God bless and bull’s horns

My trouble with pronouncing Hungarian vowels is legendary, if nowhere else than in my own mind. But for me, Hungarian has met its match in Maltese. Take the word qrun (which translates into the more manageable ‘bull’s horns’). Try as I might I can’t get my tongue to give it a shape that is remotely recognisable. But I can do the sign language! And this, apparently, is vital to survival in Malta.

The Maltese are  a superstitious lot and it’s pretty easy to get a name for yourself on the island as a jinx. Just suppose we are chatting and I compliment you on, say, your teeth. And then later that day, you trip and fall and break your front tooth. Or, if we’re chatting over dinner and I remark on your outfit and then not five minutes later you knock your fork off your plate and land a dollop of spag bol on your pristine white shirt. Or, I tell you you’re headed for great things and the next day you lose your job, your partner dumps you, and even your cat won’t talk to you. Well, even if I had no intention of causing any of this, word will get around that I’m a jinx.And pretty soon, no-one will be talking to me, in any language!

So, in order to avoid creating that impression, any time I say something good about you, I need to tag on a ‘God bless’ at the end. It sounds weird, admittedly. ‘Love the hair – God bless’. ‘Great new car – God bless’. ‘Fantastic news about our promotion – God bless’. But hey, needs must! Now if I don’t know any better and haven’t been let in on this ‘God bless’ thing, then you can make the qrun sign to ward off any unintended evil that might come your way. Just to be sure. You’ve been warned!

On a child’s first birthday, the Quccija is done. [Will anyone lend me an infant?]  Sit the child in front of  a pen, a thermometer, money, rosary beeds, a toothbrush, an egg – whatever your imagination can come up with, and whichever object the child picks will denote its future!

Apart from this qrun thing and the quccija, there’s the keeping of an olive branch behind the door, the bżaru aħmar (chile pepper with a crown) in the window, and the eye to ward off evil. Look at the traditional Maltese fishing boat,  called a luzzu. See the two eyes painted on the bow? These are to ward off the evil spirits that might be lurking in some harbour or inlet.

Going to Malta? Forget the sunscreen. Instead, pack your bull’s horns, an olive branch, and an extra eye.

The price of progress

On 3 July, residents of the town of Malta in the state of New York, will be getting ready to celebrate the holiday of holidays – Independence Day. On the island of Malta, the aptly named Arriva  company will be rolling out a fleet of new buses as the yellow and orange tanks of yore will be retired to pasture. What some diehard romantics (myself included) see as yet another homogenous nail in the coffin of individuality, will be welcomed by many locals.

These clunking beasts are in varying states of well-being. Some have been cared for and spoiled like an only child, while others have the neglected look of wanton strays. The strange system of owner/drivers has been around in Malta for years. Some buses have been handed down from father to son and are very much part of the family. Many are built on the chasis of WWII British Army vehicles  – and other than the colour (which replaced the previous green in 1995), they are quite distinct.

Yes, some of the drivers would do better in a rally car. And yes, some of them lever the concept of rudeness to new heights. But for all that, they’re like that eccentric old Aunt that everyone loves yet no-one wants to spend time with. Traffic in Malta is a nightmare. Finding a parking space can take hours – literally – believe me, I know! There is no room to expand the roads and add bus lanes. So it’s difficult to see how this new fleet will improve the situation.

The Malta Government document that outlines the new services promises ‘lower fares for all residents’. Currently, to get from St Julians to Valetta costs 0.47 c. Next month, a resident making that journey will have to pay €1.30. Granted that ticket is valid for 2 hours but what if they want to stay longer? Another €1.30 to get home? Ok, they could buy a day pass – for €1.50 but if they’re only making one return trip, that still doesn’t come out any cheaper. It has to be that the intention is to have lower fares for residents – not lower than they are now, but lower than what the tourists pay – that’s the only way the sums add up!

Perhaps it’s about a more comfortable journey – better airconditioning, comfier seats, trained drivers! The new buses certainly look slick (if a tad bland) and am sure the matching uniforms will spruce up the drivers, too. But will they be as flexible? Now, it seems that you can hop off a Malta bus anywhere you like – a word in the ear and the bus comes to a halt and off you go. Doubt that will be happening next month. Flexibuses can be remarkably rigid!

