Hijacking harmony

A good friend of mine, someone I’ve known and grown to love in the last four years has committed herself to a relationship with someone I don’t really care for at all. I know she’s not stupid. I know that she knows that he doesn’t treat his kids very well. That he is dictatorial, censorious, and hungry for power.  I know that she knows he’s desperately short of natural resources. That he has a habit of burying history. That he is a little indiscriminate in his choice of bedfellows. So, what do I do?

Blowing in the wind

For three years now, I’ve been reading the labels on everything I buy. Apart from the tools of my trade – my laptop, my printer, and my mobile – practically nothing else I’ve bought in the last three years has been made in China. And I’ve saved millions of forints because it’s nigh on impossible to find anything these days that isn’t made in China. One day, we will wake up and find we have no choice left at all. Feel free to laugh. Others have. I’m sure that China hasn’t even noticed what I’m doing. It’s not as if my few forints are going to affect its balance of trade. I might not be achieving anything other than peace of mind, but that, to me, is priceless.

Keeping troublemakers at bay

China’s history of human rights abuse is well known, particularly with regard to Tibet. Just last month, documented, registered Tibetans were ‘summoned’ to the Hungarian immigration office (BÁH) and kept there until after midnight in case they felt the need to take to the streets to express their concerns at the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Am I the only one who is deeply upset by this complete disregard for the basic right of freedom of assembly? So the government had Hungary’s interests at heart and was apparently driven to such actions to protect the interests of the state. But just as my pathetic boycott of Chinese products is, and always will be, completely ineffective, did the government really believe that China would have hurried back home without putting pen to paper twelve times had there been a demonstration or three? And if so, what does that say about the rather precarious nature of this relationship? When one party is desperately afraid of upsetting the other, surely things will never quite be equal? My friend, my friend, just what are you letting yourself in for?

Arresting a harmonious society

While publishing colleagues assure me that China’s censors are still wielding their black markers on paper texts, the recent popularity of the Internet is creating a host of new problems. In a thought-provoking article for the International Herald Tribune magazine recently, author Yu Hua talks about the phenomenon of May 35th. For the rest of the world, the date does not exist, but in China, May 35th really means June 4, 1989. When people want to talk about the unmentionable Tiananmen Square ‘incident’, they refer to it as May 35th. So long is the list of words blacklisted from the Internet, that May 35th has come to describe a style of writing.  To circumvent the censors, Internet users have developed a code of sorts. For example, with the Chinese government so anxious to promote a ‘harmonious society’, being ‘harmonized’ is code for getting shut down or arrested. Of course the government knows what’s going on – they’re aware of the barbed meaning but were they to ban it, they would, in effect, be banning the harmonious society they are so earnestly advocating. As Yu Hua put it: Harmony has been hijacked by the public. Hungary, my friend, you know this and yet you persist.

Burying history in a corner

The New York Times recently reported that the newly renovated National History Museum, which occupies a space of some 185 000 square meters, contains just a single photograph and three lines of text dealing with the Cultural Revolution that tore China apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths. And even this is hidden away in a back corner. How many more skeletons has my friend’s new partner buried in a back closet?

Yes, I know that China’s recent surge to dominance could well be just the world getting back on kilter. Yes, I know that for 1800 of the last 2000 years, China and India were the two largest economies in the world. And yes, I know that China has pulled billions out of poverty and the heavy weight of censure is being visibly relaxed. Yet I still worry that this new partnership is more a matter of pragmatism than principle. And if so, what does that say about my friend?

First published in the Budapest Times 22 July 2011

Give a little

Yesterday, I met Norbert. Norbert is in his mid-thirties and spends his day in the corner of a cot in a room at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd, about a half-hour drive from Budapest. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. Although I had a hard time believing it, Norbert is one of the luckier residents: he has not been forgotten.

A few months ago, when the charity arm of the IHBC launched its Give a Little campaign, its aim was to get a bunch of volunteers together to spend a day somewhere, doing some much-needed work. Volunteerism is very much part of the Irish psyche of expectation. Evidence of community involvement and volunteer activity has been a key requirement on Irish CVs for decades. It’s very much part of our culture. Many ex-pats in Hungary find it difficult to get involved, to do something more concrete than forking over a few forints. So when Declan Hannigan, Chair of the Give a Little campaign, organised a day at the centre in Göd, he wasn’t short of volunteers.

On Saturday morning, at 8.30 am, 33 adults and five children began a day that would not be quickly forgotten. Our task: to paint one of the residential houses and to do some gardening. Throughout the morning as we set about organising ourselves to do what had to be done, many of us spoke of how it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d been expecting.

