Both eyes on me

Of all the phobias I’ve come across (not to mention the choice few I have cultivated myself), statue phobia has to rank up there as one of the ones I have the most difficulty in understanding. I say this as a statue lover –  I use Jozsef Attila as a resident shrink and have spent many an hour in his company, seeking solace and advice (Let’s face it: perched in perpetuity on the side of the Danube, he ain’t exactly going anywhere…and a woman couldn’t ask for a better man to listen to her). I say this as someone who waves and greets the moving effigy of Bajcsy Zsilinszky on Erzsebet Tér every time I pass, often going out of my way just to say hello! And we won’t even start with Karinthy and his bespectacled head! I have mild obsessions about a lot of things, but statues … they rank right up there at the top.

I can understand automatonophobia  – the fear of wax statues (and ventriloquist’s dummies and animatronic creatures) as they leave me cold. I can even understand a fear of statues when classified as large objects and falling into the realm of megalophobia. But real statues, on their own? I’m mad about them. So much so that the only thing on my list of things to do in Baku was to see the ‘big brother’ statue in Zorge Park. And when I did, I began to see why those of fainter heart might go weak at the knees. 

This memorial sculpture commemorates the Baku-born spy Richard Zorge.  Most of his spying was done in the guise of journalism. When in China, he developed quite a reputation as an expert in Chinese agriculture. When undercover in Nazi Germany, much of his intelligence gathering was in beerhalls, and fond as he was of a drop, he gave up the drink in case he said too much while under the influence!  But his main claim to fame was blowing the lid on Operation Barbarossa – informing the Soviets that the Germans intended to attack on 21 June 1941 (information Stalin chose to ignore). Such a scoop was a hard act to follow, and later, when working in Japan, he was found out and summarily executed in 1944. His lover, Hanako Ishii, apparently continued to visit his grave until her death in 2000.

Ian Fleming reckons he was ‘the most formidable spy in history’. Tom Clancy has him down as  ‘the best spy of all time’. Le Figaro  called him ‘Stalin’s James Bond’. Me? I’m fascinated by his eyes.


Living room: Goodbye wires, hello wall lights

IMG_3752After nearly two years of looking at wires sticking out of the wall, I finally had enough. It was time to just bite the bullet and get some lights for the living room wall. Originally, the plan had been to put my table in that corner but then because the table was too nice to be tucked way,  in went the sofa. It was too late by then to rewire and plug the holes (I’d had enough!) Every now and then over the last couple of years, I’d brave a light shop. But as is typical when I am faced with too much choice, I could never decide what would work. I’d drag various friends with me in so that they could make up my mind for me but it never seemed to work.

Mary N., on a visit to Budapest before I’d ever moved in to the flat, helped me pick out the lights for the guest room. And they work well. So I figured I’d take advantage of her Easter trip to BP to sort out my living room wall lights. And she didn’t disappoint. It took about 30 mins to go through the shop and do the toos: too big, too small, too square, too round, too expensive, too funky.  I’d done a rekkie the previous week and had my choice narrowed down to three possibles. She chose a light I hadn’t even noticed…. one that was there and yet not there. Subtle, elegant, and not at all intrusive.

Back at the flat, Mr B was invited round for brunch, with his drill and the work began. Wires in Hungary weave a mystery of their own. The lights on are two loops and instead of meeting at the socket, all six wires have to feed into the light fixture. Which is fine if a) we’d realised this and b) we’d bought lights with the right-sized casings (see how much I’ve learned this afternoon!) But Mr B, to his credit, having already worked out at the gym that morning, was determined to complete this three-hour upper-body workout without having to go to the hardware store … again. Camels, and eyes of needles came to mind, but he worked it out and made it work.

Two lights up and all was well. Third light out of the box  and on the wall and oops… a different colour…white, not green! Same box, same serial number, same name, same size, same everything except the same colour. Fourth light out and it, too was different.

Now, bearing mind how irritated I get when I notice that my light switches are about 1mm higher on one side, it was amazing how quickly ‘different’ grew on me. Faced with the prospect of taking down all four lights (or rather, faced with asking Mr B to do this) and hiking across the city back to the shop in the hope that they might have two more of one of them – different suddenly came into vogue. Both lights on each wall are the same colour. All four are the same shape. And depending on how the sun is shining, they look anywhere from different to almost the same.

