sadness in this country and from what I’m reading in the papers, and hearing on Irish radio, things aren’t much better in Hungary. Here’s hoping that 2012 brings back some sanity to our world and that we learn to recapture that childish wonder and appreciation for the simple pleasures of life.

To you and yours, wherever you are. May this Christmas be the start of something wonderful and the New Year bring with it peace and prosperity for all.

Get off the fence

I’ve managed to get this far in life without ever putting pen to paper to sign a petition. I have an irrational fear that this signature will later be used against me in some wanton, undemocratic move to rid a country of its dissenters or its non-nationals. I’ve managed to get this far without ever taking to the streets to march in protest against something that sets my teeth on edge and keeps me awake at night, lest my face be captured on camera and my image filed in a folder marked ‘dissenter’. To my shame, I’ve wanted to get along by, well, getting along. I’ve chosen the easy option; I’ve chosen to believe that in everyone, there is some good. And from every government policy, someone will benefit. And although I might not see or understand what lies behind it, I’ve somewhat naively believed that elected officials have the interests of their electorate at heart. But today, I cast aside my naivety. I’m too old, I’ve lived too long, and I’ve seen too much to be able to hide behind it any more.

Standing in solidarity

Today, Tuesday, 13th December 2011, I finally got down off the fence that straddles what is and what might be. Not only did I sign a petition, I forwarded it to everyone I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. Around the world, virtual strangers are opening up their emails and dredging through the annals of their minds in the vain hope of remembering how they know me and why I might be emailing them about the Hare Krishnas in Hungary.

Today, I stood alongside hundreds of others at Kossuth tér in the wintry sun to show my support for the Hare Krishna movement and this latest, completely asinine act by the government to cut off at the knees those who are doing the most good for those less fortunate in our society.

Earlier this year, the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness (HSKCON) was one of many religions that lost its religious status as a ‘recognized church’. Under the provisions of the new Act on Religious Communities, as of 1 January 2012, HSKCON and others should surrender all their property (real estate and arable lands) to those religious communities that have been granted legal status as a recognized church. Figuring out the formula that determines what exactly constitutes a ‘recognized church’ is beyond my basic math and logic. It seems to me to be suspiciously subjective.

Neutered and neutralized

Divested of their ‘wealth’, these religious communities may continue their religious activities as non-governmental organizations but without the right to preach or conduct religious services. What’s the point, one wonders. What’s the point in being allowed to practice medicine as long as you don’t treat any patients? What’s the point in being allowed to play football as long as you don’t score any goals?

HSKCON isn’t the only one to suffer: add to the mix at least two others that I know of – the Buddhists and the Methodist Church – and conspiracy theorists might be justified in thinking that there’s a move afoot to neutralise those who work with the homeless. HSKCON, through its Food for Life programme, feeds 1000 homeless people in Budapest each day. When it can no longer grow the food it needs on its farm in Krishna Valley; when it can no longer rear cows in peace and harmony with nature (a project much lauded in the international environmental community and held in very high regard globally); when it can no longer live the sustainable life envied by so many around the world, what then? Where is the logic here? What am I missing?

Human dignity

I’m an Irish Catholic. I go to mass every Sunday. I try to do good when I can, to be good more often than not, and to give to those less fortunate. I was brought up to believe that Christianity is more than sitting in Church on Sunday and tithing money to the collection plate. It is about feeding your fellow man when he has no food; it’s about sheltering him when he has no home; it’s about giving of yourself when it’s less than convenient. What makes the HSKCON faith, its work, its religion, less legitimate than mine, boggles my mind. When it’s been effectively disposed of by this act, who then will feed the homeless, help the needy, and remind us all that a peaceful life of sustainable living is not just a dream?

Rumour has it that a last-minute reprieve was granted this afternoon by the government that will allow HSKCON keep its land. While this is a very timely Christmas present for so many, its battle for recognition as a religious entity is still to be won. It looks like today was a good day to get down off the fence.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 December 2011

Bricks and mortar

City Hall

Wandering around Chişinău on Sunday, still trying to put my finger on what I find so interesting about the place, I decided to focus on the buildings. As I said, it has none of the gobsmacking beauty of Budapest but there are a few gems tucked away here and there – a random mix of styles that keeps you guessing and plenty to be seen once you venture off main street.


I was strangely taken with the Parliament building which was built in 1974 in the shape of an open book (I am smiling to myself at the implied transparency and wonder what was running through the architect’s mind when he designed it).  It seems to be unoccupied right now though – no lights on at night – no guards – no life. And an election coming up. The mind boggles. The President’s building just across the road is quite impressive, too.

