Where’s my passion?

Or should it be what’s my passion? Finding your passion in life seems to be the key to eternal happiness. But then isn’t my goal just to be reasonably happy in this life? And blissfully happy in the herafter? So bloody confusing. I’m reading (or trying to read) The Passion Test and failing miserably. I’ve two other books on the go that promise to show me (or at least help me decide) what it is I’m meant to be doing on this Earth (suggestions, on a postcard, please) and I’m only half-way through them, too. And I’ve been having the weirdest dreams lately that have resulted in my tracking down people I’ve not seen or heard from in more than 25 years just to make sure they’re okay. WTF? And, to confuse matters even further, MI has introduced me to the joys of reading Ian Fleming’s Bond series and I’m hooked. Perhaps ’tis onset of madness…

For a better photo of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, check out Elena’s blog.

Not all schnitzel and sausage

When I pitch Vienna against Budapest or even Bratislava, it always comes in third. I’ve never taken to the city – and I have no idea why. It seems a little sterile and old-fashioned, without a sense of humour. It seems to take itself far too seriously. Yes, it has some magnificent buildings and some spectacular museums and galleries. And yes, it’s the home of sacher torte, that delicious chocolate cake immortalised by Franz Sacher in 1832 (interestingly, he trained first in Bratislava and then in Budapest, before ending up in Vienna). And yes, it has some great schnitzel and sausage, but aside from all this, there has always been something missing…for me. Vienna was just a little too predictable.

But this time around, I was taken to the Naschmarkt and was suitably impressed. Aside from the usual fare of fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, this market does a roaring trade in fresh fish and lamb. And lamb to die for. Many many years ago, while in the village butchers with my mother, I laughed at the conversation she had with the butcher in which both were rhapsodising about a leg of lamb. For the life of me, I failed to see how anyone could be so taken with a piece of meat. Then, in Anchorage, Alaska,  I found a real butchers with real cuts of meat. When I stopped to admire a rack of lamb on display, he quickly nipped in the back and brought me out the finest leg I’d seen in years. It had happened – I’d turned into my mother. The same happened on Thursday in Vienna as I ogled the cutlets, the shoulders, the racks, and the legs of lamb and wondered for the umpteenth time why Budapest’s markets are practically lamb-less. I can see me taking the train to Vienna on a lamb spree someday soon.

The market is truly cosmopolitan and perhaps for the first time I glimpsed the city’s multicultural ethnicity. Vendors from all over the world plied their trade in prepared food and ingredients. Had I not been so focused on schnitzel for dinner, I could easily have lost myself in the Indonesian food on offer. On Saturday, the market extends to include a flea market – enough in itself to warrant a return journey. But perhaps one of the most exciting finds of all was an international discount bookshop with a huge variety of English books on sale. To be able to sample new authors without paying an arm and a leg for the experience is a very underrated pleasure. I browsed, I bought, and I went back for seconds.

Grateful 45

I find myself looking a lot at reflections lately. I know I am prone to minor obsessions but they ususally work themselves out after a couple of weeks. This one, though, has been around for a while. I find the subtle changes that the medium makes fascinating: the wavering introduced to a straight line, the barely noticeable change in colour, the different perspective offered by looking sideways.

I was reminded recently of a fellah who used to come into the bank I worked in years ago in Dublin. His name was Joe Caulfield and he was from Dundalk. He had dirty-blonde hair and always looked like he’d been dragged through a ditch backwards. One particular day, I was really upset about something I’d done (or not done – I can’t quite remember). He asked me if I’d been able to look at myself in the mirror that morning without squirming. I had. He told me then that I’d nothing to worry about – we are our harshest critics. I’ve no idea where he is now or what he’s doing and doubt very much that he knows how those words affected me. That conversation has stayed with me for nearly 30 years. And then, during the week, when I read this verse, I had reason to remember Joe and his words of wisdom.

‘When you get what you want in the struggle for self, and the world makes you king for a day; just go to the mirror and look at yourself, and see what that man has to say. For it isn’t your father or mother or wife, whose judgment upon you must pass; the fellow whose verdict counts most in your life, is the one staring back from the glass. He’s the fellow to please; never mind all the rest, for he’s with you clear to the end. And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test, if the man in the glass is your friend. You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years, and get pats on the back as you pass. But your final reward will be heartache and tears, if you’ve cheated the man in the glass.’

