The things I do for love

Up hill and down vale. Sliding forward on the sides of my feet trying to stay upright. Hurtling down the steep slopes and breaking my fall by running into  trees. As ungainly as you could imagine and far from my idea of fun. So why then, as October 30 dawned earlier than usual thanks to daylight savings, did I roust myself from peaceful slumber head to the Pilis hills?

Ever since I first heard of Dobogókő (pulsating stone), I’ve wanted to touch it. In my innocence, I thought it would be well signposted and within relatively easy reach of civilisation. But until the rock’s force is proven scientifically, the local mayor of Pilisszentkereszt apparently has no intention of adding signs and notices showing us the way. There are tens of paths clearly marked, lots of trails, plenty of car parking, and the world and her mother were out for the day – but a little like the chakra site I visited in Wavel Cathedral in Krakow, you needed a sixth sense to get you there (or someone in the know).

Apparently, there are energy lines that create invisible energy nets around the world. Now imagine the intersections of these lines to be the Earth’s acupuncture points. Just as we humans have acupuncture points, so, too, does Mother Earth. Where many lines cross, we have sacred places like Stonehenge and Machu Picchu. But just 30 miles from Budapest, in the Pilis hills, lie the greatest number of intersecting lines, which, according to those in the know, is where the heart chakra of the world is. And to make it even more interesting, if you fly over this area, you will see the Danube’s tributaries weave their heart-shaped way around the Pilis hills. And, in the very centre of this two square kilometres is the heart stone – the pulsating rock – Dobogókő. Well, actually, that’s the name of the area. The rock itself is called Ferenczy sziklá (anyone know why?)

The inimitable MI asked directions from this woman who looked liked she was in the know. Follow the yellow trail until you get to what looks like a temple rock and then go down, left. Keep on going. Nothing is signposted. We got to what MI thought was a temple rock (I’d obviously forgotten to pack my imagination) and we started going down. And down. And down. We happened across a couple coming up and asked again. Keep on going down until you find the road and the electricity poles (No! Say it’s not true! Not in myforest! And that, believe me, is the limit to my possessiveness.) And a church that isn’t a church but part of the water supply administration. And then you should see a székelykapu (carved Transylvanian gate). And then go up until you find the rock. Nothing is signposted. So down, and down, and down we went, farther and farther from any other voices or human contact. No bread to leave a trail. No water in case we got really lost. No way to know exactly where we were. But at some stage I had a text welcoming me to Slovakia.

Absolutely beautiful scenery – and in between moments of blind panic, I managed to stop for a breather and appreciate it. For someone who took forever to get us out of Budapest earlier that morning (I drive, I don’t navigate), MI had discovered an inner navigational eye. When gentle hints that we might be lost and getting even more lost fell on deaf ears, I realised I had two choices – go back on my own, or follow. I followed. Eventually we hit the road. So, right or left? You know me and decisions… had it been up to me, we’d still be there. We went left. And we found the church-like water building. And then we came across a lone woman with two bicycles (?) She was perched on a pile of freshly cut logs reading a book. Unasked, she pointed us right. And we found the gate. And then sometime later, after what seemed like hours of looking at the heels of MI’s hiking boots, we were up on the rock.

About eight other hikers (hey, I can call myself that – I have the boots!) were gathered around admiring the view over the painted rock and congratulating themselves for having found the place. Not quite what I’d planned. Down to the left a little was the rock we’d actually come to see. I’d banked on 10 minutes of quiet meditation and some infusion of heart energy. Anything, actually, that might help my chakras align and send out the right message to the universe that I’m getting fed up waiting for himself to show up. So off we went. As we rounded the corner, we heard voices. Three men. One sitting crosslegged, eyes closed, fingers in meditative position, apparently experienced enough to be able to drown out the monologue the ould fellah was carrying on about the virtues of home brewing. Definitely not part of the plan. Our orator showed no sign of moving and his audience of one, the Third Man, seemed settled in for the long haul. There was no way I was going to get my 10 minutes alone with the pulse any time soon. I settled for a few seconds of quiet communing between yer man’s paragraphs – touched the rock for a minute (I must have caught it between heartbeats) – and then turned to face home.