It’s strange to think what passes for a tourist sight. The official tourist map has 18 places marked on it and I’m sure that there are as many again that didn’t make the cut. I wonder who decides what’s ‘worthy’ of tourist attention. Perhaps I should offer my services to the city of  Chişinău – I think it’s missing a few tricks.

Sunday is definitely a day of rest though – what with the sidestreets near the market overflowing with stalls selling everything you could imagine wanting… and more; and the park full of arts and crafts and pictures and old brass and silver and all sorts – it’s a day for wandering and sitting and chatting. It seemed as if all was well in the world – well, except for one couple who were having an absolutely blazing row outside a church, just after the service. What a place to pick for a domestic. I didn’t understand a word that was being said but with the gestures and the miming, I reckon one Moldovan man got caught between someone else’s sheets!

Lots of random buildings seem to warrant police protection. I put my bag down on a window sill while I was trying to sort out where I was and was promptly asked to remove it. How do cops manage to make themselves understood??? I didn’t quite  figure out what the building was or why it was important but I’ve made a note for next time that it’s on the corner of Puskin and Bucharest strade.

There are police everywhere – and sometimes they walk up the main street in a neat column of pairs. Shift change? Not sure. Some of them look as if they might still have their confirmation money. The more serious-looking ones get to drive the newer squad cars while others are relegated to old colourful Lada-like cars that wouldn’t look out of place in a comedy show. There are so many walking the streets and minding the buildings that it’s nigh on impossible to get a photo without them popping up in it. Come to think of it, when walking through the park last night, with minimal lighting and lots of shadows, I never once felt afraid. Why don’t Hungarian policemen instill the same sense of security I wonder?

President's Building

Chişinău definitely has its moments. And it’s quite refreshing not to have it all served up to you on a plate. It makes a pleasant change to have to do some work  – to find things out for yourself – to walk the streets and discover without the aid of maps and guidebooks. It puts the adventure back into travel and the touring back into tourist. The language barrier is quite real – and the scarcity of street signs makes you wonder just what the city is hiding. In the taxi, on the way to the airport, I noticed the Ciuflea monastery – which was within walking distance from my hotel, had I ever turned right instead of left. So, that, the possibility of a live rugby match, the wine, and the mămăligă, have ensured Chişinău a place on my list of cities to revisit.

Burnt hair and beans

Step off Stefan cel Mare into another world – the Piata Centralã – which opened its doors (or its gates) in 1994 and since then has been a veritable hive of activity. You can buy just about anything here  – from mohair shawls to plastic sheets and tweezers. And, while there’s a fair amount of genuine tat, there are plenty of good bargains to be found – if you have the time and the inclination to root around. Or, as in my case, you couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag on a good day and end up wandering for hours trying to find a way out.

I found this fruit – and have absolutely no idea what it is. Any ideas? The seeds taste a little like cranberries. Before you buy, they cut a hole in the skin so that you can see the seeds (I assume to see if they’re ripe) and then you can flower them to eat. Am not quite sure whether you eat the white pith or not, but so far, I’m alive. Really tasty stuff, if a little messy. Am glad that the carpet in my hotel room has a little bit of red running through it:-)

With acres and acres of the usual fruit and veg, there are also bags and bags of beans and pulses and seeds. Each neatly labelled … in Moldavan. Still sore at being snapped at in a market in Bonn for daring to take a photo, I asked permission to take this one and was treated to a tasting session and a detailed explanation of what everything was … in Moldovan. A woman trying to sell me a shawl pulled a thread and burned it and made me smell it. It smelt like burnt hair. Didn’t quite get that particular marketing trick. One stall had recylable shopping bags from Carrolls in Dublin. There’s been quite a lot of oddities in the last few days – I’ve spent two hours each evening this week glued to the TV watching a show set in Alaska. The congregation at Mass was mostly Hungarian and then the shopping bags from Dublin – seems as if my life is passing before my eyes.

The sum of the parts is greater than the sum of the whole

Chişinău was never on my list of capital cities just begging to be paid a visit. Truth be told, until a few months ago, I didn’t know it existed and until a few days ago, I didn’t know how to pronounce it. But I’m here and I’m strangely fascinated. It has none of the gobsmacking beauty of Budapest or the exotic extremes of Baku – but is has a certain something that I can’t quite put my finger on…and it’s home to the country’s rugby team (who, apparently, are rather good – watch this space!)

