Grateful 40

Last night I heard that my best friend had died. She’d been trying to get hold of me all week but my phone wasn’t answering. I had been trying to get hold of her, too, and kept leaving messages on her voicemail that she never received. The last conversation we had was to plan my visit to the States to see her next month, once her mom had left. I’ll never see her again and that saddens me. It hurts so much to think that she’s no longer in my life – and I know if she could speak to me, she’d tell me to get a grip and stop crying and go do something constructive.

Lori's cherry tree

So today, I went to the orphange to see Norbert and while we were there, we planted some fruit trees and some shrubs in the garden. I named one of the cherry trees ‘Lori’ and know she’d approve.  She always was fond of cherries – particulary if they were floating on a cocktail. It was a wild and windy day. The sun struggled to come out and didn’t make an appearance until we’d finished. It was bloody cold at times, too. But everyone was in fine form. Just over three hours of back-breaking work (damn, these cameras are heavy) and all the trees and shrubs were planted. We met a few of the locals and one chap, bless him, said something to me in Hungarian that was unintelligble, walked up to me and gave me a big smacking kiss on each cheek – how did he know it was just what I needed.

We went inside to see Norbert and to look at the bed we will be replacing from the money we raised at the Gift of the Gab. When I looked at him in his cot, everything settled and I got some perspective. Things happens for a reason and while I can’t make sense of why Lori died, when our lives have run their course, that’s it. I was very fortunate to have known her, to have loved her, to have been her friend. My life is all the richer because of it. I’ll miss her dreadfully and although she’s no longer at the other end of a phone, part of her will still live inside me.

Some of those good people

That there are those less fortunate than me, I have no doubt. That there are good people in the world who are willing to devote their time and resources to make the world a better place, I am certain. That life is for living and every moment could be our last, I am mindful. Today I am grateful for having something constructive to do. For being able to make a difference, however small. For the company of good people (and a great dog). And to Lori – I will be forever grateful for the memories. May you rest in peace.

Changing gears

My kind of woman
I am convinced I was a rally driver in a previous life. Give me winding country roads, no traffic, and a car with a manual gear stick, and I am in my element. Slowing down coming into bends; speeding up as I exit. Changing gears smoothly as I climb hills, enjoying the constant drone of the engine as it ratchets up and down on cue. Eyes everywhere looking not just straight ahead but also keeping watch for stray animals that might pick the wrong moment to see what’s on the other side of the road. Senses on high alert constantly judging the distance from my wing mirror to the hedge. Speedometer rising and falling, adrenalin remaining constant. Simply heaven. When I was in school, others in my class looked up to pop stars and actors. I was hooked on Rosemary Smith – a dress-designer turned rally driver from Dublin. Her mantra:  ‘Driving is all psychological; you can overcome any difficulty if you set your mind to it.’ My kind of woman.

Not my kind of man
There are those who make their careers from driving and there are those who simply take some lessons, pass a test, and get a license to terrify. I’ve heard first-hand of someone who was having trouble mastering the art of driving in Budapest and lubricating his pass mark with a bottle of palinka. I live on Üllői út, a long, straight road, punctuated with myriad traffic lights that many boy-racers confuse for a race track. Revving up at the lights, waiting for the imaginary starter’s flag to drop, their impatience is palpable. Focused on making as much noise as possible, their sole intention appears to be to draw attention to their car, which has somehow become an extension of themselves. From zero to 60 in five seconds flat. Weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, they have little regard for other drivers. On wet days, when such antics are even more dangerous, dousing pedestrians by driving at speed through standing water becomes a sport of Olympic proportions. Definitely not my kind of man.

Keeping up with the flow
I failed my test the first time I took it. I ran a red light. It didn’t help when I tried to excuse myself by saying that I hadn’t seen it. That I passed the second time probably had something to do with my driving instructor running out of patience. When I went to the States, I had to take another test – but this time in an automatic (can driving an automatic really be considered driving?) I passed and was told that the key to freeway driving was to ‘keep up with the flow of traffic’. To me, that amounted to permission to go as fast as the car ahead of me, if I had the horsepower to do so. Easy. Forget the speed signs. Just keep his taillights in sight and all would be well.