After a week of ups and downs, chaos and quiet, I’m grateful that me and yer woman in the glass are still on good terms.

Flushing the loo is a godless deed – a wanton act of death

One must live as though one were at war and everything rationed.

With a name like Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, is it any wonder that this Austrian artist believed that the colourful, the abundant, the manifold, is always better than mediocre grey and uniformity. I’ve long since given up any pretensions about knowing my Art and have resolved to like what I like without trying to justify or explain. Until taken to the Hundertwasser museum in Vienna last week, I’d never heard of this chap. My museum preferences lean more towards death, resistance and the Holocaust rather than ecological or environmental but he was sold to me as Austria’s answer to Gaudi.

I’m glad I went. Not least because his paintings are mad (some of his pencil sketches could have been done by a child of seven and once again I wonder if art is more about appreciation than ability) – but his titles are fascinating. Forget the obvious – woman staring at sea or cow standing in field – and instead be prepared for something like The beard is the grass of the bald-headed man.

He talks of living a vegative life: One reason why other people do not want […] to take to a vegetative way of life is because it begins too unpretentiously, it does not have great eclat or drum roll; on the contrary it grows quite slowly and simply, and that does not appeal to our social order, people want instant results based on the slash and burn principle. Throughout this space on a side street in Vienna, colour and disorder reign supreme. Nothing matches – colours and shapes clash, floors dip and dive. Yet there is a stillness and a magic that makes it special. Despite the heaving numbers of visitors, you can still lose yourself in the space and marvel at the man with the mind behind the madness.

Life with Mr H must have been exciting.  In the Mouldiness Manifesto he first claimed the Window Right: A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm’s reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm’s reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door. Am I imprisoned? Enslaved? Standardised? mmmmmm

Perhaps most interesting of all his work though, are his plans to build towns that are in tune with nature. The kindergarten in Heddernheim is one example that was actually built. Imagine being able to walk on the grass of your roof. The Quixote vineyard in Napa Valley, California, is another sublime structure – one that makes me want to find some land and get to it. In 1972, he published the manifesto Your window right — your tree duty. According to H, if man walks in nature’s midst, then he is nature’s guest and must learn to behave as a well-brought-up guest. It is our obligation to plant trees in urban spaces. And a new word was born: vegitecture.

And just when I think I’ve read it all, I come across  link to his Holy Shit manifesto whereby he says that each time we flush the loo thinking we’re being hygienic, we’re actually violating cosmic law and committing murder. Food for thought.

When tomorrow comes today

I’m the world’s best procrastinator. I can find all sorts of justifiable reasons for not doing something and seem to have a never-ending list of excuses to legitimise my decisions. But some things cannot be put off any longer.

Back in 2001, a co-worker in the States (much younger than me) asked me about my pension plan. I laughed. Pension plan? My motto was to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. Anything could happen tomorrow – I could be run over by a bus and never live to spend a penny and in the meantime I’d have scrimped and saved for a retirement that would never be.

Later that year, another co-worker told me that from the day she first started work, she’d put away very other pay check. We were the same age. We had similar jobs. We even had the same first name. But she had a new car that she’d paid cash for, a house with no mortgage, and a pension plan that would allow her retire very comfortably at 45. She also had a 20-year head start on me. I spiralled into a major depression just thinking about my penniless future and how stupid I’d been. Action was called for.

Nerded out

I met with the company’s investment advisor, a nerdy-looking type with an alphabet after his name. He took pains to tell me how irresponsible I’d been; how careless. He painted a bleak picture of what my future would look like. I was practically beyond redemption. He presented me with all sorts of options – dazzled me with fancy financial terms – pressed the buttons on his calculator with the dexterity of a concert pianist – and conjured up a scary-looking neon graph on his laptop. I left his office laden down with glossy prospectuses and annual reports, and an appointment for the following week that I never kept.

Over the next ten years, I kept busy travelling and moving around, going to school, working my way towards Budapest. I was so busy living that I didn’t give any more thought to what would happen once I stopped work and the money stopped coming in. Until last week, that is.

Scared senseless

I was in a pharmacy over in Széna tér waiting to have a prescription filled. The old lady in front of me handed in her ‘script with a 5,000 forint note. She asked the pharmacist to give her the most important tablets; that was all the money she had. She was about my height. She had her hair cut short. Like me, she wore glasses. We both wore green coats and brown scarves. In a flash, I saw my future and it scared me senseless.

