Grateful 27

I have what borders on a mild phobia when it comes to having my photo taken. Fine if I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat – suitably disguised – but if I’m remotely recognisable, no way. Now, depending on which way you look at it, this could be indicative of a general unhappiness with how I look. It could allude to a deepseated belief that being photographed robs my soul of some light (and might explain also why I rarely photograph people). Or it could simply be that I’m contrary and if this is the most extreme example of my contariness, then live with it, people – you’re getting off lightly.

I find myself avoiding large events where photographers are present. If I am there and see an official photographer, I make sure to tell them that I’d rather my photo wasn’t taken. I joke that I’m in the witness protection programme and can’t risk being identified. Many photos taken of me at parties and events show my hand, outstretched in front of my face – like a celebrity fending off the paparatzi. Do I suffer from delusions of grandeur?

Many, many years ago, my cousin was visiting from the UK with some mates. At dinner at home, one of his friends asked who the girl  in the photo on the piano was. When my mother told them it was me, they all looked at me in disbelief. The photo did not match reality. Later, when I was in Anchorage and my passport expired, I needed a new photo. The photographer stood up on a chair and looked down on me, telling me to stick out my chin so that only one of them would show. I did and that photo, too, didn’t match reality.

That I am extremely critical of my appearance, there is little doubt. That I have an image of how I should look I can’t deny. But am I prepared to do something to manifest that image? No way. And I can’t for the life of me understand it. I want to get there. I know what I need to do to get there. But, no. Where is Freud when I need him?

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes to photos of me, be they self-portraits or otherwise, I prefer black and white to colour. I can’t explain it – but I could have fun trying.

This week,  I am grateful that I am still fascinated by how I think and by what I do and by why I do it; that I have not lost my penchant for flights of fancy; and that some of the most interesting conversations I have are those I have with myself.

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

Life and death on the Tisza

‘It’s started. They’re flowering. Catch the next train to Subotica and someone will meet you at the station.’ I’d been waiting for this particular phone call for twelve months and when it came, I was ready. I was going to see something miraculous – the tiszavirág (or as it’s known in Serbia, tiski cvet).

Every year, for a day or two in June, a particular species of mayfly hatches on the Tisza River in what is known as tiszavirág (the Tisza blooming). The species, Polingenia longicauda, spends three years underwater, coming to the surface to frenetically hatch and mate for about two hours before dying. Its short life is dedicated totally to reproduction. Watching these flies mate in mid-air, the male’s long legs wrapped around the female, is quite something. There is no time for niceties. It’s a case of now or never with gangs of males chasing down a lone female. Some of the more eager males lie in wait on top of the female who has yet to shed her skin.

Clouds of them hover above the water, more cover the trunks of the riverbank trees, others gather on the drift wood – each trying to shed its cocoon and get down to the business of mating. So frantic are they in their race against time that I want to reach out and help the process. But I remember what I’d learned in Kruger, South Africa – do not interfere with nature. Instead, I stand, riveted, watching the brightly coloured insects gradually emerge from a diaphonous white coocon. One lands on my knee and there, oblivious to me and to the feel of cotton, he  goes about  his business. I am mesmerized and for the first time in my life, I have some small insight into what it might be like for a father to watch the birth of his child.

A flight of fancy

We take a skiff up the river and seem to fly with them – hundreds and thousands of them. Fishermen are out with their nets; this particular fly is liked by all species of fish, so it makes good bait. Given that the flies live just for two hours above water, it seems a little heartless to cut their short life even shorter and I feel some irrational degree of resentment at this display of what I perceive as human insensitivity. Surely the fishermen could wait a little. Photographers with their zoom lenses get up close and personal and I briefly wonder whether this counts as voyeurism. Waiting three years to mate and then having it all immortalised on film to be screened around the world as soon as the images are uploaded to the Internet? A little too close to the human condition for comfort. It’s hot. I know I am getting a little ridiculous, a little too fanciful, so I sit for a while on some driftwood and reflect on what exactly is bothering me.

Which life?

To spend three years underwater and then to surface for just two hours begs the question: which part consistutes life? Is what goes on underwater the mayfly’s version of living, and the ritual that goes on above water, its version of dying? The female mayfly lays her eggs on the surface of the water. After about 45 days, the eggs drift to the bottom of the river and hatch into larvae. The larvae then dig tunnels into the riverbed and stay put for three years after which they surface. The females shed once; the males twice: they first have a very brief ‘teenage’ stage and then in a matter of minutes, turn into adults. While the entire mating period lasts for about two days, each mayfly lives for about two hours. To see the process of death and regeneration in action simultaneously, is quite the experience. Like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, I wonder if the the tiszavirág are mentally prepared to die?

