Something old, something new

One of the many things that make Berlin interesting is the juxtaposition of old and new. Streets in the city are lined with alternate old and new to the point where you can’t help but marvel at the sheer randomness of destruction. I can only imagine that bombs were dropped and buildings razed and then, in the post war years, a more modern ediface rose from the ashes.

The apparently seamless flow of one building to the next made me think of how adaptable we all are. Imagine a whole building being wiped out and a new one put in its place, both joined at the hip. Completely different styles yet both functional, both serving a purpose. Old and new.

If looking for the silver lining in this particular clouded history, rebuilding a city provides the opportunity to be visionary. Or revisionary. Berlin is still being built. It’s a city under construction and they’re doing an interesting job. Given the choice between old and new, I’d plumb for the old anyday. I’m rarely impressed with modern architecture and yet in Berlin it seems both stylish and tasteful. Funny how those two adjectives would not  have come to mind last week, if and when I ever spent time thinking about the city.

Which way is east?

Before last week, what I knew about Berlin would have fit on the back of a milk carton. Think Berlin – think the wall. Visiting the wall (or what’s left of it) has been on my list of things to do since I first read a John Le Carré novel. The boundary between east and west has fascinated me – and the thought of two such diverse ways of life living in the shadow of the same wall is hard to imagine.

First built during the night of 13 August 1961, the wall was regenerated four times. The second wall was built in June 1962 and the first renovated to make it even more difficult to breach. The third generation appeared in 1965 – a more advanced structure with concrete slabs between steel girders. The final iteration came ten years later in 1975. Some basic facts: In its heyday, the wall boasted 302 watch towers and stood  3.6m (11.81 ft.) high. 96 miles (155 km) long, the border between East and West Berlin stretched for 27 miles (43.1 km).  Today, a 300 m section has been retained and around the city, sections have been used as a canvas and stand as living testimony to a division that is now a but a memory.

There is one stretch near Potsdam Platz where you can walk along the foundation. A line of bricks shows where the wall once stood. Straddling this line, and looking right and left it’s impossible to discern a difference in the two landscapes. I was thoroughly confused for most of the weekend – and never more so than when we were at Checkpoint Charlie. I am convinced that the sign is back to front.Either that, or my sense of direction and ability to read a map are both a lot worse than I’d ever imagined.

Standing in front of this sign, I had my back to Alexander Platz, which is firmly rooted in the former East Berlin. So how is it possible that I could be leaving the American sector? It did my head in. But not enough to distract me from the reality of what happened and the numbers of people who died trying to escape to the west.

Grateful 32

I was in Ireland last weekend for a First Communion. My nephew’s. The style was something to behold. Young girls dressed up to the nines, complete with parasols. Young lads in three-piece suits and flash ties, hands in pockets, doing great imitations of their dads. Mums in high heels, calves stretching under the strain. Dads in the open-necked casual Miami Vice look. A regular fashion show in which the First Communion took a meagre second place.

I’ve been told that I’m a ‘pick’n’mix’ Catholic – one who chooses which part of Roman Catholicism suits me – and which I’d sooner leave alone. I don’t agree with the Church’s stance on homosexuality. I don’t think that a Church, which was ultimately fashioned by man, should be so exclusive. My God doesn’t pick and choose who should be let in. I have similar problems with the Vatican having so much money when its people around the world are wondering where their next meal comes from. My God encourages sharing of wealth rather than hording. I am a practising Catholic insofar as I go to Mass every Sunday and on the few holy days that haven’t been moved to Sundays for the general convenience of a busy public. It doesn’t matter than I don’t understand the sermon – I know the prayers by heart – and it’s a rare priest these days that has something to say worth listening to. But my week is simply not the same if I miss Mass.

In the church, the kids were very well behaved. It was their big day. It was the parents who showed a complete lack of reverance, treating the occasion like a family reunion. In the line to receive Communion, two dads were laughing out loud discussing at full volume whether hands should go right over left or left over right. Then one said with some authority: right over left because everyone knows that Jesus was left-handed – it’s written in the bible. No silence. No solemnity. No sacrament. No clue what was going on. Most probably hadn’t been in a church since they were married.

My parents say the rosary every night. When I’m home, I say it, too. And I know that I am the last of that particular generation. I’ve been brought up in the Catholic church with a set a principles and values that have been instilled in me over the years – not by lecture but by example. Some I never really owned; others are very much a part of who I am.

