The F word

I was late. I hate being late. I hate these lost-in-translation mix-ups; mix-ups that seem to happen more and more often lately. My friend from Pécs thought we’d agreed to meet at my flat at 8.30. I thought we’d agreed to meet at Nyugati. So I was late.

I’ve been little distracted recently. A little more preoccupied than usual. A question is hovering in the outer reaches of my mind, waiting impatiently for an answer. I am in danger of fixating and have been since my encounter some months ago with a gypsy fortune teller in Tatabanya. God only knows how much of that particular conversation was lost in translation! Other than I’m destined to live in China (don’t think so), have two kids (don’t think so), and marry the heir to the Törley throne (no, she didn’t really say that…), the one thing that sticks in my mind is that she used the F word. She said I needed to be more feminine, that I needed to rediscover my femininity.

Allergic to estrogen

Now as is my wont in times of befuddlement, I headed straight for the dictionary. Feminine: such as a woman is capable of; Femininity: the trait of behaving in ways considered typical for women. It wasn’t exactly helpful. I am a woman. I am female. I might be left-of-centre on the scale of typicality, but I register. I might be used to being treated as one of the lads but that doesn’t mean I’m any less refined. I might be allergic to estrogen and break out in a cold sweat at the thoughts of being in a room full of sisters, but surely that isn’t grounds for questioning my membership of the sisterhood?

I’ve asked everyone I’ve met since to define femininity and it would appear that I’m not alone in my confusion. Few could put together a coherent sentence on the subject, let alone offer a lucid explanation. They’d travel so far down the ‘how you look’ route before getting stuck. They’d collide head-on with political correctness, saying little and meaning less. They’d get caught up in an adjectival traffic jam and stall. It would seem that femininity is something so elusive that no one can define it.

Addicted to like

I like my independence. I like having control of my life. I like having no one to answer to but myself. I have survived the male-dominated oleaginous worlds of American oil and Irish banking and have somehow managed to subvert my inner romantic traditionalist in order to make room for the modern, and apparently, unfeminine, woman that I have become. Thoughts of the F word, and what it might represent, were weighing heavy on my mind. So I was late.

I apologized to my friend from Pécs. We puszi puszied. He checked his watch, a little anxiously. He’d made a program (now there’s a word that’s a casualty of translation…). I was more than a little surprised. The men in my world don’t normally show such initiative. I’m usually the one who initiates, consults, and makes arrangements. But he had booked tickets for the Budapest Jazz Club because he’d remembered I liked jazz! He’d even gone to the trouble of reserving a table. He walked on the outside of the footpath. He held the door open for me. He took my coat. He pulled out my chair. He asked me what I’d like to drink.  He insisted on paying (he’d invited me; it was his program). He showed just the right amount of interest in what I had to say and contributed his fair share to the conversation. He sought and considered my opinion on matters relating to work, relationships, and the current state of affairs in Hungary. He talked about himself and remembered to ask about me. He was considerate without being solicitous. The silences, although few, were left to run their natural course.  At the end of the evening, when I was heading for the tram, he insisted on driving me home.  We puszi puszied and arranged to meet next time he was in town. I promised to try to be on time.

Later, as I was brushing my teeth, I looked in the mirror and saw someone I hadn’t seen in a long time: the feminine me. I finally got it. In signing up to 21st century mores, control and independence had become my mantra; self-sufficiency had become my raison d’être. I saw the danger of confusing liberation with lipstick, of mistaking femininity for frills.  Chivalry is alive and well and living in Pécs; and femininity has taken up residence in District VIII.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 January 2011

If I am alone in a room, I am a person. If a woman enters, I become a man. And the more of a woman is the woman who enters, the more of a man I become.  Frigyes Karinthy

Out of the smallest kitchens…

It doesn’t look like much, does it? And its name, The Maxokk Bakery, apart from being unpronounceable, isn’t really an accurate description of what it offers. Buried in the back streets of Nadur, a little town on the island of Gozo, this bakery makes the best pizza I have ever had the joy to taste. Apart from the fact that the end-product is similar in shape to a pizza, the likeness to what’s served up the world over is minimal.