In Malta, chaos reigns supreme at the roundabouts. Driving on the island is not for the timid. Forget about polite civility – it’s every man for himself. Forge ahead and occupy your space. A little like India without the noise and the colour. Yet every driver in the country knows where the speed cameras are. Viewed from overhead, I suspect that driving in Malta could be choreographed and set to music.

Driving on the motorways in Ireland, the key is to stay left and use the right lane to overtake only, careful not to give the impression of leapfrogging. There’s no quicker way to attract the attention of the traffic corps than to make like a frog. In Hungary though, I can’t find any logic. On the motorways, everyone seems to be in a huge hurry, travelling as if their very lives depend on them getting to their destination on time. In the cities, they turn off the speed switch and seem content to sit in traffic for hours, as the trams and buses sail blithely by. I don’t understand where this need for speed disappear to.

Carrots not sticks
Back in 2010, a chap from San Francisco – Kevin Richardson – won a competition (the Fun Theory) to solve the social challenge presented by speeding. His idea was quite simple. Speeding motorists would continue to be fined and a portion of these fines would be ring fenced as a lottery fund. Using speed camera technology, Richardson suggested a speed camera that would capture cars whose drivers were adhering to the speed limit. These drivers would then be eligible to win the speed lottery. This was tested in Stockholm over three days on a multilane street. The average speed of 32 km dropped to 25 km. Seems like a winner.  I wonder what it would take to pilot it on Üllői?

First published in the Budapest Times 30 March 2012

Roman bees

He asked – are you free on Sunday? I said – sure. He said – I’ll pick you up at 10 am. I said – grand. He said – I want to show you some Roman beehives. I thought to myself – mmmm… heaps of rocks with a hollow centre. How exciting (not!)

I was visiting Malta for the umpteenth time with Air Malta and looking forward to seeing more of what the islands had to offer. But Roman beehives weren’t high up my list. I was more than surprised when we happened on a series of Roman apiaries at Xemxija, dating back to about 1000 AD. My dad keeps bees. I have  a vague idea of how it all works. I saw Bee movie.  But nothing I’ve seen or read prepared me for these apiaries and once again since I first started coming to Malta, I found myself marvelling at how clever those Romans were…

The ‘hives’ are pottery cannisters secured behind the open slots in the apiary. The hives had a small hole to the outside, which the bees used, and a larger one to the passage inside the cave which was blocked with a tile until the beekeeper removed the honeycomb. Amazing stuff when you think about it.

The Maltese honey bee, Apis mellifera ruttneri, is a sub-species of the Western honey bee and is native to Malta. The name ‘Malta’ is most likely derived from either the Greek or Roman word for honey. And a working bee may have to visit as many as 500 flowers in order to produce just a single teaspoon of honey. A lot of work for very little return. Just as well those boys are not paid by the hour.  I’m not much into honey myself but I have it on good authority that Maltese honey is amongst the finest there is. It’s got something to do with the abundance of wild thyme, clover and carob.

Interestingly, after watching the Irish Sci Fi 100 mornings last weekend and musing to my companion that were I to be stranded and left to forage for food from the land, I’d be damned picky about who I was stranded with, I ate my fill on this trek to the apiaries – wild beans, peas, and asparagus. The carob  I could have done without.

There’s no substitute for chocolate

The fruit of the carob tree is being touted as a replacement for chocolate. ‘Carob is a wonderful substitute for chocolate. It tastes great with a chocolate-like flavor but without the health risks, additives, or contamination that comes with chocolate.’ So I went and found a carob tree – not just any old tree but one that is reputed to be over 1000 years old. And I found some of the ripe and ready brown fruit. And I tried it. And yes, it has a faint taste of chocolate but it is terribly, terribly, terribly sweet.  Despite the associated health benefits, and no matter how much it is dressed up and labelled as ‘good for me’, it will never, ever replace chocolate.

I used to work in the shadow of Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Coolock and on those rare occasions when Ireland had a sunny summer, the smell of the chocolate was a tad overwhelming. But that was as rare as a Irish suntan. When I was in  the States, and even now that I’m spending a lot of time in Budapest, the one thing guaranteed to raise my spirits and endear you to me for life, was/is a bar of Cadbury’s plain chocoate. Forget Lindt or the other fancy chocolatiers, a plain bar of Cadbury’s, preferably straight from the fridge, is one of the simplest pleasures in my life.