Mention ‘orphanage’ and immediately we flash back to TV images of old communist blocks in Romania and Bulgaria with patients living in horrendous conditions, supervised with military precision, made all the more stark for its complete lack of feeling. The bungalow we worked on was light and airy. It was a little disturbing to see the metal beds, each with a simple foam mattress, cotton cover, and a blanket,  bolted to the floor. Wardrobes bore the names of the room’s occupants and few toys were visible. The common area was a combination of kitchen and living room, decorated with bright murals; the padlock on the fridge looked a little out of place, but as we would learn, life here works to a different set of rules and expectations. Overall, though, the impression was good. The collective sigh of relief was almost audible – this wasn’t nearly as harrowing as we had expected.Outside in the grounds, more volunteers cut grass and trimmed hedges. The football pitch is now usable again and the front garden no longer looks like an unruly meadow. It was hard work. It was hot work. But it was rewarding work. Most of us, in our 9-5 workdays, rarely get the same level of satisfaction as we got yesterday from seeing a job well done. We started, we worked, we finished – we made a difference. No amount of money could buy that sense of accomplishment. For me, scraping the glue from the wardrobe doors and making those doors look new again was the most satisfying work I’ve done in ages.  As the international team of Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Hungarian,  American, and Russian  worked together, united in a common cause, we were fed by Jack Doyle’s, watered by Becketts, supplied with brushes from Kőházy Festékáruházak and paint from PoliFarbe.Although it’s a gated community, residents who can wander, wander freely. One chap had a fascination with smelling hair. Another simply wanted to name all the types of car parked out front. Daniel, the caretaker, had prepared us. We were the strangers; we were the ones out of place. So it was only to be expected that residents would be curious. Seeing such mental and physical disability up close and personal was harrowing. Those who wanted to, were taken in small groups to visit some of the wards.

There are 220 residents from all over Hungary housed in Göd aged 2 to 45. They’re looked after by 140 staff, most of whom work 12-hour shifts, day on, day off. There are four main wings, long dark corridors lined with airy rooms decorated in bright colours.  Rooms are decordated annually because the residents are not bound by societal rules of what you can and cannot do to a wall. Some pieces of plaster had been pulled away, kicked in, scribbled on. Toys hung from the ceiling so that residents couldn’t destroy them. Some don’t know their own strength. Televisions broadcast in every room and for many, that’s their view of the outside world.

The first ward we visited had 45 residents, all of whom could move about, walking or in their wheelchairs.  It’s staffed by four – a ratio of  less than one carer for every ten residents. Not enough on so many levels. Anita, just shy of 18,  wanted to shake hands and hug. I held her hand and found myself drawn into a tight hug. It was all I could do to hold it together. Anita is one of those who have been forgotten, left to the care of the state. She has never had a visitor. Her need, on whatever level, for physical contact was palpable. Alls sorts of emotions ran through me as we made our way up the ward. These residents all looked much younger than their years and I wondered briefly how much of that had to do with them not living in the ‘real world’ with all the stress and anxiety that this encompasses. They sat around, some on sofas, some in wheelchairs, some on the floor. Some were listless; others watched TV or each other. Some laughed, some made noises that might well have been laughter. Some did nothing at all, their bodies wasted, muscles atrophied, faces disfigured, but eyes bright and watchful showing that someone, a whole person, was home. Most were curious to know who we were. For them, we were a change in their routine. Something new. Something different. Later, in the Caledonia, over a pint or three, we would discuss whether that was what they needed – as well as painting or cutting grass, what if we spent time in the wards, just sitting, talking, and playing. What if we just visited?

In the next ward, we met cot after cot with young children, five or six to a room, each lying quietly, limbs contorted. One child’s  long, wasted legs conjured up images of famine-ridden Africa. Watchful eyes told us that they knew what was going on but just couldn’t communicate. One 4-year-old with encephalitis was being bottle fed. She has never had a visitor. Of the 40 residents in this ward, only 4 have regular visitors and even that might be an annual visit at Christmas. Ubiquitous Disney characters line the walls of the corridor. Soft toys look down on the kids from a height. The flickering TV screens provide noise and distraction. I hung back as the others went to say hi and make friends. All appeared visibly shaken. I was barely holding it together. Again I asked if we were intruding and again I was assured that this break in routine for the staff and for the residents was most welcome.