I went home and immediately made an appointment to see a financial advisor – someone into ‘wealth management’. I’d talked to him socially, and had been promising ever since to get my paperwork together and go see him officially, but I never did. I’m sure I had a good excuse (or twenty) – I always do.

For three days before my appointment, I had flashbacks to my man in Alaska and his calculations and permutations, his fancy software and his alphalary of financial terms. I was in no mood to be humoured as a brainless broad, but neither was I prepared to do the necessary research to educate myself. I was nervous as hell and dreading the outcome. I could see myself on a diet of bread and water for the next twenty years as I saved enough to eke out a sad, hermitic existence for twenty more after that.

Saved from the brink

We sat over a coffee. He asked me what age I wanted to retire at. I told him. He asked how much money would I need to live on, per month if I stopped working today. I did the math. He drew an x/y graph, in biro, plotting time against money, explaining what he was doing in words of one syllable. I was actually following him! He factored in inflation and figured out how much money I’d need to give me that sort of annual dividend at 65. An impossible figure. A future of penury opened in front of me, a future I was slowly but inexorably slipping toward, one forint at a time. He continued: How much could I comfortably set aside per month, starting now? I did the math again. He pulled out a printed table of closely set figures – and taking a conservative annual return of 6.5%, showed me how much I would have saved by the time I retired. I started to breathe again. I was salvageable. The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’d to come to Budapest to find a financial advisor who spoke in plain English. I have an appointment for next week…and this one I’ll keep.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 February 2012

And if you’re interested…. check out Gerrards International

Grateful 46

I’m in the witness protection programme – or, at least that’s what I tell anyone with a camera within snapping distance. ‘Please don’t take my photograph or videotape my speech or even include me in a crowd shot.’ I can’t lay claim to any native American ancestry so that whole capturing of the soul thing doesn’t ring true. But I simply detest having my photograph taken. I detest seeing myself on film or on video. And I wish that people would respect that. The me that I see in the photo is not the me I see in the mirror. Somewhere between glass and celluloid, I seems to gain three chins and forty kilos.

Not that I’m vain or anything. Well, no more than  might be expected being female and of a certain vintage. I rarely look in the mirror unless it serves a purpose. And there is a skinny woman inside me trying desperately to get out. But despite knowing what I need to do to set her free (eat less, exercise more) and despite desperately wanting to be that person I saw in the skinny mirror at the contemproary art exhibition in Dublin last year, I can’t seem to do anything about it.The last time I remember feeling good about how I looked was in 1994, picking PC up at Seattle airport. That’s a while ago now. And I still have those jeans – this Murphy is definitely an optimist.

I went to my kinesiologist to see what’s up – to see if she could figure out what’s blocking me – why I am so desperate to lose weight on the one hand, and blatanty refusing to do what it takes on the other. We’re slowly making progress in getting to the bottom of it and I’m tentatively scheduling my transformation to start mid-April. You’ve been warned.

So what, you might ask, has all this to do with being grateful? Well, in the grand scheme of things, when my good friends are losing livers, grandkids, jobs, and partners – if all I have to worry about is why I can’t lose a few pounds, then I need to quit my bitchin’ and be grateful that I had the wherewithal to gain those few pounds in the first place.

The most bombed place on Earth

In 1942, Malta was the most bombed place on Earth. This small island strategically placed between Italy and North Africa, was a British military base that everyone wanted. The Italians used high level bombs, most of them falling into the sea. But when the Germans took over, it was a different story.

Unfortunately the German Luftwaffe took over the bombing raids from the Italians. We then knew what bombing was all about. We got bombed day and night, sometimes as many as 7 days on the trot. We had good air raid shelters under the rocks and the bombs couldn’t penetrate into them.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I had an image of what an air raid shelter would look like: a rather large basement. What I didn’t expect was 500 metres of tunnels with little rooms carved into the walls. All dug by hand.  Over 4000 people crammed into this space, each with about 1 square metre to themselves. Families of six or more could pay for the right to carve out a room of their own in the walls. There was even a maternity wing. I can’t begin to imagine what life might have been like back then – to hear the sirens and know that you were facing another day underground, packed in like sardines, breathing in the smells of so many.