In my search for reasons why carob is supposedly so much healthier than chocolate, I found this interesting assertion: The seeds inside the pods were also traditionally used to weigh diamonds, which is where we get the word carat from. Who’d have known, eh? My life is now a little more complete. That said, the carob tree I saw in Xemxija in Malta is fairly amazing. The translation of the Maltese verse  with its new word – propably – is inspiring. To my mind, anything that can stand in one place for over 1000 years deserves a little credit – even if the fruit of its boughs is nicer to look at than to eat.

Two flies going up a wall

‘Someone asked me why women don’t gamble as much as men do, and I gave the commonsensical reply that we don’t have as much money. That was a true and incomplete answer. In fact, women’s total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.’ So, by Gloria Steinem’s reasoning, my total instinct for gambling has yet to be satisfied. Which more than likely explains my fascination with the innocuous – like two flies going up a wall or two raindrops falling down a window pane. I love to gamble. Horses, cards, lotteries, raffles … if there’s a chance I can win, I’m in. Don’t confuse this with being competitive. I’m only competitive with myself – my risk, my gamble, my choice, my decision.

One of my favourite days out is a day at the races …the whole process of picking my horse, laying my bet, and then cheering ’til I’m hoarse with some misguided notion that both horse and jockey will hear my voice above all others and be driven to cross the finish line first, it leaves me breathless. One of my favourite afternoons out is watching a rugby match (Ireland or Munster) and again, shouting at the TV screen or (if I’m lucky) at the players in real life, again thinking that they will hear my angst and do their best not to disappoint me. One of my favourite nights out (limited because I know my weaknesses) is to hit the casino. Caribbean stud is my game of choice (I drew a poker of 2s once in Biloxi, Missipippi, and took home $700); roulette I play in transit; and blackjack only gets a look in if I’m feeling lucky. I can spend hours on the slots, mindlessly pressing buttons in the hope that my lemons line up and the coins come gushing out.It’s great not having to think.

I grew up in Kildare. A plethora of racecouses, horsetrainers, and stud farms create a demand for green jackets and riding boots amongst the horsey set. My mother’s advice – that a bookie’s money is only on loan – has stood me in good stead. I only ever gamble what I can afford to lose – and always keep my winnings separate so I can do the math when the last horse has come home. Likewise when I play cards or go to a casino – credit cards are left at home; access to money is cut off; and my stake is carefully calculated.

My saner friends think I am mad. They don’t see the attraction. Or the addiction. They don’t get the same buzz from what might be.  Or perhaps, like Rita Mae Brown when Leroy bet her that she couldn’t find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they think it’s a stupid bet because the rainbow is enough. So maybe, for them, the promise of what might be is not nearly as intoxicating of the reality of what is. Me? I’m still struggling to live in the present.

Grateful 41

Malawi and Namibia

One of the best things about working in Diplomacy (however, tangentially) is that delegates get to wear their national dress for formal dinners. We had one such dinner (actually, a simulated dinner in honour of a departing ambassador) as part of the workshop on Modern Diplomacy for Small States this week in Malta and it was simply amazing to see how people turned out.

St Lucia and Montserra

It was a far cry from the usual Black Tie events that see slinkly spangled numbers and pant suits. This was a blaze of colour and feminity and made me truly envious of those who take such pride in their countries and their heritage. I couldn’t help but wonder what Irish diplomats turn up in when they have the opportunity to wear their national dress – or is this a phenomen restricting to the African, Caribbean and Pacific region? Surely not. But then, I did say I was only involved tangentially in Diplomacy, so I can’t say for sure. Is there a practicing diplomat out there who could answer the question for me?



This week, I am grateful for my work and for the fact  that it exposes me to people I would otherwise never meet; to cultures I would otherwise never experience; and to perspectives that I would otherwise never share. It was a pleasure to spend ten days at this workshop and to meet such fascinating, fun-loving, fine people, each of whom shares a pride in their country and a willingness to share this with the rest of the world. Who would have thought that good humour and smiles could be so infectious.