Changing times

Locals recall times 50 years ago when you couldn’t see the other side of the Tisza for the 2-meter-high wall of insects swarming over the water. Sadly, this is no longer the case. I catch the action on Sunday evening; the previous evening, there had been a lot more to see. Like every other miracle in this world of ours, this one, too, seems to be waning. Yes, there are people watching but nothing like the crowds that I’d expected. I wonder briefly whether we have we lost our ability to marvel at what is natural? Has technology replaced nature as our chief source of wonder? Are we now immune to the simplest pleasures in life, spoiled as we are with great discoveries and scientific advancement?

The simple mayfly could teach us a lot about life and how fragile, fleeting, and fascinating it really is.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 June 2012

No Bosnians in Bosnia

I met a woman once who had survived the concentration camps. I was in awe of her. She was old and frail, but feisty. It was hard for me to imagine such atrocities, just as it is hard for me to imagine what it was like living in Belgrade during the NATO bombings or in Sarajevo during the siege. And yet I now know people who did live in these places and they’re my age, give or take a few years.They talk of playing basketball while the bombs fell. They talk of making sure their families we safe in the shelters and then going to sit with friends in a café, determined not to give in. They talk of doing their damnedest to continue to live life as usual.

And while all this was going on, I was in Ireland, or America, living in blissful ignorance. TEM went to Bosnia with the UN so the war touched me briefly. He is remarkably reticent about his time there yet I know the friendships he formed are deeper than most. A shared experience will do that for you. He tells a story about the Irish lads being particular about how their meat was cut. One of them, the son of a butcher, showed one of the locals how to cut steaks to satisfy the Irish and their peculiarities. A friendship of sorts ensued and some time later, when their barracks was blown up, the Irish boys had been forewarned.

I didn’t know what to expect in Sarajevo and yet somehow all those unspoken expectations were met. The road into town from the airport, known to many back in the day as Sniper Alley, is bordered by tall block towers showing the scars of war. It was sobering. I don’t for one minute pretend to understand what went on or why it all had to happen. Much as I love the Balkans and enjoy the people, they remain unfathomable and all the more wonderful for that. I was in Sarajevo for a workshop where the concept of all-inclusiveness is something yet to be realised. The Balkans might be a region, but the players in the region still find it hard to sit at the same table. Growing up in Ireland, in a predominantly white, Catholic environment, I can’t begin to understand it all. Somehow, the IRA and the troubles in Northern Ireland seem quite different.

In the centre of the city, there are visible sides of the efforts being made to put the past behind. Buildings are being renovated. Bullet holes are filled in and plastered over, waiting for a new coat of paint. If only it were as easy to renovate people and their attitudes. There are large numbers of Muslim Turks studying at the three universities, opting to live in a country where as women they can openly wear signs of their religion. There is a Serbian quarter, too, complete with cyrillic signs. But there are no Bosnians.  ‘Under the post-war Constitution, constituent people citizens are identified as Bosniaks (known during the war as Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs. There is no space for Bosnia’s minorities’, or so says a Refworld report published in April this year.

On another forage through the web in a vain attempt to sort out the mess that Sarajevo has left in my mind, I came across this quote by an American painter LG Hornby (Balkan Sketches: An Artist’s Wanderings in the Kingdom of the Serbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153) who arrived in Sarajevo in 1925.

Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot. Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.

And again I wonder at the price of progress.

There is a beauty to Sarajevo that is found in the mix of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. Despite its scars, it is has an innate beauty  that speaks of tenacity and perseverance. In just two days, it burrowed its way into my heart and left a lasting impression on my soul. I’ll be going back – this time for longer.

Bees: Bonnets and Belgrade

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I have a big head. It rarely bothers me except when I get the urge to buy a hat. The average head size for a woman is 56 – and I’m a 60. Couple that to having to wear glasses and it’s rare indeed that I find a hat that a) suits me and b) I like.

In Belgrade this week, walking down Balkan street, I passed a hat shop. Actually, I passed four shops with hats in their windows, two of which were devoted exclusively to hats. I went into one. And it turned out the be the oldest hat shop in the city. It’s been in the Andelković family for three generations and has been operating since the early 1950s.