I’m all for progress – or at least, I think I am. Or I was. Am not sure any more. I see what’s happening at home in Ireland with the bogs, and in Malta with the buses, and I have to wonder at the price of this progress. And yes, I’ve seen the black plumes of smoke from some of these buses and I appreciate the environmental argument for getting rid of them, but I still wonder at the relative ease at which we cast aside tradition. It seems like more could be done to make what we have better… and to treat it like a legacy instead of constantly upgrading ourselves to the point where we’re in danger of forgetting who we are.

The silent park

What better way to begin a Saturday than with an early morning phone call asking what I’m up to. mmmm… it’s Saturday. Not yet 9 am. I’m not even up. Had I heard about the new market on Haller utca? mmmm… do I even know where Haller utca is? As the remnants of the last week finally leave me and my brain starts to function again, the map comes into focus. Yes… that’s the street that runs between Űllöi and Mester… crosses Űllöi at Nagyvárad tér. I know where I am. So, apparently, the old farmers market has been revived with old tents being replaced with new stalls in Haller Park. Now, from what I heard, I had visions of a big market. Nothing specific gave me that impression – so there’s no suggestion of misrepresentation – I just expected a lot more than what I saw when I got  there. Yes, the food seemed fresh. Yes, the people seemed friendly.  Yes, the new stalls looked well. But Lehel tér, it ain’t!

Still, now that I was down in this part of the world, there was Haller Park to check out [note: not to be confused with Haller Park in Mombasa]. Once the biggest park in Budapest, it now has to content itself with being the biggest park in District IX. A little overgrown and wild, it’s easy to imagine that you’re miles from the city and not just 4km to that milestone at the start of the Clark Adam tunnel. Haller Camping would have you think that you’re in the heart of the city (I wonder how many unsuspecting tourists were caught out with than one, or would anyone in their right mind expect to find a campground in the ‘heart of the city’?) Still, seeing the campground crossed another unknown off my list. No longer will I have to plead ignorance when I’m asked directions (you’d be surprised the number of people who want to find the place!).And they’re right when they call it ‘the silent park’. You could hear a leaf fall.

Another find was St István’s hospital. Never knew where that was either! It’s a  grim looking place, mind you, and I’ll die happier if I never get to see the inside of it.  I’d passed Szent Vince’s church many times but never ventured across the intersection to check it out. It’s an imposing building on the corner of Haller and Mester but alas, it’s only open during mass times (or at least that’s what I could decipher from the notice on the door). That’s once a day for an hour. What a waste. And what a reflection on society! Churches that should be open to provide refuge and sanctuary from the teeming masses, from the 24/7 mania that is 21st century living, have shut their doors and barred their congregations. Was not impressed.

What if

I’m not allergic to work. I’ve never been allergic to work. In fact, I used to have a masochistic obsession with working overtime when I had jobs that paid by the hour in a hand-written check neatly wrapped up in a benefits package. Back then, being asked to do overtime made me feel important. It validated my work. If my employer was willing to pay time-and-a-half for every hour I worked outside my normal work week, I had to be doing something right. Right?

Getting a seat on the salaried train exposed me to a system that expected me to keep working and working and working without any overtime; I was expected to take solace in the fact that what I was doing was important, vital even, to someone else’s success. Since moving to Budapest, I’ve wised up a little and am now fully behind New York Times bestselling author Timothy Ferriss’s concept of a 4-hour work week! Less is more in my book. Cue platitudes: love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life / work like you don’t need the money / work smarter not harder. But judging by what I’m reading in the papers these days, my love affair with Hungary could soon take a turn for the worse.

More work, less money

Current Hungarian legislation codifies a 40-hour working week. There’s a motion on the mat to have this increased to 44 hours a week before the overtime clock starts ticking. Under legislation proposed by the Economy Minister earlier this month, employers will be able to demand an additional 4 hours of work per week from their employees at the normal hourly rate. It would seem that longer working weeks are on the cards for Hungarian workers.