So I’ve done it. I’ve been to the heart chakra of the world. The journey through the Pilis hills was gobsmackingly gorgeous. The villages, like Pilisszentlélek (Pilis Holy Spirit), belong on chocolate boxes. Stopping for some friss pisztráng in Dunabogdány on the way back, capped it all off. It is days like today that make everything else worthwhile and remind me that life in my world is never boring. (And has life changed? Has it ever! I only had to drive around the block three times before a parking space opened up – and, wait for it, it was the closest to my front door. I’m booking the band tomorrow!)

Getting far more than I give

I’d sooner wash windows than paint walls and I’d sooner clean floors than do anything in the garden. But when it’s not my wall or my garden … that’s a different story. While I’m no stranger to volunteering, I tend to opt for things I can do on my own as I’m not big into group activities generally (am quite anti-social really, when I think about it). But there’s something quite unique about volunteering with the IHBC‘s Give a Little campaign.

This was our second trip to the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage), the first having been voted a roaring success back in July. I’d expected pretty much the same crowd, yet I found that I only knew a handful of those who turned up at Nyugati to cadge a lift down. The majority were students from Semmelweiss University – future vets, doctors, and dentists – all giving freely of their time to paint one of the wards and clean up the grounds.

Given that it was such a gorgeous sunny day, I  opted for the garden duty. We raked leaves, trimmed hedges, dug weeds, planted shrubs, played air guitars on shovels, horsed around on spades, got to use a hedge clippers, rejoiced in our welts and callouses, and generally had a blast. Who would ever have thought that hard work could be so much fun.

I have a theory. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is how I see it. Volunteering for these work crews gives me something I don’t get from my normal, everyday life. I get to go in, work like mad (well, I have a blister or too!), accomplish something, have some fun, and then get to stand back and see the fruits of my labour – all in a matter of hours. Multiply that feeling by the 40 or so people there today and you get a lot of work done and a lot of satisfaction from doing it. That sense of achievement, that reward of almost immediate gratification, are priceless.

Those who live in the orphanage year round don’t have it quite as good. For them, there is no going home or going back to a normal life as I know it. But the staff really seem to care and the lads who are ambulatory laugh a lot. For many, it’s a blessing that they don’t fully realise that they’ve been given up by families who, often through no fault of their own, simply couldn’t cope with their disability.  For me, as a volunteer, it’s a blessing to be able to do something to help. And not for the first time, I’m left wondering who really wins from these days out. I have sneaking suspicion that I get far more than I give.

If you want to get involved, sign up to the IHBC facebook page or website or come support the  Gift of the Gab, the proceeds of which are going towards buying a bed for Norbert.

Getting married immediately

Bring up the topic of faith healers in any Irish pub and you’ll immediately see a divide that hasn’t been seen since the parting of the Red Sea. You either believe or you don’t. My mother, tired of listening to accounts of various visits to GPs, neurologists, and other ‘alternative’ therapists, decided to take matters relating to my health into her own hands. We were to go see the famous Eddie Stones, in Clonfert, Co. Galway.

Unlike many other Irish healers – Danny Gallagher, Michael O’Connor or Aidan WrynneEddie doesn’t lay claim to being the seventh son of a seventh son. His call was more tangible – Our Lady appeared to him as he was having his tea one night. This appariton was the first of many callings for him to leave his life as a butcher and take up this calling from God. [As I said, you either believe or you don’t.]

Emmanuel House was founded by Michael Cullen, an Irishman who spent time in prison in the USA before being deported. While in prison, he found God and when he came home, he set up the community in Clonfert (the site of the 6th century monastery of St Brendan the Navigator). Eddie and Lucy Stones were drawn to him and took over the minstry when Michael and his wife went back to the States. People come from all over the country to see him, to have him pray over them, to be healed. As reports for these mass gatherings include those who ‘fall’, faint from the experience, I was decidedly curious to see how I’d react.

When we eventually arrived, it was to find a notice to say that the centre was closed for two weeks holiday. Not one so easily deterred, my mother rooted out the man himself and we were sent to wait in the oratory. Some others also driven by blind faith and expectation arrived, too. All told, there were about twelve – so we didn’t get the full treatment. We said the rosary (the five new mysteries of light which can be said on a Thursday) and then heard various accounts of people healed.