Burst bubbles and gratitude

My bubble has burst. I’ve found fault with my hero – Dorothy Parker. You know Dorothy? I like to think that she lived just long enough to make sure that I was born and could carry on her mantel. Her career took off when she stood in for PG Wodehouse as theatre critic for Vanity Fair in 1918. She soon became famous for her caustic wit and has left a legacy of witticisms that still hold true today. Her actual legacy she left to Martin Luther King Jr and, upon his death, it passed to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She suggested her own epitaph ‘Excuse my dust’ – and her ashes sat in a filing cabinet in her lawyer’s office for 17 years before they found a home in a memorial garden at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.

Her criticism of Katherine Hepburn says it all: ‘She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B’. One of her famous put-downs: ‘That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say “No” in any of them’. And when asked to put the word ‘horticulture’ in a sentence she delivered the classic ‘You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think’. What can I say? I love the woman (and I don’t use the L-word lightly).

So when I read a nasty quote recently that was attributed to her, I was suitably upset. No, I was more than upset. I was gutted. Gratitude, said she, is the meanest and most snivelling attribute in the world. How could it be? How could I admire and respect and look up to someone who figured gratitude to be a mean and snivelling attribute while at the same time respect and admire another someone who has taken the art of gratitude to new levels?

Grateful 52

My mate Biddy in Australia (her with the red hair who has featured in this column before) is putting her social networks to good use and using Facebook to spread the love. Each day, Biddy and her two sons post a photograph of something they are grateful for. It could be anything from a picture of their breakfast to one of the lads on stage in a school play. It’s spurred others on to be equally public in with their gratitude. Even yours truly has been blogging in a series call Grateful 52 since the beginning of this year. Given that my New Year’s resolutions generally remain resolute for all of a month, I didn’t want to attempt a daily offering, so I opted instead for a weekly one – hence Grateful 52. (I was telling someone about it the other day and they took it as being my age and told me I was looking good for someone of such tender years – am still trying to milk a compliment from that one!)

So, two of my favourite women – one very much alive in body, the other just alive in spirit – would appear to have polar opposite opinions. As in all such times of quandary, I resort to my thesaurus in search of enlightenment. Gratitude has a number of synonyms – gratefulness, thankfulness, thanks, appreciation, indebtedness, recognition, acknowledgement, and credit. And a little light bulb goes on. While I can agree wholeheartedly with the idea of being thankful on a daily if not hourly basis for what we have been given in this life and can fully subscribe to appreciating and recognising our good fortune, I stumble over the concept of indebtedness.

Give and take

I’ve been the giver in a relationship or friendship almost as often as I’ve been the taker. In San Diego, I used to make my mate Lori write a check for $48 if she wanted me to skive off work and go play for the day. If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. And she had the money to make it good. I had no qualms about it. Likewise there are people in my life who earn considerably more money than I do, and I have no problem with them treating me to dinner or the theatre or a weekend away. When I started to make friends in Budapest and tried to continue this practice with me being in the giving seat for a change, I met with a blanket refusal. Whenever I showed my gratitude for help and friendship by doing something nice, it created a debt cycle. Why do we find it so difficult to accept help or compliments or favors? Why is it so much easier to give than to take? It’s a delicate balance, this gratitude thing – and I can only hope that Dorothy was railing against the indebtedness it can create rather than the acknowledgement of good things and good people.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 March 2012

Brothers and sisters

I come from what is known in Ireland as a gentleman’s family – one boy, one girl. Read the implication in that for yourselves. Ours is a large extended family though – I have 71 first cousins. Lots of cousins, but only one brother. I might occasionally refer to him as ‘bro’ or ‘my brother in Dublin’ but I usually just call him by his name.

It sounds strange to me then when people who just met each other a couple of days ago refer to themselves as brother and sister. My brother from the Solomons; my sister from the Seychelles. It’s such a lovely, inclusive way of talking. This easy familiarity may well be characteristic of their countries, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to the Bahamas, the Gambia, Grenada, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritus, Malaysia, Monsterrat (unless you count the one outside Barcelona), Namibia (was to go but it has been postponed), Samoa, the Seychelles, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, St Kitts and Nevis, Jersey, Uganda or St Lucia. I don’t have that free and easy manner that would allow me to refer to someone as my brother or sister without a blood tie. I am too constrained by western propriety. And it saddens me a little.

I can’t help but wonder if we in Hungary or Ireland or Europe generally, if we were to view relative strangers as our brothers and sisters, would we have a need for rallies and demonstrations? Would we have a society where ingroups reign and that sense of belonging we crave as humans is ransomed for votes? Would we be more tolerant of each other and more forgiving of our weaknesses? Would we rid ourselves of this ‘them and us’ mentality that is so crippling? I wonder…

Where has the joy gone?