This week, I am grateful for how my parents reared me – for their example, their respect, and their unfailing faith in God and in me.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

A tale of two cities

It seemed as if there were two cities. One that I could touch and feel. Another that I only caught the occasional glimpse of. A vision slightly distorted, hovering at the corner of my eye. Blink and it was gone. But soon, it was that secondary image I was looking for, the one reflected in the walls of glass that testify to the newness of this city. To its regeneration.

Pictures within pictures. Images divided randomly by lines that already exist creating even more variations, so that after a while I began to wonder which was real. They were everywhere. Clear skies and sunshine turned sheaths of glass into placid pools of aqua blue water onto which reality superimposed itself. It’s something I’ve noticed before but I’ve never seen so much of it. And it felt slighly surreal. But then Berlin itself is slightly surreal.









A splash of colour

Berlin never struck me as city that would be particularly colourful. When I think of colour and cities in the same sentence, I think of Barcelona and Gaudi; or Subotica and its art nouveau; or even Budapest with its great green and gold rooftops. But not Berlin. Yet even though it has its fair share of graffiti, it is awash with colourful murals that reflect the diverisity of its citizens and the creativity of its artists.

Blank walls have become canvases and the streets an open air gallery. Travelling by the S5 out to Charlottenburg is particularly colourful with lots of interesting murals of a more political bent. Others are more cute than chiq and others still a bleak commentary on city living. Some trace the history of the city while others exist seemingly to mask its grime. Most are interesting though.

Grateful 33

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. So said Robert Louis Stevenson light years ago and methinks the man has a point. I like to drive. My hand is first up when volunteers are sought to drive from A to B. I have fond memories of driving over 300 miles to play 36 holes of golf while living in Valdez, Alaska. When I’m in Ireland and have access to a car, I’d happily spend the time chauffeuring just about anyone. No reason necessary. I had high ambitions as a teen to be a long-distance trucker and crossing the States on Route 66 is on my bucket list.

I like to travel by train.  I can get up, move around, choose whether or not to engage in conversation. Looking out the window is like watching a giant movie screen – no better example of life imitating art. I like to travel by plane, too, and would like it even more if it wasn’t for the baggage-related angst and the heightened sense of loneliness that occasionaly hits when it seems that everyone else is being met off the plane but me.

I wonder though, if the best bit about travel is coming home. Putting my key in the front door. Dumping my bags. Hoping the fridge fairy has been to stock up. Checking on my girls and being glad that they’re all still alive. Making a cuppa. And looking forward to getting between the sheets of my bed.

This week, as so many people the world over face another night on a cardboard mattress wondering when and if they’ll see another cup of coffee,  I give silent and fervent thanks for having some place to come home to. I realise that home is a state of mind  and that part of me still qualifies Ireland as ‘home home’… yet this is serious: I’m actually thinking of a Hungarian Christmas tree this year (and it’s only May!)

(Note: to read the concept behind the Grateful Series – check out Grateful 52)

Creativity and insipid turnips

I saw something most peculiar today on my way back from the post office. A man on a bike, cycling along Üllői út, wearing a helmet. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, I hear you say. But bear with me. Pinned beneath the straps of his helmet was his mobile phone. The phone itself – not a hands-free device or a sophisticated ear piece, but the actual mobile phone. How inventive!

I can hear a collective sigh (or even two) at the thoughts of where this might be leading but relax! I’m not going to get on my soapbox about cyclists and the dangers that their inconsiderate behaviour poses to pedestrians. Neither am I going to get on my soapbox about social media and our increasingly dangerous need to be connected to the world 24/7. Instead, I want to talk about creativity. In particular, the creative ways in which governments attempt to extract money from the masses. I’d have thought that in a country with an average monthly take-home wage that varies between HUF 180.000 (€660) and HUF 250.000 (€880) depending on what you read, and a retirement pension of about HUF 50.000 (€175; again depending on what you read) this would be akin to extracting blood from a particularly insipid turnip, but the creativity employed never ceases to amaze me.

It’s a dog’s life

Take for instance the dog tax that local municipalities may impose tax on dog owners. The tax (ebrendeszeti hozzajarulas) is HUF 6.000 per annum for ‘normal’ dogs and HUF 20.000 per annum for ‘dangerous’ dogs. I have a surreal vision of a dog psychiatrist showing ink blots to a dalmation and charting the barks. Neutered dogs and those with electronic identification chips implanted are exempt from tax. And, the one-dog-per-household rule means that one dog can be kept tax-free. And dogs adopted from shelters are exempt from the tax. So by that logic I can keep ten dogs tax-free if they came from the shelter. I wonder how long it will be before dogs are left at the shelter on Monday and then ‘rescued’ on Tuesday. I also heard a rumour that the nine traditional Hungarian breeds are exempt as well but surely that sort of racial discrimination is against some EU rule or other?