And then I saw Norbert. Norbert is a grown man in the bed of a child. Kneeling in corner of his cot, he looked over the bars out onto his world. I stared. I couldn’t help it.  He looked at me quizzically. The look he gave me wasn’t accusatory or defiant. It was neither helpless nor hopeful. I wanted to go over to him, to hold his hand, to talk to him. But I couldn’t. All my world experience garnered from years of education, work, travel, and relationships deserted me.  I didn’t know what to do. I swear he could feel it. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. He probably has a better understanding of his life than I have of mine. His look said it all – don’t be sad: don’t pity me, but don’t forget me.

There are homes like this all over the world. The waiting lists are long. The disabilities are severe. The staff undervalued. While I might wonder how parents could give up their children and forget about them, I cannot judge. I don’t know their circumstances. I don’t know if I could cope, were I in their shoes. The staff who work at Topház Speciális Otthon are saints. They care. The residents seem happy. It’s a commmunity. Daniel, the caretaker, had a word for all he met on our travels. It’s underststaffed, underfunded, and over subscribed. Their wish list: CD players, TVs, adult beds, a hoist to lift the adults into their baths, material for the romper suits that need to be specially made, bed linens, mattresses, blankets, diapers… more money, more staff, more equipment.

I doubt that any one of us there yesterday came away unchanged. This was no TV commercial or broadcast documentary. This was real. Norbert is real. No matter how small or insignificant our contribution in the grand scheme of things, it felt damn good to make a difference. For those of you Irish and old enough to remember the Gorta ads, in the words of the inimitable Bunny Carr: Give a little. It would help a lot.

When rugs were rugs

Ah – do ye remember when a rug was a rug and not a hair piece? When the back seat of every car in Ireland was covered in a rug or, at the very least, every car boot in Ireland had one tucked away for emergencies. When picnic rugs were part and parcel of a day at the beach or a walk in the fields or an afternoon by the river. Back in the days when simplicity was king, attention spans were longer, and people had interesting things to say. Back before we needed to be plugged in to function. Remember those classic old tartan rugs with the fringes that you could plait and unplait? Or the fancier herringbone ones that lived on the back of couches or over the arm of an easy chair, just begging for a cold winter’s evening? Or the rugs than seemed to come free with every wheelchair and stick like a second skin to very old person you knew?  [Sweet mother of Divine Jesus, when did I get so old?]

And then rugs were cast aside, unceremoniously, in favor of the fancier-sounding ‘throws’ or the ubiquitous duvets. Fashion crept in and things had to coordinate. We started to value things for how they looked rather than for what they accomplished. Tough, sturdy wool was relegated to the back of wardrobes or the attic in favour of softer, synthetic materials. Fashion won out and the only rugs being sold were made of human hair and came with a free pot of Brylcream. But now, as we find ourselves dusting the cobwebs off sensible words like frugal, hard-wearing and solid, rugs are making a comeback. At Bath Farmers Market recently, Amanda Bell from Featherbed Trading was doing great business where tradition and fashion merge using bright colours and contemporary design. Had I not been travelling with RyanAir…

An aunt of mine, God rest her, the proud owner of a selection of tartan squares, was very fond of wrapping me up and proclaiming me ‘snug as a bug in a rug’. Apparently, this originated with Benjamin Franklin in 1769 and he later went onto use the same phrase in a letter to a female friend whose squirrel (which he called Skuggs) had died, suggesting the following epitath (1772):

Here Skugg
Lies snug
As a bug
In a rug.

I think it’s now official. Am losing my mind. If I can get this nostalgic about a squirrell and a rug, think of what a stick of rock would do for me…

On being a Murphy

Murphy, apparently, was an optimist. Murphy’s Law has been translated into every language known to man – even Hungarian. The fact that Murphy is generally taken to be a fellah probably stands in my favour and reduces the pressure on me, a mere woman, to follow in his inglorious footsteps. Yes, yes, I know all about the positive psychology angle. Think positive thoughts. Choose your reaction. Smile and the whole world (even that cranky cow in the Lehel tér csarnok) will smile with you. But sometimes, a good, old-fashioned wallow is in order.

GB Shaw, one of my favourite dead Irish men, reckons that the secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation. To which I say, ‘load of crap, George’.  I have no problem occupying myself but yet I seem to be hurtling towards a mid-life mope of gigantic proportions and find myself unable to apply the brakes.

Manly Hall reckons that it is only a step from boredom to disillusionment, which leads naturally to self-pity, which in turn ends in chaos. I’m not bored. I am a little disillusioned, which may explain the self-pity and make the chaos a refreshing antidote for what ails me. Truth be told, I’ve sod all to complain about and, in the grand scheme of things, live a blessed life. I mean, when I meet the likes of Patrick head on outside Bath train station….