To put it into perspective – Malta is smaller in size than Greater London. In two months in 1942 (March and April) the tonnage of bombs dropped on the island (6700 tons) was TWICE that dropped on London in the whole of the worst year of the blitz. London’s longest continual raid lasted 57 days; Malta’s lasted 154. There was only one bomb-free 24-hour period between 1 January 1942 and 24 July. The mind boggles.

Walking through the air-raid shelter at Mellieha is quite a sobering experience. There were no sirens, no huddled masses, no smells of the great unwashed. And still it was disturbing. Once again I found myself wondering how I would have coped – the challenges I face in my life in 2012 seem trivial in comparison.

Eat your hearts out, ladies

Without Valentine’s Day, February would be… well, January. Such an insight could only come from a comedian like Jim Gaffigan and yet, he might well have a point. In much of the western world, February and Valentine’s Day are synonymous. Growing up in Ireland, I used to live in dread that I would be the only one in my class not to receive a Valentine’s card. The one and only time I was ever thrown out of class was on St Valentine’s Day when I was caught red-handed reading a big, red, heart-shaped card. That one blemish on an otherwise pristine school career still haunts me.

The real St Valentine

St Valentine is one of the oldest, most successful, brand names in history. I wonder if he’s turning in his grave at how commercialized his feast day has become? I only discovered recently that in the Catholic Church’s martyrology (what you read when you’re stuck for a book, eh?), there are no fewer than three St Valentines listed under the date of February 14.  One was a priest in Rome, and another a bishop in central Italy, both of whom lived in the third century. Of the third, not much is known other than he lived and died in Africa. Of the three, one the two Italians are most likely to be the St Valentine who has lent his name to an industry that generates millions in hard cash each year.

The pick of the pair

Some sources say February 14 is the anniversary of the Roman’s death in 269 AD. Jailed for refusing to give up Christianity, he left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter with whom he had fallen in love, signing it from your Valentine. That explains the cards. Other sources say it’s the anniversary of the bishop’s death. He was jailed for defying the emperor Claudius the Cruel, who had outlawed marriage – married soldiers were apparently reluctant to leave their wives and go to war. Valentine defied his ruling and married couples in secret. For this he lost his head; is this linked to how we often lose our head (reason) when in love.

Known as Bálint Nap in Hungary, the commercial side of St Valentine’s Day is relatively recent here (1989). Local folklore still suggests that it is a good day to have geese, ducks, and hens sit on their eggs and hatch. Bird enthusiasts will tell you that half-way through February (a normal February, that is) birds begin to pair off and choose their mates. In his Parliament of Foules Chaucer talks about: For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate. In the village of Szil in Hungary, people believe that St Valentine is the patron saint of sparrows as this is when sparrows begin to mate. Perhaps this is why the date is so auspicious for lovers – the most favorable day in the year for them to declare their love by writing letters and sending gifts. (I wonder if anywhere in Budapest delivers heart-shaped langós complete with tejföl, sajt, és hagyma?)

Far from conventional

For most of my adult life, I have had the (mis)fortune to date men who have eschewed the whole idea of St Valentine’s Day. My memorable moments are therefore few and far between. My most unusual Valentine’s Day present was from a very married man. He called me late on the evening of February 13 to say that he had a Valentine’s present for me and asked if he could drive round to deliver it. I was already in bed and hoped it might wait until the next day – at work. But no, it couldn’t.

Curiosity will always get the better of me and amid assurances that his wife knew what he was doing and was fine with it, I agreed. I’m a trusting soul. I was to be dressed and ready and waiting outside my cabin in 10 minutes. It was winter. It was Alaska. It was snowing and it was cold. So I donned my parka and my boots and went outside just as he pulled up in his pick-up truck. He’d been hunting. The tailgate was down and I could see the huge, inert form of a dead buffalo lying in the bed. My friend reached inside the carcass and pulled out my present – the buffalo’s heart.

The next day, as girlfriends of mine around the world found vases for flowers, ate their chocolates, read their cards, examined their new jewelry, and looked forward to romantic dinners for two, I was stuffing and cooking a massive buffalo heart for six technicians at the Valdez Marine Terminal – all male, all married. That was February 14, 1999. The heart has been eaten but the story lives on.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2012

Grateful 47

Airports are a wonderful laboratory in which to study the human mind and make-up. I am convinced that some people pack their frustrations  alongside their socks and then spend their two hours at the airport before boarding trying to dump those frustrations on someone else. At Malta airport this week, my flight to Munich was delayed by a whopping 26 minutes. It was due to board at 9.05 and when nothing had happened by 9.20, some people were getting a tad anxious. Three men  – one German, one British, and one Maltese – were in particularly irritable moods. They seemed to be travelling individually but were drawn together by a shared frustration. They had connections to make in Munich – that was obvious – but hey – sometimes connections are missed.