Finally we came to the blessings. I was third in line. He took my hand and asked me what was wrong. I said I didn’t know. Pins and needles, exhaustion, lack of focus, and a deep-seated curiousity as to what I was doing in this world. He touched my head and told me my illness was in my brain (which shocked the proverbial out of me – as only the previous week had a systemic inflamation of connective tissue starting in the brain been mooted as a possible diagnosis). He prayed over me and then asked if I was married. I said no. He said: How about immediately, and ten kids! Now believing that would take some measure of faith.

Do I believe that I’ve been cured? Yes. Am I cancelling my MRI booking and my appointment with the neurologist? No. Does this mean that I really don’t believe? Or am I being pragmatic. Some say that faith healing actually risks recovery. I’m resorting to old Irish ‘to be sure, to be sure’. I feel a lot better. I seemed to have turned a corner. My outlook is more positive and there’s a contentment there was wasn’t there before. It could well be the Holy Spirit working through the hands of Eddie Stones. Who knows. But, I tell you, if I meet a widower with ten kids….

The best of two seasons

If you’ve ever driven the Richardson Highway between Valdez and Anchorage, Alaska during the couple of weeks when the leaves turn, you will know what I mean when I say that the scenery is like a painter’s palette. I’ve heard of people going to New England for the Fall to see nature’s mesmerizing display and since Alaska, while I’ve seen nice autumns, I’ve not experienced anything quite like the drive through the forests of Tranyslvania.

For a thousand years, up until WWI, Transylvania was associated with Hungary. Back in the 10th century, the Hungarian Székely settled in what is still called Erdély (‘beyond the forest’ – the literal meaning of Transylvania). With two-lane roads wending their way through the mountains, the colours were breathtaking. Passing few cars and seeing no-one but a series of lone, chain-saw wielding men, it was as if we had the place to ourselves. The higher we went, the colder it got and then we crossed over – from autumn to winter – that wonderful moment when it is neither one nor the other but a bit of both.

Given the choice between hot and cold, I’d go for cold any day. There’s a limit to the amount of clothes you can take off and if you’re not near the sea or a substantial body of water, heat is miserable. But cold – especially contintental cold  – that’s more than doable.

We were trying to get to Saint Anna lake but as we dodged fallen, snow-laden branches, pragmatism won out. The lake will have to wait for another day but the legend, and its swans, reminded me of the Children of Lir.

Way back when, even before the 13th century, two brothers lived in the area. One day, a stranger, driving a beautiful chariot with six horses, called to one of the brother’s castles. They had a party and in a gambling game of some sort (probably dice), one of the brothers won the stranger’s chariot and horses. The other brother, not to be outdone, found a better chariot and went to the village to find the 12 most beautiful women, to pull it. [I wonder if this might be the source of that Irish saying – she’s a horse of a woman?] But the chariot was too heavy for them. They couldn’t move it. The brother became angry and started beating them to death. Before she died, the most beautiful of them all, Anna, cursed the castle. A terrible stormed brewed and the castle sank into the earth. A lake appeared in the crater and on it swam 12 swans. When the birds touched land, they changed back into girls and all but one went back to their village. Anna stayed and built a small chapel and stayed there til she died.

Pilgrims still come in their droves and many young people come in the hope of finding a partner. Again, I’m reminded of Ireland and that childhood prayer: Holy St Ann, holy St Ann, send me a man as fast as you can. Definitely worth a trip back in the spring.


Making coal from wood and hats from mushrooms

Well, you learn something new every day. There was I thinking that coal came from the ground – as in the famous Castlecomer coalmines in Co. Kilkenny. I had never heard ‘making coal’ until a recent visit to Transylvania exposed me to a whole new world.

From as far back as the 19th century, the process of ‘wood charring’ was practically a home industry in this part of the world. Piles of cut wood (boksa) are covered with soil and leaves. The hollow inside is filled with dry branches. The boksa is then lit from the top and burns very slowly for about a week and half. Then the soil is removed and replaced with coal powder and left until the fire goes out. And voila – you have coal. Or more technically, charcoal. You can even do this at home!