Job well done, I say. Thanks to all concerned for pitching in. Am dead chuffed that Easter dinner this year will be well lit!

We used to build civilisations…

I’m addlepated, confounded, confused, mixed-up, muddle-headed, perplexed, turbid, and downright megrökönyödött (startled). Are we not in a recession? Are we not experiencing a spate of global financial crises? Are we not feeling the pinch?  Out there, in the real world, economies are shrinking, and unemployment is growing. A significant number of Hungarians are faced with increasing foreign currency mortgage repayments from forint salaries that are barely keeping up with inflation. People are finding it hard to keep their heads above water and are looking forward to the heat of the summer as a welcome respite to winter-high gas bills. Brown envelopes continue to deprive the revenue collector of his dues and the black economy is expanding in line with a growing national cynicism. No one, it would seem, has any extra money to throw around. Wants have definitely taken a backseat to needs. Belts are being tightened, cloths are being cut to measure, and frugality is coming back into fashion.

Now we build shopping centres…

If average household consumption is falling in Hungary (down 2.1% last year), who then will keep the newly opened 5300 m2 Europeum shopping centre afloat? What does its target market look like? Surely not pensioners, who are hard pushed to manage on their 60,000 forint per month stipend? (€225,$325).  And another two shopping centres are scheduled to open their tills to the masses later this year: KÖKI at Kobanya-Kispest and Váci I in downtown Budapest. These follow hot on the heels of Corvin sétány in District VIII and supplement the already ample cohort of Allee, Arena, Árkád, Budagyöngye, Campona, Duna Plaza, Europark, Lurdy Ház, Mammut I, Mammut II, MOM Park, Pólus Centre, WestEnd… just how many shopping centres do we have in Budapest and, bearing in mind that the city’s population is on a downward trajectory, just how many more do we really need?

Back in the days of ancient Greece, business, trade, and government convened at the agora. In the Orient, bazaars added a social element. Closer to home, farmers went to the market to mingle, barter, and catch up with what was going on. The onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the mass transit from countryside to city, heralded the birth of a larger middle class…and these middle class folk had money. Work started to interfere with social lives and shops began to stay open seven days a week to cater for the growing needs of an increasingly affluent society. Shopping on market days was no longer an eagerly anticipated social event; if anything it became a chore. Nineteenth-century arcades morphed into the shopping centres we have today. But are people really spending enough money to keep these behemoths awash in profits, or have these centres, built with economics and profit in mind, simply become ‘safe’ places for people to hang out, drink coffee, meet friends, and shelter from the elements, be they hot or cold!

Try this one on for size…

While all these brand new shopping centres are launching themselves at a less-than-affluent public, Budapest’s finest are swimming towards the second-hand British clothes shops that are breaking waves all over the city. According to the economic daily Napi Gazdaság, in 2009, the number of used clothes shops in Budapest tripled. With so many in dire straits because of those unfortunate foreign currency mortgages, and our growing collective environmental conscience, second-hand clothes are one stroke ahead of high-street fashion.

Earlier this year, an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, confirmed what I’d suspected for years. Ever since I took a trip up Bartók Béla utca early one morning and saw white vans offloading what looked suspiciously like the charity sacks I remember so well from the UK, I’ve wondered whether the unsuspecting British public knows where its glad-rags are ending up.  They donate to charities such as the Salvation Army, thinking that all the profits go towards doing some good, somewhere in the world. They don’t suspect for a minute that these charities then turn and sign private sector deals to recycle their cast-off clothes, netting private individuals millions in profits. One second-generation textiles trader alone is reputed to have earned £10 million in just five years! Apparently, the Salvation Army sells hundreds of tonnes of donated clothes each year to Hungary alone.

One could argue that it doesn’t really matter who else benefits as long as the charity gets a significant portion of the profits, but I beg to differ. I like my decisions to be informed. The Fundraising Standards Board in the UK, as if hearing my cry for transparency, is now demanding clearer labelling of house-to-house collections and clothes banks.

But I digress… back to those shopping centres… are they simply overpriced mansions for the plázacicak?

First published in the Budapest Times 18 April 2011.