Now it’s rare that I find myself ever agreeing with Russian President Putin, but this particular two ruble’s worth of insight caught my eye. He’s on record as describing extending the working week as an ‘absolutely groundless method’ of generating profit.  Mind you, this was in answer to Mikhail Prokhorov’s proposition to increase the working week by 20 hours to 60 hours. In Hungary, we’re only talking 4. But is that what’s really behind the government’s move to extend the working week? Increase profits by way of increased productivity?

Fewer hours, more productivity

But wait…it wasn’t all that long ago – 1969 in fact – that Harry Trend compiled his report for Radio Free Europe editors and policy staff. Under the illuminating title Reduction in Hours Stimulates Labor Productivity in Hungary, it cites research into the effects of the 1968 move to reduce the working week to 44 hours, a move which gave rise to fears that a shorter working week would result in more overtime and more staff, and less productivity and less service. It all came to nothing. In fact, not only did productivity increase, overtime decreased. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened there! Unlike John Ruskin, I’m neither a genius nor an economist, but that doesn’t stop me applauding the foresight he showed in 1850 when he listed three things necessary for people to be happy in their work: ‘They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.’ Now seriously – is this rocket science we’re dealing with?

Doing too much

According to OECD figures, in 2008, Hungarians worked an average of 1988 hours (ranking 5th behind Korea, Greece, Chile, and the Czech Republic ) while at the opposite end of the scale, Dutch workers put in a mere 1389 hours, followed by the Norwegians, the Germans, and the French. Even Irish workers just put in 1601 hours…and this was before we bungled things so badly. To my untrained eye, it would seem that working longer hours doesn’t really pay off in terms of domestic progress. So what to do?

Well, instead of treading the well-trodden path of business as usual, what if Hungary were to blaze a trail and do what other countries are just talking about? What if it were to shelve the traditional, time-worn measurements of progress in favor of those that measure what matters? What if, instead of focusing on creating jobs, jobs, and more jobs, it paid attention to creating quality jobs? What if it found a way to bring Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow to life: to encourage employers to find the balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer? What if instead of invoking longer working weeks, people actually worked fewer hours with incentives to work smarter and work better?

What if?

First published in the Budapest Times 24 June 2011

Who the f!*$ is Basil?

Like a lot of things in Malta, the graffiti is contained… contained mainly to underpasses and skate parks. The island is not awash with colourful murals, insightful snippets, and entreaties to vote this way or that. And like so many other things, its absence here underscores its presence in , say, Budapest, or Subotica, or Belgrade.

I quite like graffiti and the liberal concept of the external walls of our built environment providing a ready-made canvas for urban artists. Admittedly, just as paper will take any print, walls will take any paint, and a lot of what is written should have been left in the spraycan. Declarations of undying love and affection alongside racist and derogatory comments have no place on our public walls – but colourful murals, invocations of hope, morsels of wisdom… by all means.

Somewhere in Malta there’s someone with some large stencils and a spray can. They sign themselves off as Basil and write not just on walls, but on pavements, like this one, beside the Church of our Lady of Mount Carmel in Balluta. It gives little in the way of clues as to Basil’s identity. Sadly, the minds of many generations have been destroyed by madness. I wonder what, if anything, can be read into its proximity to the Catholic church.

Closer to the university, Basil strikes again. A little more personal this time. And again, I have to wonder if Basil just happened by one day with the spraycan and stencils and decided to pick on this particular wall, or if its location, right by the University, says more about the message than the message itself? Now some might argue that the artistic merit in these messages is minimal, if it exists at all. How hard is it to use a stencil. But then how difficult was it for Marcel Duchamp to put a urinal in a room and call it a fountain and thereby make it art.

Right now, I can’t get the Smokie song out of my head – Living next door to Alice – Basil, Basil, who the f*&! is Basil?

I used to be a discount supermarket…

… now I’m an upscale, trendy restaurant with a cocktail bar, with a fashion lounge and spa/salon within spitting distance of Belgrade’s Silicon Valley (not to be confused with California’s Silicon Valley – this part of town got its name from the amount of silicon walking around on two legs). I’m the Supermarket Concept Store. I wrote a while back about Hungarians and their ability to make stuff from nothing – Serbians have taken that one step further. This is one, simply amazing place. Once a regular discount market, it now screams a litany of adjectives like ‘arty’ ‘trendy’, ‘on fashion’, ‘with it’. It has it all. A wide open space that is divided without walls or ropes into clearly defined areas that somehow all work together.