Now, if this wasn’t enough for my mind to take in, we stopped in the village of Corund (Korund) where apparently 5000 craftspeople make their living from pottery. And 90 families make their living by making ‘things’ from mushrooms – hats, bags, magnets, toy mice, ties – it reminded me a little of the cork craft in Portugal but this is a lot more like leather/suede. Simply amazing.These craft traditions are handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, and despite the growing amount of kitsch that’s appearing alongside the handcrafted stuff, it’s pretty impressive. Although like so much of the craftwork in this region, because the same patterns and colours are used, it looks a little mass produced even if it’s made by hand.


Individual liberty in a social world

I wouldn’t mind meeting Socrates for a coffee and telling him just what I think of his pearl of wisdom – the unexamined life is not worth living. I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time lately examining various aspects of my life. Just when I think I’ve finally got a handle on it all and am indulging in a harmless bout of self-congratulations, wallowing in the fact that as lives go, mine isn’t all that bad at all,  fate intervenes and with a swift kick, lands me flat on my ass back at square one. Generally, these moments of introspection are precipitated by something I read or hear – something that resonates with the inner voice that is my conscience. The latest provocateur is writer/entrepreneur Andrew Keen, who made a recent appearance on the TEDx stage here in Budapest

Cult of the social

In his 18-minute presentation, Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture, spoke of the cult of the social and the 21st-century expectation that we reveal ourselves to all and sundry, be it through blogging, Facebook updates, or tweets. He fears for the fate of individual liberty in the networked age – what Silicon Valley is now calling ‘the social world’. He quoted the famous line from the movie The Social Network, from the on-screen character Sean Parker – we lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet – and goes on to say that we’re on the verge of a new world, a place where we are living online, where the virtual is becoming real, a world where data is the new oil and those who have control of this data, control the world. He contrasts the issue of loneliness as an essential human condition with the hyper-visibility we are embroiled in today – the new reality of the digital world.

Digital narcissism

I hadn’t ever given my use of Internet much thought. I would never describe myself as a social media junkie. I check Facebook a couple of times a day to see what my 200+ friends are up to (who’d have thought I’d ever be so popular!). I don’t access it by phone and my status updates rarely concern me. I don’t have a check-in application; the world doesn’t need to know where I am at any given moment. I never post photos of people as I see this as an invasion of privacy. The amount of personal detail available about me is negligible. I don’t tweet.  But … (gulp) … I blog. I say that as if I’m confessing to some heinous crime and wonder if this makes me guilty of what Keen calls ‘digital narcissism – the embrace of the self’?

Eliminating loneliness

Back in 1961, Clark Moustakas, in his book Loneliness, describes the phenomenon as ‘a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, extend and deepen his humanity’. Whether we define loneliness as a state of being alone, of experiencing solitude, or simply feeling lonely, it is a fact of life.  Or it was …

In his TEDx talk, Keen quoted a line from the real-life Sean Parker in a recent interview in Forbes magazine where he says that his pitch with his new company, Airtime, is to ‘eliminate loneliness’.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogs are already doing a damn good job of making us think that we’re closer than ever to our friends and family; we now have the capacity to be in touch 24/7. And while this might, on the surface, seem like a good thing, I wonder if we’re not diluting the quality of our interpersonal communications to the point that we are simply talking (or tweeting, or blogging, or updating our status) to remind ourselves that we are alive and despite the overwhelming numbers of friends or followers that we might have, we are, in fact, distancing ourselves from humanity.

If my status update doesn’t attract a bevy of comments, is this akin to being ignored? If only a handful of people read my blog, does this mean it’s worthless? If I have 700 Facebook friends and 1000 followers on Twitter and a klout ranking of 89, does that make me a better person than someone with no online presence at all?  That the lines between the real world and the digital world are blurring is scary, but it’s the pervasiveness of the social world that is scariest of all. It’s time to re-examine our relationship with the Internet and how much of ourselves we are losing in being so visible. While it might appear that we are doing little more than engaging with the freedom of expression offered by social media, perhaps Keen is right to be concerned about the future of our individual liberty.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 October 2011

Aloe, aloe

I’ve had my fair share of palpitations as some hefty, discus-throwing woman bade me strip off and lie down. I’ve actively searched for prop-forward size men who looked like they knew what to do with their hands. I’ve gone on word-of-mouth recommendations and paid serious money to witness power and strength first hand. And yet I’ve been disappointed more often than I’ve been surprised at the misrepresentation of size and strength. Now, I’m no shrinking violet myself and I’m not in the least bit delicate, so when I was confronted by Tá, I balked. This little 4 foot something petite sliver of a woman was going to hurt me in places where I didn’t know I had places? I had my doubts.