Most of the hats are made these days by Veljko Andelković and it’s obvious that the millinery skill has been passed down from father to son. The summer collection is cute, light, and colourful. And he caters for big heads like mine.

I spent a lovely half-hour with Ivana trying on various styles, shapes, and colours and came away with not one, but two. I’m already looking forward to the Fall collection and as for winter…

With so much of what’s on our shelves today originating in China, it’s a pleasure to walk into a shop that has been in operation for 60 years, is being handed down through generations, and doesn’t have the need to advertise: there’s no name on the door. It’s simply the hat shop. And I’d edit that last sentence to add emphasis… it’s the hat shop in Belgrade. And if you’re curious, šešir is the Serbian for hat.

Address: 36 Balkan street. Open Monday to Friday 8-8, Saturday till 4 and closed Sunday.

Now, once you’ve bought a red car, every car you see is red. Same goes for hat shops. Since I went in to the first one, I’ve been tripping over them. MVK took me to another one today to buy a hat for the Derby… this one has been in business for 20 years and yes, their hats are all handmade, too. Mine is  one-of-a-kind – an experiment of sorts. Mam, dad and daughter run the show and dad suggested I needed a more glamourous dress for the hat I eventually bought. The cheek! Am impressed, though, with the hive of activity in Belgrade and the sheer choice of locally made products.Who’d have thought it eh?

Vesna – the fancy hat shop, Kraljvica Marka 13, Belgrade

Grateful 28

Yuk. Raw fish! How could you? Back in the days when I was living in Valdez, Alaska, I would fly to Anchorage for meetings and dental appointments. I’d fly up in the morning, rent a car, and fly back that evening. Inevitably, I’d have a shopping list that included tuna fish – to make sushi. One of my first dates with TW,  the man with an insatiable appetite for sushi, was to a chinese restaurant in Valdez that also did…sushi. I still remember my reaction. Yuk. Raw fish! How could you?As for the perfumed ginger and the gullet-wrenching wasabi sauce…

When I worked with AP in London, she would always eat sushi before a flight. And once, again in London, I found myself with a Polish couple making sushi for a dinner party. I didn’t stay to eat. I’ve never understood the fascination with it.

Yet the art of sushi (and I now believe it is an art) dates back to the 7th century, when in Southeast Asia, pickling was discovered and passed on to the Japanese. In a nutshell: pickling=packing fish with rice. As the fish fermented the rice produced a lactic acid which in turn caused the pickling of the pressed fish. Nare-Sushi is 1300 years old and refers to the finished edible product resulting from this early method.

It found a new popularity in the States in the 1970s and became a regular feature in restaurants world-wide. The most common forms are: Nigiri sushi (hand shaped sushi), Oshi-sushi (pressed sushi), Maki-Sushi (rolled sushi) and Chirashi-sushi (scattered sushi).

Last time I was in Malta, I noticed that there are now three restaurants within walking distance of my hotel offering sushi on the menu. So I went to the first – the one that has been there the longest. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and asked the girl behind me in the queue to choose for me. She did. And I stopped by for a takeaway every night that week.

In addition to really enjoying it, I also convinced myself that it was low-fat and healthy and that the weight would simple drop off me. I was wrong there. But as food goes, it is good for you. There are, of course, health risks and there is also a whole etiquette attached to eating sushi. I reckon that, like wine, some aficionados can be awful bores. Me? I simply know what I like.

I spent the last week in Belgrade where it got up to 40 degrees in the shade. I went back to visit the Supermarket and had a great night out with the ladies… oiled by Aperol spritzers and sated by sushi.

On reflection, this week I’m grateful that life is still throwing up new experiences; that I still haven’t done ‘everything’; and that my horizons are continually expanding. I have a good life, I know some great people, and while I might have come to the whole sushi experience rather late in life, I know there are many more new experiences out there just waiting to be savoured.

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

Johnny Valiant

Three hundred and seventy verses, 1480 lines, make for one hell of a long poem. But I read them all, cover to cover, the first time I picked up a copy of Petőfi Sándor’s book János Vitéz (John the Valiant) or, as I’ve christened him, Johnny Valiant. I did the same the second time, and the third time, and the fourth time. What’s more, remembering back to 2007, I think everyone on my Christmas list got a copy of John Ridland’s 2004 translation.