I’ve been wandering up and down the main street – Stefan
cel Mare – for the last few days and am still seeing things I never noticed before. Like the chap who sits with a bathroom scales and charges 1 lei (about 6 cents) a weigh. mmmm… forgot to weigh myself this morning … oh good, there’s a scales! Or the plethora of xerox shops with one printer, one copier, and one computer – all with queues. Or the series of posters encouraging people to emigrate to Canada. With the average wage in Moldova coming in at €170 per month (that’s about $250), life in Whitehorse might be a viable option.

The second-smallest of the former Soviet republics and the most densely populated, Moldova is 96% orthodox so I wasn’t holding out much hope of finding a Catholic church – but I did and it served up a fine 20-minute mass to 13 of us this evening – in English. Two Americans, a family of Hungarians, one Maltese and the rest of unknown origin fitted neatly in the capela just around the corner from Embassy row.

Dinner afterwards in the Vatra Neamului on Puskin St was quite the treat. I ordered fried lamb – mocănească – and what turned up? The omnipotent mămăligă. Turns out that mămăligă refers to the polenta. Ah well, fourth time in as many days and it’s still good. And it came with a complimentary sparkling wine and a complimentary liquer – why didn’t I venture beyond the Christmas tree before now I wonder?

Perhaps one of the strangest sights in Chişinău though, are the phone boxes. There are banks of them, everywhere. It’s like stepping back in to the past a little – to the days before mobile phones, when we could remember phone numbers.

The Moldovans I have met in the past week have all, without exception, been extremely welcoming and open and friendly – and so what if they keep chatting away in Moldovan even after it’s clear that I’ve no clue what they’re talking about… they seem to get a kick out of it. And hey – twice already I’ve been stopped and asked directions  – by goodlooking men. Well, at least, that’s what I think they wanted…


The forgotten conflict

Chişinău is not for the faint-hearted. Tourists are few and far between and every time I open my mouth, people laugh. Not a ha ha amused laugh – but a ‘hey … poor you – you get to deal with her’ laugh. It’s just a tad disconcerting. They’re all very friendly but it’s like being the butt of a huge joke that everyone else gets and I don’t. People stop and stare when I take photos – just to see what it is that’s caught my eye. This shack, for instance, has been there since 12 July 2010 – ‘there’ being the steps of the Moldovan parliament building. In it lives a survivor of the Transnistrian war of 1992.

To my shame, this is the first I’ve heard of this forgotten conflict. I know I can’t know everything, but as happened last year in Lithuania, I am once again left wondering how much I missed out on when I was in the USA.  The war itself ran from April to July of 1992. Transnistria used to be part of the Soviet Moldovian Republic, sandwiched between the Ukraine and Romania, with a population fairly equally divided between Russians, Ukranians, and Moldovians.  When Moldova declared its independence, with Romanian as the official language, a growing nationalism  in the region of Transnistria claimed autonomy with Russian as a second official language. Ethnic Moldovans were in the minority there. An interesting line from Wikipedia (with a source cited so it must be true 🙂 ) says: While some believe that the combination of a distinct history (especially 1918 – 1940) and a fear of discrimination by Moldovans, gave rise to separatist sentiments, others believe that ethnic tensions alone fail to account for the dynamics of the conflict. According to John Mackinlay and Peter Cross, who conducted a study based on casualty reports, significant numbers of both Transnistrians and Moldovans fought together on both sides of the conflict. They suggest that the conflict is more political in nature.[11]

And, while around that time the union of Romania and Moldova seemed likely (what with the adoption of the Romanian national anthem and the Latin Romanian alphabet) Russian speakers must have felt that they would be exclused from public life were this to happen. And so the war began with Russian and the Ukraine supporting Transnistira and Romania supporting Moldova. No prizes for guessing who won. A ceasefire was signed on 21 July and since then Transistria has been an unrecognised state… well, it’s recognised by two UN non-members: Abkhazia and South Ossetia and yes, you’re right in thinking that I have never heard of them before, either.

The mind boggles.

So many men

Walking out of the airport in Chisinau was just a tad intimidating. A strange feeling for me, a woman who is somewhat allergic to oestrogen and far more comfortable with manageable doses of testosterone. The flight from Budapest to Chişinău was in one of those planes that have had some longtitudional sectioning – you know – where the seats go A, (skip B and C), D, (skip E), and F. We landed, we cleared passport control (first time in a long time I’ve been asked why I’m visiting a country and first time ever that I’ve had a legitimate business reason that was completely at odds with the rather dishevelled appearance I presented.). Still, they let me in. I sailed through to baggage claim, where my bag was waiting for me. I walked through customs and straight outside to where my taxi was waiting. Clockwork came to mind.