And the food…agh, the food, the food, the food. The salads include anything from rocket salad with smoked beef and truffle oil to stir-fried tiger prawns in spicy caramel with citrus bavaroise (and impressive as that sounds in English, try getting your tongue around the local rendition: gambori pripremljeni u voku sa pikantnim karamelomi i bavarskim kremom od citrusa!). For soups, what about fresh spinach and nettle soup with sour cream and lemon or thai chicken with coconut, lemon grass and cashew nuts. Main courses include everything from chicken, pork or beef to salmon, squid,  or tuna.I made the mistake of thinking that anything off Fuze (fusion bites) menu would be snack size  – not so. As for the sushi… and the desserts!

Then there’s the drinks. It nevers ceases to amaze me how so many places simplay cannot pull off a good cosmopolitan. At most, recently, I’ve been giving 5/10 or 6/10 but Višnjićeva 10 gets an 8.5/10. Not bad at all by my reckoning. But their Aperol spritz is off the charts – just how it should be.

You can have a ‘super start’ to your day from 9-1pm, a jazz brunch on Sundays from 1-5pm and happy hour every Friday from 5-7pm.

Wandering through the displays on my way back from the loo I chanced upon the find of the century. A little green frog in a jar. You pour some water on him and he turns into a little prince. And then he grows.  What’s not to like about Belgrade eh?

Ona a ne neka druga (Her and no other)

Cocktail hour in Belgrade. I’m chatting to a rather charming and very gallant gentleman who definitely has noble blood running through his veins. He tells me that he’s heard I have a peculiar fascination with cemeteries and that my fascination fascinates him. He then asks the question I have never been able to answer. Why?

‘Is it the architecture?’ he asks. I think for a while. And agree. Partly. The tombstones definitely tell a story. But strangely, what sits on top of a grave tells more about what those left behind think of the person that of what the person themselves might have had to say.

‘Perhaps it’s the history,’  he suggests. I think some more. And agree. Partly. Seeing someone’s photo, encased behind glass on their headstone, is a little strange. When the pictures are period photos, obviously not taken shortly before their death, it’s even stranger. Do people choose the photo they want to used to remind others of who they were? I know that no matter how old I get, I will always be 37 in my head and even in my heart. My body may age and the lines across my face may tell the stories of who I am, but in myself, I’ll always be 37. Perhaps I should look back for a photo of me taken then and slip that into the envelope that’s to be opened upon my death.

‘Or maybe it’s the sacredness?’ I think a while and then nod. I agree. Partly. Cemeteries for me are solemn places, bathed in shadows and quiet murmurings. (I’ve read Christopher Moore’s The stupidest angel, so I know better than to visit them at night, when those quiet murmurings become a little more.) And yes, if I had to pick just one reason for my obsession, perhaps this comes closest to describing it. It might well be that I’m on some sort of shopping trip, treating these cemeteries as catalogues, as I subconsciously plan a monument to my own life. I seem to vacillate between burial and cremation. A bit of both doesn’t make much sense – it needs to be either/or. And if it’s cremation …mmm…perhaps that explains my relentless urge to travel, to find that spot where my ashes should be scattered.Then again, do I really need a reason? Do I have to be able to explain it or is it simply enough to go with the attraction and pay my respects to all those who  have gone before be, those who have made my world what it is today.
[Photos taken in Zemun cemetery, Serbia.]

The Hungarian reach

I know my history – or at least after three plus years of living in Budapest, I know more history than I used to know. Why, then, is it that I am constantly surprised to visit places outside Hungary and hear Hungarian, see monuments built by Hungarians, and see Hungarian names on tombstones? I’ve done the math. I’ve seen the maps. I know the score. And still it surprises me.

This latest one was in Zemun, which pre-1938, was a town outside Belgrade. Many residents still consider it a separate entity, but on paper, it’s now one of the 17 municipalities that make up the Serbian capital.