The Maltese guy was having it out with the airline staff – he had a business meeting he needed to get to and why was the plane late. Technical difficulties. What kind of technical difficulties (as if that mattered!). Technical difficulties. Then the British guy adds his two pennies worth of a rant and explained that technical difficulties meant that there was no plane and we wouldn’t be flying at all. Then the German, for good measure, starts on about airlines having no respect for schedules and the importance of people.

In the meantime, on the TV in the nearby café, reporters in Syria were telling the world about two explosions in Aleppo that had killed 28 people. I sat between the TV and the trio, as if watching a tennis match. I thought briefly about pointing out to them that all the complaining in the world wouldn’t make the plane appear. I thought about mentioning that the people they were yelling at had absolutely no control over the situation. I thought about showing them the idiocy of their ways: so their plane would be late and they might miss a connection but at the end of the day, they would be alive.

But I didn’t do anything. Instead, I sat back and gave silent thanks that somewhere along the line I’ve learned to put things into perspective. As  Alice Caldwell Rice so famously said: It ain’t no use putting up your umbrella till it rains.

Chapter One

Some of my questions are never answered because they are never asked. Some of my questions have never been born. Then some questions pop up and I wonder why I’ve never thought to ask them before and I’m almost ashamed of my ignorance (almost!). Take this Michelin Star business. Yes, I know it’s the hallmark of fine dining but I didn’t know it had any connection with Michelin, the tyre people. And I didn’t know that back in 1900 Michelin first launched a guide book to encourage people to drive around France. And I didn’t know that in 1926, they started reviewing restaurants anonymously and giving them stars.

Somewhere in my head, I’d assumed that Michelin was some sort of famous chef and is to fine dining what Pulitzer is to jouralism. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in a Michelin Star restuarant and am still not sure if it’s the chef or the restaurant that gets the stars.I know now that one star is very good, two stars are worth a detour, and three stars are worth a special journey. The fact that there are so few stars in the world is a sad indictment of the state of modern restaurants.

Walking by Chapter One in Malta last week, I stopped to read the menu only because there’s a Chapter One in Dublin that friends rave about and I know that it has a Michelin Star. The two are not connected. But still, I was curious. And when I saw that the Maltese restaurant had a Michelin-trained chef in residence, I gave voice to the question. Does this mean that he has been trained by a chef with a star or has he worked in a restaurant with star? Well, Hiram Cassar trained in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris and opened the doors to this restaurant in Malta in 2010. The menu was simple, typed on an A4 page, nothing fancy (I like the transparencey of this sort of unaffected simplicity.) Prices were a little on the high side for me, but I still thought it worth checking out. And last night, I did.

From start to finish, it was exquisite. I hold my hand up to doing a double-take when I first saw the portions (have I ever had half a radish before?) but the sum of the parts was far greater than the sum of the whole.  I opted for tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms in a thyme and garlic infused cream, followed by roast breast of duck, braised red cabbage, parsnip pureé, cracked pistachios and red wine au jus. SM started with a carpaccio of sea bream and prawns marinated in a citrus emulsion with fennel salad and herb oil. He opted for the duck, too, which was served with roast potatoes and the most diverse, interesting, art-like veg I’ve seen in a long time. Apart from me asking SM to identify the various veg (local produce is a speciality), conversation was embarrasingly inane, replete with deep sighs, mmmmms, and groans of sheer ecstasy. Dessert, served on a slate tile plate, was modestly described as a classic apple tart tatin with vanilla ice-cream. Positively orgasmic.

The decor is understated, the service just right; the food does all the work – which is as it should be. I’m already saving up my pennies for my next trip to Malta. To show you how good it is, I’m going back even though the website commits what in my book of pedantry is a cardinal sin by using a possessive apostrophe in ‘its’.

I have a rotating list of my top five meals of all time. It was pretty stagnant there for a while, until my last trip to Geneva. But unnecessary apostrophes aside, it looks like Chapter One is going to shake it up some more. If you’re in Malta – make it your business to drop by. It’s well worth a detour.