It’s a marvellous tale of love and loss, of bravery and courage, of tenacity and faith, of loyalty and belief. A tale where the shepherd boy turns down a French throne and instead returns to his sweetheart. ‘Tis the stuff that magic is made of. And it simply goes on and on and on. In his foreword to this particular edition, George Szirtes says:

As  children, we raced through Petőfi’s poem, exhilarated by its pace, enraptured by its heroism, sharing its jokes, scarcely believing its tragedies.

Although nature’s current depiction of me is hardly childlike, once I picked up this poem, I was twelve again. Catapulted back in time, I was just beginning to notice boys and lose myself in the innocent romance between Laura and Almonzo (Manley) on the Little House of the Prairie.

Ráckeve Cemetery Johnny Valiant

To discover as I walked the cemetery of Ráckeve last weekend, that Petőfi had based my Johnny Valiant on a real person, came as quite a surprise.  If Hórvath János (1774-1848) was even half the man that my Johnny was, he’d win a place on the list of dead people I’d invite to dinner. Judging by the medals and honors cited on his gravestone, Hórvath was no coward. I wonder though if he had a sweetheart …

Ráckeve Cemetery Johnny ValiantBeautifully in keeping with Petőfi’s folksy style, the sign pointing the way to Hórvath’s grave deserves a place in the Tate Modern. A broom handle, topped with a radiator cap, holds tight to a simple board with a strip of metal edging held together with four nails, each painted in white, tied off with the requisite red, white and green ribbon. A lovely touch.

Each year, in the town of Ráckeve, on János Viték Napok,  locals commemorate this great work by acting out selected parts. This year, I just missed it (2/3 June). Next year, it’s already fixed in my calendar.

This poem begs to be read aloud. If you have kids, so much the better. But if not, while sitting at home one evening with a postprandial digestif of your choice, I challenge you to pick it up and keep silent. It’s impossible.

Back in the Balkans

Get the phone call – revise the route – hop on a train – and enjoy the best of Serbian hospitality. Just another Sunday in my world. I’d planned to go to Belgrade anyway, so this diversion wasn’t too much out of my way.

12.35 arrive in Subotica 12.50. Find my pick-up – friends of a friend whom I’ve never met before.13.10 stop at the goat lady to buy some cheese.

The sprightly 63-year-old retired locksmith has about 40 goats and lives in a house she built herself. Her account of a run-in with the local authorities over the rights to the grass at the airport was so animated that I didn’t need to understand Serbian to get her drift and be suitably amazed and entertained. I can only home that I’m in as fine a fettle when I get to her age. 14.00 arrive at  Palić to the No. 36 to meet my friend and the rest of the crew and to sample some grapefruit beer (a first for me). 15:15 depart for Paprika čarda, a restaurant on the shore of Palić lake.

At some stage, we passed the Olympic tower. I’ve been to Palić before but hadn’t realised the story behind it.  In the late nineteenth century,  before Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympic Games took full flight, local entrepreneur Lajos Vermes organised sports competitions in Palić, gathering the best athletes from Central Europe. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Lunch had been ordered ahead of time as our party had now grown to nine. The most fluent in non-native speaker of English by far was 12-year-old Makarije, who wowed me with his plans to enter the world of stem cell research as soon as he turned university age. When I asked where he had learned his English – he shrugged nonchalantly and said:  Television. Perhaps it’s time I invest in one!

Our menu was simple: fish and chips to start with, followed by fish soup. A little arse-about-face, I thought… but when in Serbia do as the Serbs do. And I was starving. Mention fish and chips and I am transported to an Irish chipper  and greasy chips with cod in batter or perhaps to the more refined Cajun-style offer now available in Budapest, so I wasn’t expecting the communal platter of breaded whitebait. As we picked our way through the mouthfuls of fish, conversation flitted from Hungarian and Serbian politics to the joys (or lack thereof) of school inspection systems, from what we could expect later on the Tisza to the neutrality of the Press. We covered sailing in Montenegro, the cyclical nature of life, nationalism, citizen engagement and the sublime joy of food, wine, and travel. The patience of those present with my lack of Serbian and their willingness to involve me in the conversation was lovely. My Balkan affair was renewed and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live by a lake.

The fish soup was sweet and tasty and served with noodles. Not a bone in sight.  Chunks of fresh, fleshy fish floated in good company with balls of fish eggs. I had not one, but two helpings, and had I had more time and notches in my belt, I could willingly have gone back for more. Another first for me as fish soup isn’t high on my list of culinary delights.