I never liked school much. I still have nightmares about my Leaving Cert Irish exam. It’s two days before the exam and I’ve only just gotten hold of the poetry book. I am in a blind panic knowing that I’m going to fail the honours paper. I wake up in a cold sweat. Now, considering I did my Leaving Cert in 1983, that’s a long time for a nightmare to last.

I didn’t like University either. I was doing a BA in Accounting and Finance and couldn’t even balance my chequebook on the best of days. Talk about a mismatch! I never did pass my Cost Accountancy exam so it was just as well that I got a paid pensionable permanent position with the Bank. I was later drawn back to school to take a Certificate in Public Relations and then another in Counselling and Communications. Clear career paths have always evaded me.

For want of something better to do one winter in Valdez, Alaska, I signed up for an Associate’s Degree in Office Management Technology – a piece of paper that says, in an nutshell, that I, too, can type. Going to school in the evening became such a part of my life that I signed up to do a Certificate in Safety Management. Fast forward a couple of years and yet another career change and you’d have found me at Oxford Brookes doing an MA in International Publishing. And that still wasn’t enough. I’m now getting ready to start my dissertation for an MA in Contemporary Diplomacy.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally lectured (in Safety Management and in CSR) and have found that the best and most engaged students are mature students – those students who are in the classroom by choice and not because their parents sent them there. Education is addictive. Study is addictive. Homework and assignments are also addictive. But only perhaps when you choose them.

As I write, I’m on break from a workshop in Malta on Modern Diplomacy for Small States. Today, the 21 course participants from Commonwealth Countries are giving short introductory presentations about their countries and the challenges they face. And it’s fascinating. They’re all here for 10 days and each one of them is eager to learn, actively sharing their experiences, and ready to benefit from the best practices of others. They’re here out of choice.

I wonder, as I’ve wondered before, if students had to work for a year before going to University, would it make a difference? If they had to work for three years before taking a post-graduate degree, would it make a difference? It seems as if the litany of degress is moving with the tide. Back when I did my Leaving Cert, that was all you needed to get a job. Then you needed a BA. Then you needed an MA. Prettymuch now, you need a PHD or an MBA. Has the joy gone out of education? Has it become a means to an end?

Grateful 42

It’s been a long week and so many things happened to be grateful for. The success of the Gift of the Gab  and the money that was raised for the orphanage. The wonderful rendition of Marie Jones Stones in his pockets by the boys from Madhouse. The fantastic turnout for the St Patrick’s Day parade, a day that culminated in the Gala Dinner. It all wrapped up with the Irish Film Festival’s showing of the Irish SciFi 100 mornings. I had two friends in for the week and saw many’s the sunrise over the course of those few days, staying up till the wee hours sitting around my kitchen table putting the world to rights over a pot of tea and a few cosmopolitans. And for all the friendship and the craic, I am grateful indeed.

But what struck me most over the past week, a week where the Irish were out en masse and the masses were on form, is the sheer versatility of the English language – when it’s in our hands!

The English language brings out the best in the Irish. They court it like a beautiful woman. They make it bray with donkey laughter. They hurl it at the sky like a paint pot full of rainbows, and then make it chant a dirge for man’s fate and man’s follies that is as mournful as misty spring rain crying over the fallow earth. ~ T E Kalem – On Brendan Behan’s 1958 play Borstal Boy, quoted in a Time advertisement, NY Times 17 Mar 1979

There were some classics:
On nervousness: It’s not as if we’re putting hearts in babies – or taking them out! On preaching: You’re not on your high horse now; you’re just on a tall donkey! On Lent: I can’t have sex – it’s lent. Okay so. Let me know when you get it back. On death: He’d gotten very small but he looked very well in the coffin.
On fashion: Sure their skirts are higher than their handbags.
On drink: The weakness in me is very strong.
On meanness: He’d mind mice at a crossroads.
On inquistiveness: She asked it all – breed, creed, and generation.
On beauty: She had calves only a cow could love.
On nerve: He’s not at all backward in coming forward.
On weight: She’s the full of his arms of Irish love.

Note to self: start carrying a notebook.