Dating back to the neolithic period, Zemun has quite a pedigree. The celts set up shop there in the 3rd century BC and the Romans came to call in the 1st century BC. In the 12th century, it was conquered by Hungary, and as was done in those days, it was given as a personal possession to Đurađ Branković, once the richest monarch in Europe. [Am already thinking about where I’d like for my birthday!]

As the southern-most town within Hungary’s empire (as it was back then), Zemun was favoured with one of the many monuments built to commemorate 1000 years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Built in 1896, it’s a little worse for wear and the fortress on which it was built has all but disappeared. Postitioned on top of Gardos hill, it’s a great place to if you’re in search of a view. Standing up on the balcony, I could almost feel the presence of the ghost of the despot himself, as he surveyed all he used to be lord of.

The old town itself is hilly and cobblestoned, with narrow streets and small slate-roofed houses, so very different from the architecture in Belgrade. Looking down from above, it’s as if someone threw a bunch of buildings up in the air and let them settle where they landed. There are nearly as many churches as there are cafés and the place definitely has an other-world feel to it. It’s no wonder the locals still consider themselves set apart. If you’re in Belgrade, and fancy something different, it’s worth taking the time and dropping by for lunch.

Maybe one of these days, the world will stand still long enough for my geography to catch up.

Going back for seconds

Passing through Blaha Lujza tér on my way to have lunch at Jelen, I noticed that the Hare Krishna’s food line had moved from the square itself to just around the corner onto Márkus Emilia utca. Three thoughts hit me in quick succession: the first, a brief ‘how sad’; the second, a short invocation – there but for the grace of God go I; and the third, most telling, the material recognition of the aesthetic improvement to Blaha Lujza tér. Had I been on my own when the magnitude of this final thought hit me, I’d probably have launched headlong into a bout of severe self-loathing at such callousness, but I had company and I was hungry.

The great unwanted

Some days later, I read a piece in the Budapest Times about the city’s homeless – the Great Unwanted – and realised that this move around the corner was a prelude to a second move out to Teleki László Tér, near Kerepesi cemetery. Again, three thoughts flashed into my mind:  the irony of moving one literal step closer to the grave; a vague recollection from my flat-hunting days of Teleki tér not exactly being a choice neighbourhood; and a somewhat self-righteous disgust at the City’s attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet. But it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to worry about: appointments to fix, bills to pay, clients to meet…

The grand delusion

Then just last week, I found myself visiting the Hare Krishnas in Csillaghegy. As I walked across the road from the local Catholic church to the temple, I had a strange sense of crossing a great divide – something far wider than the 20 feet or so of tarmac that separates the two. I was nervous. I was brought up Irish Catholic and had survived convent school with all my prejudices intact. Back in 1980s Ireland, this new-fangled religion that made grown men dress in orange, shave their heads, and spend their days singing in the streets while banging on drums had met with walls of suspicion and fear that Ireland’s young and impressionable might be caught up in the madness and disappear, never to be seen again. It’s funny what you remember and how you remember it. Even thirty years later, some miniscule part of me wondered fleetingly if I’d make that hév back to Budapest. A little nervously, I ventured inside, completely unprepared to have all my delusions shattered.

The global phenomenon

ISKCON (the International Society for Krisha Consciousness) is just one month older than me. In its lifetime, it has developed into a global confederation of some 250,000 devotees. That surprised me. When compared to other religions, it’s not a big number – and yet the effect that just one of the ISKCON programmes is having worldwide, would blow the lid off any religious Richter scale.

In 1972, looking out a window in Mayapur, a small village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw a group of children fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. His reaction? The promise that no one within ten miles of a Krishna centre would go hungry. And so began the Food for Life programme, which recognised that starvation isn’t a problem of supply, but rather of fair distribution. Each day, this programme alone feeds over 800,000 people worldwide.  Ételt az életért began in Budapest in 1989, with the occasional distribution of vegetarian food during Christian holidays. In 2001, now officially registered as a non-profit organization, it took up residence in Blaha Lujza tér. From the back of a van, devotees distribute as many as 500 hot meals most days of the week with a further 500 to needy families near the Budapest temple. That’s 1000 meals a day from produce grown on their farm and food donated by the public. Ten years ago, most of their clientele may well have been homeless; today, many have homes to go to but are unemployed, surviving on a meagre pension, or victims of the foreign-currency mortgage fiasco. All are ordinary people, just like me.