The fat-free road

Then there’s the chips tax – HUF 200 (EUR 0.65) per kilogram for
products with salt content of over one per cent. Have you see the price of potato chips lately? Those in the country living with a poetic sense of community responsibility can take heart, knowing that as they crunch their way through a bag of chips, they are contibuting to keeping the economy afloat. Surely this is incentive enough for people to cast their health concerns aside and gobble up those calories. Where would the country be were we all to monitor our salt intake, scrimp on sugar, and head down the fat-free road to penury.

 It pays to be prepared

Just last month, the new traffic fines kicked in. Driving without a licence now attracts an on-the-spot fine of HUF 50.000 (€175) and if you don’t have that sort of cash on you (credit cards not yet accepted by the boys in blue), then the fine will triple! Yes, triple!  If you’re contemplating violating a smog alert, then be sure to have an extra HUF 40.000 (EUR 139) in your wallet just in case you’re caught. And, perhaps the strangest of all, if you’re one of those drivers who dares to keep an illegal blue light in your car, then that particular perversion will cost you a hefty HUF 30.000 (€103). The mind boggles. Who has that sort of spare dosh to carry around… just in case?

Limit your talk time

With a hozzáadottérték-adó rate of 27%, the turnip is already being squeezed beyond recognition. So what’s with the new 2 forint per minute levy on telephone calls? Granted I can talk for 10 minutes each month before the levy kicks in and if I talk for more than 350 minutes per month, then the rest will be levy-free. Twitter has already condensed our talk time to 140 characters. Maybe this levy will see us texting more and talking less. This is in addition the 0.1% tax on financial transactions. Can it be true?  Am to I be taxed on using my phone AND taxed on paying the bill?

I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous line: We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle. Now, there’s an image that would make me smile, if I wasn’t afraid that my smile might be taxed.

 First published in the Budapest Times 18 May 2012

Bedroom: Booze and babes

I finally succumbed. After much hmmming and hawing I gave in. I saw this original Marcus Goldson painting at an exhibition last week and it literally screamed at me, begging me to buy it. I thought of my flat and wondered where I could possibly put it. Now that I’m one of the landed gentry (and modest to boot), I can’t just be taking any old thing home with me – it has to have a place; it has to fit in; and it has to be strong enough to speak for itself.

Therein lay the problem. The only space available that would suit was my bedroom wall. I’d have to demote the existing photo to the living room and put this in its place. That wouldn’t be too hard. But, in Feng Shui terms, that part of my flat is also my heart centre – a place where everything should be in pairs. Well, these two women are a pair, but they’re two women. I doubt very much if I’m about to cross over – never say never of course – but I figured that were I so inclined, it would have happened by now. So my question was whether I’d be consigning myself to spinsterhood if I hung this painting on that particular wall.

I took advice. I did. (Sincere apologies to those of you who up ’til now believed me to be a woman of sense!) I sent a photo to my Feng Shui woman and asked the question. As I suspected: not ideal for a bedroom. But then you wouldn’t know my bedroom was a bedroom until you stepped inside – you can’t see the bed from the living room and I keep the doors open so it would get full viewing. And it deserves an audience. She suggested I try it there and if it didn’t work, I could move it. Trouble is, it’s there or nowhere. And buying an original piece is not like buying a poster.

So I hmmmed and hawed some more and asked some others for their opinion. It was unanimous – not an ideal place. But the painting spoke to me. It spoke to me of friendships – of that closeness between women that sees us through the trials and tribulations of life. That closeness that allows us to be both bitches and best mates, our inner selves laid bare, sans makeup, sans accessories.

And these two women are real. And they went to this pub on Puskin utca in District VIII in their nighties. How I wish I’d known them. The more I looked, the more I saw me and my mate Lori. Or any one of the wonderful whacky women I know who keep me sane. And I knew I had to take it home – to hell with the consequences, the expense, and spinsterhood.

It arrived today.On a bicycle. A good omen.

The detail. The drip. The bread and dripping. The beer. The fags. The palinka. It was two and a half months in the making. The more I see, the more certain I am that it was meant for me. Back in the far recesses of my mind there is a thought that buying original artwork is a symptom of maturity. Maybe this painting heralds the start of the next chapter in my life, a chapter full of  joy found in simple pleasures; a chapter replete with laughter and enduring friendship; a chapter where unconditional love and acceptance features prominently. Let the journey begin.