I’d never had a Thai massage before – let alone an Aloe Thai Masszázs and I wasn’t holding out too much hope that I’d be walking any straighter at the end of my one-hour session. That was before Tá perched, kneeling on my ass, and proceeded to throw her full body weight into her elbows and then into me.

I couldn’t (and still can’t) get my head around the size of her and the sheer strength of those child-like limbs. It was the best massage I’ve had, ever. And can highly recommend it to any one in Budapest. They have two spas  – one in Zugló and the other in Ujbuda (the one that will become my local). In the words of Arnold Swartzenegger when asked to star in a movie about famous composers – I’ll be Bach!

Winning a flat – in a lottery

When I first saw the word Lottóház on a building on the corner of  Ferenc Korut and Üllői út , I was curious. I asked around. Someone told that this was the site of the old Killián Kaszárnya (Killian barracks) that had been razed in 1956 during the October Revolution. They went on to tell me that when the current block of flats was built on the site of the barracks, people were too superstitious to buy them so the state decided to raffle them off. That way, people were buying lottery tickets and not the flats, per se. I’ve been happily repeating this story each time I have visitors and we walk up to Corvin Negyed to catch the tram. I can’t for the life of me remember who told me. Perhaps I read it somewhere. Or perhaps I’ve made it all up.

This weekend, out and out with the lovely MI, we walked up Fő utca and she pointed out another Lottóház – one of three I now know of built in Budapest, the third being over on Múzeum  Korut (see this bi-lingual blog for details of the PLACC project about No. 9).

Apparently, back between 1958 and 1968, this was quite a trend in Budapest – building flats and then raffling them off in a sweepstake. Funded by the National Lottery, these building were quickly built – often ready in just 12 months – to replace those damaged in the war. Imagine living in an apartment block full of winners – I wonder what that would do for your outlook on life …

A ‘thank you’ tradition

Clark Gable supposedly ate it on the night he died. Kit Carson supposedly wished for it on his deathbed. Jesse James apparently refused to rob a bank in McKinnney because it was the home of his favourite. Spanish priests in the ninteenth century preached against its aphrodisiac nature. Eleanor Roosevelt was once refused the recipe for it, and for the last 22 years, American Randall Claywell has been cooking it up once a year for his annual thank you. Chili.

It started the year his son was born – as a thank you.  Over the years, the tradition has moved with him wherever he has lived. It’s been going on a few years in Budapest but this was the first time I’d received an invitation. And what a lovely idea it is.

Some of us wait until Christmas to say our thank yous. Some of us use name days and birthdays as an excuse to show our gratitude. And some, like Mr Claywell, throw a party and invite the world and her mother. The invite reads Friends, colleagues, and those who make up a part of my life. This is my way of saying “I’m glad to know you” and/or “THANK YOU”. So come, have some chili and say hello.

Now, chili ain’t exactly top of my list of favourite foods. I’d never in a million years order it in a restaurant. I once took part in a chili cook-off in Los Angeles but couldn’t bring myself to even cook it and instead entered the competition with my Mexican specialty ‘chicket sh*t’ instead. But I’d been invited and I wanted to see this phenomonen for myself.

That wonderful Hungarian writer, Karinthy Frigyes, is credited with defining the concept of six degrees of separation in his 1929 short story, Chains (Láncszemek). On Saturday, 1st October, at Angelika Café, everyone there was separated by just one link. Perhaps because they run the coffee shops he drinks in, or works with him, or met him at a wedding, or gets the same tram, or shops in the same ABC … It kicked off at 2pm and went on all afternoon into the early evening. Seems like everyone was having a good time when I left – and I caught up with some old friends who knew Randall, too … small world.