…I have to stop and think.

W-w-word imperfect

I stammer. I don’t stammer all the time, but I stammer. I can go sometimes for days, or even weeks without a hitch and then all of a sudden I have a day where I cannot say my own name. Literally. There’s neither rhyme nor reason to it all. No discernable pattern. No associated mood swing. No required stress level. This inability to get the words out of my mouth descends out of the blue and turns my usually eloquent self into an incoherent mess.

Enter stage left

Many years ago, at the tender and impressionable age of 10, I was singled out in front of the whole school as an example of someone who was too lazy to open her mouth and enunciate her words. I was stammering most days back then. A particularly sadistic elocution teacher, employed to remedy my problem not add to it, entered me in the local féis (traditional Irish arts and cultural festival) and charged me with reciting Padraic Colum’s Old Woman of the Roads. Now, W is a particularly difficult letter for me to get my tongue around when I’m having an off day, followed in close second by the letters B, R, and P. So picture the scene: me, on stage, in a black, widow’s shawl, leaning on a hawthorn stick, launching into my recitation with an enthusiasm that only a 10-year-old making her stage debut can muster. Old w-w-w-w-woman of the r-r-r-r-roads, b-b-b-b-by P-P-P-P-Padraic Colum. Excruciating. And yet I won first prize; the coveted gold medal. And all because the judges thought that, having dressed the part of an old crone, I was stammering deliberately to age myself further.

Exit stage right

Fast forward to my first job with a retail bank in Dublin. Most of my telephone customers reached me by way of the receptionist, so I could bypass the introductions and get to work, fixing their problem. When they’d ask my name at the end of our conversation, I’d use the easily pronounceable ‘Ann Clarke’. Most of the time, this subterfuge had little consequence. On the odd occasion when one of them actually came into the branch asking for me in person (my colleagues were clued in to my alter ego), I had to go through the whole explanation and face the incredulity – in all our dealings they had never once heard me stammer. That same incredulity has dogged me to this day. I am absolutely fine until I have to introduce myself and say my name. M + M = disaster. People who hear me speak fluently and coherently, do a double-take and wonder if I’m having a drama-queen moment.

I hate when I’m at a meeting and some bright spark decides that everyone present needs to introduce themselves – nothing onerous – just your name, your title, your reason for living. Simple stuff. As it gets closer and closer to my turn, my stomach ties itself in knots. Bordering on hyperventilation, I work myself up into a knee-trembling tizzy, and rapidly do a head count of how many in the room would know I was lying if I said my name was Ann Clark. The ensuing unintelligible mass of m’s that spews forth earns me sympathetic looks from those who’ve witnessed this particular debacle before, and incredulous looks from those to whom I’d been waxing lyrically in the lobby before the meeting started. There’s simply no getting away from myself.

Finding my mark

I gave my first public speech in 2000 – the graduation speech at a college in Alaska. When I was first asked to do it, I said No! Loudly. Emphatically. No! But I ended up doing it anyway. Modesty aside, I was good. Damn good. And therein begin my love affair with public speaking, stammer or no stammer.

That I have no qualms about getting up in front of a roomful of people and speaking about anything that comes into my head, pales into insignificance when I see my fellow members of Budapest Toastmasters, mostly Hungarians, work their way through the ten speeches in the Competent Communicator’s manual  in English. From their initial 4 to 6 minute icebreaker where they first introduce themselves to the club, to their final 8 to 10 minute inspirational speech, theirs is a path fraught with challenges of a different sort. Speaking with any fluency in a language other than your mother tongue is a challenge. Oh, yes, you can write out a speech and have it copy-edited, and then learn it by heart and deliver it by rote, but at Budapest Toastmasters, some of the best and most innovative use of English comes out in impromptu speeches. This microcosm of Budapest’s society provides a supportive and engaging environment where making mistakes and mixing metaphors have no lasting consequences; an environment, where everyone, regardless of race, class, or creed, is motivated by self-improvement; an environment where everyone finds something good to say about everyone else. And it’s open for membership… www.budapesttoastmasters.com