About four people can stand, cheek to jowl, inside the blue netting. The politicians in this world could learn a thing or two from these bakers! Everying is out in the open. Nothing hidden away. An original Maltese oven takes up most of the back wall and the prep work is done on a simple wooden bench centred on a mosaic tiled floor. If Mr EU, with all his regulations, ever caught wind of this place, it would be the death knell. And what a shame that would be.

We rang in our order to be collected at 1.45. We were warned to be on time. We were late. And no doubt we won’t be the last. The pizzas were still waiting to go into the oven as many people never make it through the maze of narrow side streets and they’re well used to this by now. I got the distinct impression that this place wouldn’t stand being ‘discovered’.

Different groups of people loitered outside; some sat on wooden benches up and down the street munching away and the smell from their food was orgasmic. When our turn came, we handed over €20.25 for four drinks and three pizzas, each one unceremoniously wrapped in greaseproof paper, differentiated with black marker, and lobbed into a cardboard veg box. The great unveiling was scheduled for San Blas Bay, about 10 minutes up the road. We drove quickly so that they’d still be hot but we needn’t have worried. Despite getting lost, the Maxokk magic was working. One tuna and anchovy. One closed ricotta. One bacon, potato, egg, onion and tomato washed down with local mineral water (and that in itself, is a true find!)

I play a game at dinner sometimes and ask people to name their three most memorable meals. Perhaps it wasn’t the food, but the company; or perhaps not the company, but the locale. Or maybe a combination of three or even more factors that contributed to the memory. I know one of my three stalwarts has been knocked off its perch. Sitting on a stone wall overlooking the red sand beach and blue water of San Blas Bay, on a balmy winter’s afternoon, surrounded by orange trees and bamboo-walled fields, in the company of the Aquilana family…this was as close to heaven as I’ve gotten to in a while.


A literary exclusive

In my fantasy world, I’m sitting on a couch being interviewed by Ryan Tubridy or Oprah Winfrey about my new book. One of them says that  they think I write like Marion Keyes (I’ve been told this before) and I say, hand on my heart, that I can’t comment as I’ve never read anything the woman has ever published. Being told you write like someone is a double-edged sword. It can be flattering and it can be disparaging. I’ll admit to being influenced by authors but I would hate to think I was mirroring anyone, either consciously or subconsciously.

So when I received an e-mail from Mr Bernard Adams in response to my latest Budapest Times piece on having fun with money and strangers, asking whether I’d ever read Kosztolányi’s sixth story in his  Esti Kornél series, I was flattered until I realised that it wasn’t my style he was talking about, but the content of my piece. But even then I could say, hand on my heart, that I hadn’t. Yes, I’ve blogged about Kosztolányi before, I always wave and say hi when I pass his statue on the tram,  and I’m very fond of his poem about the trees on üllői út but I hadn’t ever read any of his stories.

Mr Adams had attached a translation of the story for me to see the parallels; a translation he had done himself – one of a collection that won the  prestigious PEN Translation Award in 2008. He’s now living near the Balaton and still translating. I was bemoaning the lack of available translations from Hungarian to English and am delighted to hear that his book is coming out next month. The Adventures of Kornél Esti is being published by New Directions in the USA (ISBN 978-0-8112-1843-6) and you can pre-order it here. This 1933 interlinking sequence of stories  features Mr Esti, the central character, who is ‘the embodiment of senseless revolt, irresponsibility and latent cruelty’. Kosztolányi has some great lines: I’ve just been keen on rotten cigarettes and rotten women /  I wasn’t born to save that branch of humanity which, when not afflicted by fire, flood and pestilence, organizes wars and artificially causes fire, flood and pestilence / I was discovered but not unmasked.