The view from the table was calm and serene. The weather was a little hot but the crisp local white wine mixed with gentle splashings of soda water made it easier to assimilate. It was a gorgeous afternoon. As we readied ourselves for the evening and our visit  to the Tisza River to watch the mayflies mating, I was reminded once again of how travel has broadened my horizons and how casual conversations and serendipitous introductions can herald the beginning of lasting friendships. Thanks, MM.

Live ducklings and rosary beads

I’m a great fan of markets. I love sorting through other people’s junk in search of a piece of history or something that I can convince myself I simply cannot live without. I like to see other people’s creativity and inventiveness. And I’m fascinated by fresh fruit and veg. (On reflection, perhaps I need to get a life…my own life!) Down in Ráckeve this weekend, the town was buzzing around the riverside market that happens twice a week – Wednesday and Saturdays. Most markets this side of the world have a certain sameness – fruit, veg, preserves, Chinese or Turkish tat, second-hand clothes from the UK and the occasional original painting or handicraft. I’d never come across baby ducks or live chicks before.

Ráckeve ducklings

Ráckeve marketPerhaps though, being on the banks of the Danube makes this market seem a little less tat-like and a little more real. It’s a working market. I was the only tourist in sight – if I don’t count the five German lads who had come to look at the watermill. The regulars had their baskets out and were doing their bi-weekly shop. Everyone seemed to know everyone (not surprising perhaps in a town of 9000 people). The feel of the place was unlike the busier markets I’ve been to in Budapest (probably the one that comes closest is the one in Hyunadi tér).

Ráckeve market

Within the shadow of the Calvinist church, and nestled between a cheese stall and one selling ham hocks, was this one selling rosary beads. Not the old-fashioned beads that the old man in Ecseri sells – the ones that come with a story, a price, and a hook that had once clipped on to the belt of a brown-robed monk. These were new. New plastic for new Catholics? I’ve seen similar in pilgrimage sites – and that’s expected. Somehow, though, the sight of them here, in Ráckeve’s Saturday market, was a little surreal.

Ráckeve StorkRáckeve riversideRáckeve waterside

 

RáckeveRáckeve - butcher's house

But then, much about the town has that other-worldly quality. The sheer abundance of kerbside flowers makes it different and gives it a parochial feel. The detail in the town is interesting. The flower bed that on closer inspection shows a map of pre-Trianon Hungary. The red-and-white striped flag that is not that flown by Jobbik but just happens to be the colours of the town.The house that used to belong to the village butcher, the one with a pig’s head above each window. The statue of the dancing Huszar and his lady. The stork guarding its chicks, reigning over the town in princely fashion. The myriad community notice boards shaped like the prow of a boat. It’s a fisherman’s paradise. A word of warning though – their interpretation of pizza is a little unusual. Best opt for the fish soup unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous.

Grateful 29

I have been having the strangest dreams lately. One night, I was trapped in a huge old building and the only way out was through what I thought was a morgue. I panicked as I’d never seen a dead body but was happy to discover that the old people inside were all alive – barely. They were all priests and nuns, though, and to get out, I had to talk to each one of them about their lives. Some had very odd stories – like the priest who used to be a scientist and then changed to hairdressing when he burned his hair in a bunsen burner.

In another dream, I was working for four generations of a very rich family. As I’d talk to prince or pauper and generally like to interact with people, this was okay for  a while. The family had two labrador pups. Animals and me get on – to a point. They don’t bother me and I don’t bother them. I’m not a cat person or a dog person – they’re grand but since losing a succession of pets as a child I’ve remained completely detached. Yet as this dream progressed, I got more and more annoyed with the adults, to the point that I practically despised them and more and more attached to the pups to the point that when one went missing, I walked the streets in the pouring rain to find him and when I did, he was dead and I was devastated.

In yet another dream this week, the cops called to the house to do a routine search for a missing person. In my car they found a letter from a mate in Orkney telling me that I’d have to live with a certain knowledge for the rest of my life – and another card suggesting that I get rid of the knife. Naturally they were curious – but  I was more concerned with them not finding the charcoaled remains of yet another body my mates had given me to dispose of. That one scared me senseless. It was most uncomfortable to be accused of something I didn’t do and very difficult indeed to convince these so-called mates that they had to ‘fess up or else I’d rat them out.