Put your inner magpie to good use

I’ve been trying for a while now to inviegle the masses (you) to collect your soaps and shampoos as you wander the globe staying in one hotel after the other. You (or your company) has already paid a hefty price for the room and methinks that the soaps, etc., are included in this price. A fair logic, no?

Add this to the fact that each of us has a little magpie in us – that fleeting thought that says – oh, I might need that when I next go camping or I could use those for my guests. We drop a couple of the unopened bottles in our toilet bag and then hoard them at home – never used.

When I was in Alaska I collected these miniatures and then donated them to a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. It’s not too difficult to imagine that when your life is upside down, when you’ve had to flee your home for fear of your life, when the man (or woman) you once loved and trusted is beating you senseless – then something as seemingly insignificant as a bag with your very own soap and shampoo can make a difference.

When I was in Chichester I did it, too. It took a while but at the height of the travel season, I was sending bags of toiletries to the various shelters around town. The staff had the kids make gift baskets for their mums on Mothers Day. All it took was a little coordination. I’ve found a shelter here in Budapest that caters for homeless families and I’d like to start the same again. Collect those soaps and shampoos and give them to me personally or drop them off at Jack Doyle’s or the Caledonia with my name on them.

I was reminded, yet again, of the importance of acting on the little things when I read a recent post on the Clearing Customs blog. It recounts the story of Ugandan Derreck Kayongo and his experience when he first stayed in an American hotel in the 1990s. He noticed that his partially used bar of soap was replaced every day – the old bits thrown out and a new one put in its place. The son of a former soap maker in Uganda, he decided to right this wrong – to turn this act of wantoness into something good. He founded the Global Soap Project. Over 600 hotels across the USA donate their partially used soap which is then reprocessed into new bars and distributed to 21 countries, including Haiti, Kenya, South Sudan, Guatemala, and Afghanistan.

Soap, I hear you say. Why soap?

According to the Global Soap Project, many places in the world today have the same problem. Their ”Soap Facts” page gives the following information:

  • 1.4 million deaths can be prevented each year by handwashing with soap
  • Children under 5 who wash with soap can reduce their risk of pneumonia by 50%
  • 1/3 of the world’s soap is used by the U.S
  • 7 million children have died due to disease that could have been prevented with proper hygiene since 2009
  • 2.6 million bars of soap are discarded daily by the hotel industry in the U.S. alone

My project isn’t nearly as ambitious. But if your hotel soaps and shampoos can make even the smallest difference in someone’s life – isn’t it worth the hassle to collect and deliver?

Grateful 34

Mention Six degrees of separation and many of us will think Kevin Bacon and his claim that he has worked with everyone in Hollywood. The game,  Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, is based on the hypothesis that anyone, anywhere, can find a connection with another person through a chain of acquaintances with no more than five links. Few people realise though, that this idea was first proposed back in in 1929 by Hungarian writer, Karinthy Frigyes. In his short story Láncszemek (Chains), one of the characters suggests conducting an experiment in the form of a game to prove that the notion is  true. Revitalised by the Kevin Bacon Game, this notion of six degrees of separation has led to other interesting studies such as one in 2008 dealing with artists in residence in Budapest and the Balaton. Another spin-off is the ABC programme The Karinthy Connection.

I was asked recently how I knew someone and as I traced back the connection (which reads something like: Pat knew Paul who knew Peter who married Paula who worked with Patricia who live in the flat downstairs), I stopped to think of the many good friendships I have today that have their origins in random chance. I’m going to dinner tonight with P&B, good friends of mine here in Budapest. I met P because M suggested I might be able to help him out with a project. I met M because K suggested we should have a coffee (we’re both Irish). I met K because E wanted a second opinion on a project. I met E because I happened to sit beside B in a pub one day in Budapest.  And I was in Budapest that particular time because of J.

When I think of the myriad tiny, seemingly insignificant things I’ve done, and how they’ve affected my life, it makes me wonder  for instance, what, life would be like today had I not made that trip to Budapest. Where would I be now? What would I be doing? Who would I be with? One thing’s for certain, I wouldn’t be going to dinner this evening at P&B’s.

At the end of what’s been a rather hectic week work-wise, one with lots of challenges, opportunities, and appointments, I am grateful that, back in 2007,  I took the time to say ‘hello’ to J. Who would have thought that it would lead where it’s led.

[Note: Curious to know the origins of the Grateful series? See Grateful 52]