Worth dying for?

I’m going through a pretty exhausting period in my life right now; what could be termed as the relentless pursuit of a passion – not passion itself, but a passion. One will do just fine, thank you. In this search to find my rather elusive mission in life, I’ve found myself facing the same question over and over again – is there anything in my life worth dying for? Forget the people aspect and rule out cases of clinical depression – I’m talking ‘things’ here… things, objects, actions, deeds, thoughts, words…

It’s not that everyone I meet asks the question – I just seem to come across random accounts of people who felt so strongly about something they had said, done, thought, that they went and killed themselves. Take a recent trip to Copenhagen. I happened across the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of Our Saviour) and was particularly taken with the corkscrew spire. I thought no more of it until someone mentioned that it had been immortalised by Jules Verne in his novel A journey to the Centre of the Earth  where, in an effort to cure his acrophobia (fear of heights) Axel’s uncle makes him climb the winding spire for five consecutive days.

The spire is 90 metres tall and the external staircase turns four times around it, anticlockwise. Quite an impressive sight. You can climb 400 steps to get to the top, the last 150 of which are outside, if you were so inclined. Certainly not a trip for anyone with acrophobia. Depending on your point of view, the tower, added some 50 years after the original church was built  along the design of the rather solemn architect, Lambert van Haven, either adds or detracts from the body of the CHurch itself. The new, self-taught architect, Lauritz de Thurah, added the spire under the auspices of Frederik V.

Now, urban legend (at least the one I heard) says that de Thurah was so upset that he designed the staircase anticlockwise instead of clockwise, he threw himself from the top of the tower. Imagine being that attached to your work, identifying so much with what people think of what you do is more important to you than life itself – amazing. When I checked it out though, it all came to nothing as he didn’t die until seven years after the spire was built and it wasn’t from falling from a great height. So much for that passion!

But, on reading more about this church, I discovered that inside this beautiful tower hides a carillon – and yes, being musically illerate, I had to look that one up. It’s a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 bells that are played serially to create a melody or together to make  chord. You play it by striking the batons (keys) on a keyboard with your fists (musical boxing?) and by pressing the keys of a pedalboard with your feet.  The keys then activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the bells, allowing  you –   the carillonneur – to vary the intensity of the note according to the force you apply. Now that’s passion! and could be a passion for someone… but not me.

Anyway, if you happen to be in the vicinity on Saturdays at 4pm, you can hear what it sounds like for yourself. In the meantime, let the search resume…

Hippies, hash, and havens

It’s hard to imagine that there are still places in the world where normative societal rules don’t apply and where people simply get on with the business of living. To find one smack centre in the middle of a city like Copenhagen is a little gobsmacking. Christianshaven, or Fristaden Christiania, was founded 40 years ago by a group of hippies choosing to live an alternative lifestyle. Its 22 hectares are on the site of an old barracks just down the road from the  famous Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of our Saviour). Almost 1000 people live here and are fighting to keep their homes and their independence. It’s Europe’s most famous squat and, given its prime location in the centre of the city, it’s no surprise that property developers have been itching to get their hands on the property for years.

While you can buy cannabis and hash on the rather aptly named Pusher street, the community enforces strict bans on guns, hard drugs, and insignias on leather jackets – biker clubs not welcome apparently! [Guide books warn the not-so-savvy tourists to avoid taking photos on this street!] The ‘city limits’ are quite clearly marked so there’s no excuse for not knowing you’ve stumbled into some place special.

Time wasn’t on my side so I didn’t venture very far into the town. At first glance I was reminded of Ljubljana and Metelkova City. Lots of bright graffiti and decorative houses, some of which are shacks and sheds while others – eco-houses – have been designed by architects.  An extraordinary accumulation of recycled bric-a-brac litters the sides of paths, not unlike some African townships. Althought the residents are determined to show that an alternate lifestyle is possible and can peacefully co-exist with mainstream living, the Danish government seems equally determined to subsume it. Denmark’ Supreme Court has confirmed state ownership and control of the land, and says that the same rules must apply there as elsewhere.