First published in the Budapest Times 8 July 2011

My red-headed Scotsman

I’ve just spent the most glorious couple of days in Co Clare with a tall, red-headed Scotsman who goes by the name of Hamish Macbeth. (Did you know that Hamish = James in English and Séamus in Irish?)  We spent hours sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Diamond Rocks in Kilkee. And he gave me a lot to think about. Hamish lives in Lochdubh, a tiny village in the highlands where he’s the local policeman. And quite refreshingly, he’s completely devoid of any ambition and has passed up promotion on numerous occasions to avoid moving to the city. And no, this isn’t just an excuse for laziness or lack of perceived success. He’s one of the few truly content people  I’ve come across and my reaction was quite interesting. We have a lot in common, even if I don’t understand half what he says when he’s wound up – that sibilant Scots-English sounds like a foreign language. He’s a romantic at heart and like myself, goes through a rapid  fast-forward framing of all possible scenarios on first meeting – and I think we both do this subconsciously. Tall. Check. Nice chin. Check. Well read. Check. Sense of humour. Check. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. Check. Honest. Check. Considerate. Check. Doesn’t slurp. Check. Doesn’t have to have his shoes invite his trousers down for tea. Check. Finds Terry Pratchett funny? Couldn’t possibly spend the rest of my life with him.

So as we sat contemplating the rocks, I got to thinking about life in the highlands. I’ve always had a hankering to live in Scotland and have been known to fall for a red-headed Scotsman before. But would living in the wild purple yonder do my head in?  The village has Internet so I could work there. It sounds idyllic. Long cold winters, just like Alaska. Reasonably mild summers so none of the August heat of Budapest or Malta. Plenty of fishing. Just a few tourists. Mind you, I’d probably live there for 20 years and still be an outsider but at least I’d be an Irish blow-in and there’s already an Irish recluse living in a croft just outside the village so I’d be in good company. I’d have lots of time to write and I might even take up baking. Inverness is not far away so I’d always have a flight out.

Would life married to the local copper in a small village be a little like living in a fishbowl? Yes. Most likely everyone would know my business but as Oscar Wilde once said – the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. What about the animals? A dog, a cat, and a flock of sheep… with some chickens. Not quite a farmer’s wife but am sure I could adjust. There’s something very appealing about collecting fresh eggs for breakfast. And something even more appealing about the highpoint of the social calendar being the village fete. Would I go mad? Probably.

As I closed the last of the four MC Beaton books that I’d read in quick succession, and said a temporary goodbye to Hamish Macbeth, I found myself wanting to stop the world and get off. I’m too young to feel so old. There has to be places left in the world like Lochdubh and people like Hamish Macbeth who know what it is to enjoy the simple things in life, to be happy with what they have. MC Beaton isn’t an award-winning crime novelist. Her plots are far from tightly knit. Her continuity editor does a poor job of catching her inconsistencies. And yet for all that, the pictures she paints of Hamish and his village are wonderfully simple. Perhaps too simple. And yet it is so tempting. Where’s that stop button?

My morning constitutional

There is nowhere quite like the West of Ireland. My first morning walk of the year along  Doughmore Beach in Doonbeg Co. Clare left me wondering where the rest of the world was. About a mile and a half of beach stretched in front of me and I could count on two hands the number of others on the sand with me. A couple of surfers were out in the water but despite sunshine and that it was Saturday, I had the place practically to myself.

And then I saw the jellyfish. Hundreds of them. Everywhere. I remembered as a child trying not to walk on the cracks of the pavement – bad luck. Well, it was a little like that, trying not to squish a fish. Last time I was in Malta, a chap with the interesting Maltese name of ‘Jesmond’, mentioned raw tomato as a cure for a jellyfish sting; sadly, I didn’t have a tomato in my bag and wasn’t all that pushed to check the veracity of his cure.

But it’s not just the jellyfish. The riptides off Doughmore make it a very dangerous place to surf, let alone swim. I chanced upon a surfers forum that makes for interesting reading if you have the time. As one old guy put it: Safety should be practised by the individual, not coming up with nanny state, half baked nonsense. You are either capable of getting out there surfing or you are not. No amount of ‘rescue bases’ are going to save you if you have no place out there in the sea. Now this gem of wisdom could be applied to just about everything we do these days.

Doughmore Beach is overlooked by the magnificant Doonbeg golf course – a links course designed by Greg Norman. What a fantastic backdrop for golfers frustrated by the vagaries only a links course can offer. At €185 for a round of weekend golf, I’d want to be at the height of my game just to try it. I still have vivid memories of a round of golf at Baltray (another famous links course) many many many years ago and the frusration felt by my virgin-links partner as he emptied his bag of balls and watch his single-digit handicap being castrated.

Just 24 hours in Clare and I’m even more determined to live here. Just a small place within hearing distance of the sea would do me nicely. And if it’s near Doughmore Beach, with just the jellyfish for company, so much the better.