The grave truth

The right to human dignity is enshrined in the new Hungarian constitution.  But where’s the dignity in having to stand in line for some hot food? Where’s the dignity in having to parade your poverty in front of strangers? Where’s the dignity in being ignored by so many and helped by so few? Rather than simply relocate the problem, wouldn’t the dignity of the homeless and the needy be better served by providing the Food for Life programme with a permanent home? Surely there’s an unoccupied building, centrally located, that could be put to better use? Sprucing up Blaha Lujza tér is one thing; relocating the in-your-face evidence of the City’s failure to preserve the dignity of its poor is another.

My grandmothers will be turning in their graves as they read this. Not only did I survive my first encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I plan on going back for seconds.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2011

Flowers behind bars

The older I get, the more I realise how many obsessions I have. Minor ones, admittedly. Perhaps more fixative than obsessive. And the peculiar thing is that although I’ve had them for years, I’m only now noticing them. Take my thing about flowers behind bars.


Subotica, Serbia

In Subotica the other day, I found myself taking the long way around to pass a bunch of lilies behind an iron railing. The sun was doing weird things to the petals, creating a ghost-like shimmer that seemed quite fitting, given that the flowers were growing next door to the church.  I was having a particularly ‘fat’ day. I’ve been off off the cigarettes since 1 May (and yes, I meant to put two offs there). I’ve been off them before but not seriously. It’s as if my body knows it too, because, true to fact and form, I’m piling on the pounds and wondering why I’ve given up something I like to become something I loathe.That old story of a skinny girl trapped in a fat body comes to mind – and perhaps that’s what the bars spoke of.

Modica, Sicily

If you want to join the ranks of pedantry, you’d point out that these are lemons, not flowers, but a fence is a fence is a fence. I remember once measuring a three-day hike in terms of the number of lemons I’d need given that I was carrying a litre bottle of gin and an ample supply of tonic. When did I grow up and get sensible? When did I become so serious? When, I wonder, did I start measuring life in terms of deadlines and meetings, airports and airplanes, invoices and reports? How difficult would it be to turn back the clock, rip down that fence and set those lemons free?

I’ve never been a great one for roses. Perhaps I overdosed on fairy tales as a child and had my fill of Rose Red and Rose White. Maybe their association with Valentine’s day has morphed into my subconsciousness and manifested itself as a synonym for commercialism, materialism, and all the bad -isms associated with money. There was a time, back in those wonderful days when I had time, that I would go regularly to Bratislava. I was looking in some silly, romantic way, to get a sense of what it was like to live  during the Cold War and Communism. For me, walking out of that train station is as close as it gets, off-celluloid. I want somehow to get a sense of a time I was never party to; to get a glimpse of what like was like from behind the bars. And yet, quite laughably, we build our prisons. The fences we erect around our little patch of life, fences that keep us in once place (perhaps figuratively rather than literally), doing one thing; fences that somehow shape our vision of who we are. And inside these fences we grow, regardless of those self-imposed limitations. Others looking in see the beauty that we ourselves have long-since disregarded and when they point it out, we dismiss them and their opinions as inessential.

Pliskovica, Slovenija

Perhaps it’s open roses I don’t care for. Ones that have yet to bloom still have that sense of what might be. That sense of wonderment. Something to look forward to. They’re not jaded by life and work and that ever growing list of have-tos. That increasing sense of obligation that comes with so-called maturity. That weight of responsibility augmented by dependency. For them, anything is possible. Youth is on their side and life is rolling out ahead of them, ready to be shaped and molded to their liking. Not for them the daily battle of wills, the fruitless fight against the establishment, the struggle just to start what will fast become just another day.

Budapest, Hungary

I wonder when this fascination started? What triggered this strange collection in my subconsciousness? Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness – the ugliness of captivity. Or even scarier, the representation of having given up – of somehow having decided to settle for life as it is, with all its limitations. Or worse again, the recognition that I’ve bought into the mass mania that values the external manifestation of beauty above anything else. Or maybe I just want a cigarette.