People talk in terms of ‘normalising’ Christiana and you have to wonder why… why can’t we just live and let live? I didn’t feel unsafe and didn’t get the sense that it was a place crying out for change. A little like Haight-asbury in San Francisco in the 1960s, perhaps. Long-term residents are now facing the prospect of legal tenanacy, new neighbours, and new rules. The writing is on the wall and it probably won’t be long before this icon of alternative culture is sanitised beyond recognition.Such a shame – in the short time I was there, I was transported to Ljubljana, South Africa, and California… and that was just me. If people were to look at the likes of Christianshaven as living galleries, where hopes and memories fuse and our bland, ordinary, everyday existence is given a lift, perhaps we might learn to be a little more tolerant.

What’s your excuse?

There are times in life when all our troubles pale into insignificance, when all our hardships morph into blessings, when all our complaints seem very trivial indeed. This happened quite a lot to me when I had a television and was regularly subjected to images of emaciated children covered in flies, slowly starving to death before my eyes. I suspect that I’m not alone when I admit to having become inured to such tragedy. Deluged by media commentary, drowned in graphic content, I now sadly view these events as just another headline; just one more still shot in the montage of human misery that happens to someone else, somewhere else. The Internet has reduced the distance between your home and mine to milliseconds rather than miles; it has also distanced me from reality by creating a virtual world that has little bearing on my own. Although I try to do good things, to be a good person, and to live a good life, when someone breaches that wholesome goodness and lays siege to my soul, I am perhaps more troubled than most.

Too complacent?

Last weekend, in the Uránia theatre on Rákóczi út, TEDxDanubia played out before an audience of 460 people. A full day’s programme of speakers lined up ready to delve into our imagination, to stimulate, to motivate, and to entertain. This independent TED event is the brainchild of Vis Mentis, a Budapest-based non-profit social enterprise founded by Mányai Csaba and Szénási Zoltán in 2010. Their mission is to initiate and drive projects that focus on quality of life rather than simply standard of living; projects that reconcile progress with sustainability and build on the power of social innovation and responsibility (where have these two lads been all my life?). The event brought together a heady mix of composers, ethologists, food urbanists, mathematicians, spiritual diplomats, statisticians…a veritable KITE fest of knowledge, inspiration, talent, and experience. I had been smugly evaluating each speaker for content and delivery, measuring their performance against how I might have fared, were I a subject matter expert on anything other than being single. It was late in the day, coming towards the end of the final session, when the penultimate speaker took the stage and shattered my self-assured complacency.

Too cynical?

John P. Foppe walked out, sat down, opened a can of Coke with his toes, poured it into a glass and holding it by his foot, raised it to his mouth and drank; he was born without arms. You’ll no doubt think me cruel and heartless when I confess to a fleeting moment of awe which was quickly replaced by the pragmatic reflection that not with all the yoga practice in the world would I ever be dexterous enough to imitate that particular move. The cynic in me braced herself for a down-home, American-style dish of ‘survival against the odds’, which would be inevitably followed by dessert in the guise of a book plug. So when he began by telling us that he had created his own disability, I sat up and began to take note. This was no ordinary man, and this would be no ordinary presentation.

Too conditioned?

In his allotted 18 minutes, John P. Foppe explained that at the intersection of what we see (our perceptions), what we do (our practice), and what we are (our emotional reactions) lies reality. And as co-creators of our reality, we need to start taking some responsibility.  Having no arms is a condition that he was born with; but he created his own disability. John’s mother, tired of his aggressive, manipulative ‘woe is me, help me out here’ attitude, and fearful that he would never live an independent life, rallied his seven brothers under the banner of tough love and made them promise not to help him unless they could see that he was making a genuine effort to help himself. His descriptive account of the first day he tried to put on his pants, unaided, at the age of 10, was both tragic and comical. His account of that pivotal moment, when he realized that he had a choice to make, cut to the bone. It has made me reflect on the conditions in my own life that have become a disability… conditions that are holding me back.

As he pointed out, the only real handicaps in life are the small thoughts that blind us, the hardened feelings that deafen us, and the irreproachable excuses that paralyze us. And yes, suitably chastened, recognizing that he had indeed hit a nerve, I bought the book. What’s your excuse (Thomas Nelson, 2002) has also been translated into Hungarian under the title Vállalod? The video of John’s talk will be available soon on www.tedxdanubia.com