You might this it strange that I’m resorting to such a shameless plug on what up to now as been an ‘ad free’ blog. But there’s an exception to every rule. The story is wonderful. I’d love to be able to read it in Hungarian but that ain’t likely to happen any time soon! For those of you who share my poor mastery of the language, you can read the translation here – ahead of print! A huge thanks to Mr Adams for so graciously agreeing to allow me to share it. Please respect the copyright… and if you like it, buy the book.

Having fun with money and strangers

So here we are. Just three weeks into 2011 and already the world’s papers are full of Hungary’s EU presidency, growing concern about the new media law, and the supposed ‘Putinisation’ of the country. In Ireland, the mood is little better. Post-IMF depression has set in, the first public sector pay cheques of the year have shrunk noticeably, and many are getting their first taste of job insecurity. Once again, I’m truly glad that I live in my own little world, where the sky is a lovely shade of orange and those who share my space understand the madness.

And I’m glad, too, that I resolved to make no New Year’s resolutions this year. I have spared myself the pain of the annual self-flagellation that usually takes place around this time. I have opted out of the self-berating litany of wudda, cudda, shudda in which I’m normally mired mid-January. I have renounced the long, dark hours of introspection, where, like a baboon digging nits from its mate’s tail, I studiously pick apart my life until I drive myself to drink.  Instead of getting het up about what the world thinks of the recent shenanigans in Hungary, I am choosing to filter each perspective through the mesh that is my own experience. Instead of castigating the hoi polloi for their hedonistic lifestyles (shame that Opera Ball was cancelled, though), I’m choosing to indulge myself in books, travel, and world cinema. Instead of signing up to the cats chorus lauding the great achievers and their award-worthy achievements in 2011, I’m going to spend my time searching out their weird and whacky and oft-overlooked poor relations. For me, 2011 is going to be about the little things that make life worthwhile and the people that actually ‘do’ doing, instead of simply talking about it.

The random redistribution of wealth…

Some of you might know Victoria Mary Clark as Shane McGowan’s ex (him of ‘The Pogues’ fame). Some of you might have read her books or one of the many interviews she’s published with everyone from the wayward musician Pete Doherty to spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle or Osama Bin Laden’s sister-in-law, Carmen.  And then again, some of you might never have heard of her at all. I know I hadn’t until I happened across an interview with the good lady herself about this new Facebook group she’s set up: The Random Reistribution of Wealth to Total Strangers…Just for Fun!

You know that feeling you get when you put on a coat or jacket or jeans that you haven’t worn in ages and you stick your hand in a pocket and find some money? Or you dig out a handbag from the back of the wardrobe and as you’re tucking your wallet away in the zipped pocket you find some money? Or you’re searching for the pen you lost down the back of the sofa and you find some money? Finding money is one of the simplest pleasures in life: the joy of the unexpected, the element of surprise, the hope that it’s a sign your luck might finally be changing. No matter how much money you have earned, no matter how much you have squirreled away in the bank or beneath the mattress, I defy anyone to deny the pleasure they feel at ‘finding’ money!

…to total strangers

The Random Redistribution of Wealth to Total Strangers…Just for Fun does that it says on the tin – it goes around randomly giving money to total strangers…just for fun. Total strangers, mind you. Not friends, or family, or colleagues. Total strangers. The amount doesn’t matter. Neither does the currency. It can be pennies or pounds, cents or euro, forints or… well… more forints. Its raison d’être is to randomly amuse these total strangers and to make them smile at their good fortune. And the strange thing is, if you get into the spirit of it all, you have fun, too. Trying on a pair of shoes? Leave 200 forints in the toe for the next person to find. Browsing books in a book shop? Stick 500 forints in your favourite read. Spot a flat window ledge? Leave a few coins. Use your imagination.

While the Giving Pledge in the USA invites ‘the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organisations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death’ Victoria Mary’s idea ensures everyone gets an invite to the ball, no matter where you live or how little money you have. Imagine if this caught on in Budapest…people finding money in Joszef Attila’s hat maybe, or stuck to the wall inside the Clark Adam tunnel, or on a seat in a metro station…it might just do something to lift the mood.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 January 2011