But walking through the front door to be met by a crowd of burly men in black coats was, as I said, just a tad intimidating. I had a flashback to landing in Dubai many years ago but at least these Moldovan men saw me, where as the lads in Dubai tried to walk through me.

I used to drive a 20-year-old Toyota Starlet – and it’s still parked at my parents’ house at home. This taxi was older though – much older. You could have carbon dated it by the smells alone. Somewhat amusingly, the one car broken down on the road into the city, blocking traffic, was a very new looking Toyota Passat. The drive into Chişinău was lined with high-rise panels (tower blocks) and for the first time EVER, I found myself drawing comparisons, not with Ireland, but with Hungary. These panelházok are a little more ornate that what we have (Get that ownership! What’s happening here?) in Budapest and rather than lone tower blocks, they’ve been rather creatively stuck together so that, in fact, they don’t actually look all that bad… at least at night.

We passed what could have passed for a South African township just on the outskirts of the city and it struck me that Moldova ain’t exactly rolling in dough. That said though, every other building lining the main street seems to be either a bank or a jeweller’s. And the one shop I ventured in to would have been at home on Bond Street. (Does that say more about my taste than the economy…I wonder.)

Tonight, in Moldova and Romania, St Nicolae comes and leaves sweets in your shoes if you clean them and leave them outside. Am half-tempted to park my loafers outside my hotel-room door to see what happens!

After wandering the streets for a couple of hours to get my bearings and in a half-hearted attempt to find a restaurant, I opted for the hotel menu. Whatever else about this city, it can’t be done for false advertising. They said that my Mămăligă would consist of  200 grams of pork, 220 grams of cornflour, and 25 grams of cheese and they were right. Mind you, I think the pork was beef and the cornflour was polenta but other than that, it all weighed in and was delicious.

Tomorrow, in daylight, should be interesting.

I just can’t get enough of this man

There’s a lot to be said for falling for a younger man (even if he does look older than his years and has crammed more into his life to date than your average person is liable to do in three lifetimes). There’s even more to be said when every time you see him, he transports you to new heights and for a few hours, catapults you into a world where everything is possible. I first met him back in March of this year. And it was love at first sight. But I was just one of many in the audience and while he seemed appreciative of my applause, it didn’t seem to reach the inner recesses of his soul. Havasi Balázs has played in front of 12,000 people in Bejing, 4000 in Bucharest, and last night in front of perhaps a crowd of 2000 people here in Budapest, he received so many standing ovations that you could see he was visibily moved.There’s nothing quite like being appreciated at home and the pride the people felt in their boy was tangible.

The man is not yet 40 and yet has a talent that fuses rock drums with classical piano in a way that seeps to the very marrow of your bones. Partnering with Endi, the dummer from the Hooligans, the pair have just released a new CD and DVD of their piano and drum project. Obviously the best of mates, they make an unlikely style duo – a little like tats and chains meets Armani.

This was the first time I’ve seen Havasi playing with a full orchestra and the sheer variety of instruments pushed me to the pin of my musical collar. Is there such at thing as a miniature cello or was the versatile conductor able to extract extraordinary sound from a simple violin? Perhaps the most impressive piece –The Storm – was utterly beguiling for so many reasons, chief among them that fact the tiny sound of the tin whistle (Ír furulya) stood out above all others. Now, I don’t know much about musical composition but to be able to hear the haunting sound of Szabó Dániel above everything and everyone else, for me, was masterful.

The video backdrops perfectly complemented the music. The video of Unbending Tree (music here) took me back to Africa and disturbed all sorts of hidden memories in my mind. Very, very powerful stuff. He’s also updated his video background for My homeland to scenes of maurading Huns, yurts, and open plains. Completely mindblowing. I think I would have no problem at all sitting through a feature-length video on the history of Hungary set to a Havasi soundtrack.

In fact, it struck me that although Leonard Cohen (the other great music love of my life) was phenomenal in Amsterdam, amazing in Budapest, and great in Zagreb, I’ve seen him now and am happy to have done so three times. With Havasi though, without words, there is so much introspection to his music. This sounds odd coming from someone whose life revolves around words but for once, for two hours on 3 December, I didn’t need any.