Another night, I was a nurse. I was black, in my 20s, with short bobbed wavy hair. And I had ankles. I didn’t want to work with people, just machines. I was about to x-ray this old man Henry for pneumonia when he fell off his crutches and collapsed. My supervisor (a nasty old cow) told to pick him up by putting my index fingers under his chin. When this didn’t work, I hooked my legs around him and then stood up. He began to walk without his crutches…and then everyone wanted a piece of me.

The night before last, I dreamt that it was around Valentine’s Day and I’d been asked out by two lads, each of whom wanted us to double date with some very odd couples. One was quite young, the other my age. The one my age was very pale and blonde and seemingly harmless. He was being grilled by a concerned mate of mine. My mate was some kind of former South African policeman who asked yer man whether a white card had been taped to his passport. It had. He then proceeded to tell the blonde chap that this meant he was black. There’s nothing quite like a throwaway comment to change someone’s life.

Last night, I was living in this huge old country house, at a crossroads. A bunch of itinerants drove in and set up outside the local pub/garage. The gardai were called and there was bedlam. The sea came out of nowhere and the itinerants turned into pirates. Two chased me inside the house and I was frantically trying to lock doors with no keys, gates with no locks. I ended up in a room full of china with one of them pointing a gun at me.

This week, I’m grateful for my dreams, for whatever insight they’re trying to give me, and for the entertainment value they offer. I’d take my dreams any day over the reality of the Irish boys in Poland and that 4-0 defeat against Spain.

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

An oasis of learning in the heart of the community

Living in Budapest, it’s easy sometimes to forget that there’s a whole other world out there, one that lies beyond the city limits. A world of smaller cities, towns, villages, and settlements. A world where people know their neighbours and recognise each other in passing on the street. A world where the words ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘neighbourliness’ are still active descriptors.

I was in Ráckeve last weekend visiting my mate Csilla. I’d heard about the town a few years ago from an Irish couple who had moored their barge there for the winter. I knew about the watermill and the market. I’d heard vague stories of a stately home and a Serbian Orthodox church. And while I didn’t realise it was on Csepel Island, I knew it was outside the city limits. But I’d never been to visit. Finding myself with nothing to do on Saturday, I made the call, bought the ticket, and hopped on the No. 6 hév.

Picture perfect

The town itself has everything that could endear itself to a weekend tourist – a riverside market, a plethora of old churches, a picturesque setting. And smack in the middle of it is the Repperio Coffee House. I’ll excuse your ignorance if you excuse mine. I, too, had to ask what repperio meant and now know that it’s Latin for ‘to learn’ or ‘to discover’. This coffee house bills itself as Ráckeve’s University of Life and is a wonderful example of co-production. The owner is a native-English speaker on a mission to learn Hungarian. His clientele for the most part would like to learn English. They come together over all sorts of decent coffee and co-produce a mutually beneficial learning environment.

A book-swap shelf has many dictionaries and text books, magazines and novels. Posters on the walls depict typical coffee-centred conversations in both Hungarian and English. They also attempt to humorously expand both sets of vocabularies. I know now that the Hungarian for mouse is egér and if the need arises I will be able to explain to a Hungarian that: Angolul az egér többesszáma ‘mice’ és nem ‘mouses’. I was highly amused (and indeed very impressed with my coffee milkshake).

A bilingual hub

While I was there, a local tiler came in for help with his CV. Another couple who have relatives in the UK called by to practice their English. Steve, the owner, switched seamlessly from English to Hungarian and back again. He admits that his Hungarian needs work and where better to learn it than in a social environment. Way back when, coffee shops in the UK were known as penny universities. Places where people held forth on current affairs, literature, and scandal. Places at the heart of the community where people gathered and conversed. Places that became a hub for trade referrals and commerce.

Reservations not needed

Ráckeve is a town of two halves. Eons ago, it boasted a tri-ethnic population of Serbs, Germans, and Hungarians. Nowadays you can count the Orthodox Serbs in single-digit figures and the Germans are pretty thin on the ground, too. Real estate agents will warn you against purchasing property within the shadow of Pokolhegy which is home to a well-established Roma community. Yet one of the joys of being a foreigner is that you are not bound by local prejudices, your opinion is not coloured by traditional behaviour, and you have the freedom to make up your own mind about what you believe and how you act.

Repperio Coffee House has a mixed clientele. Many young Roma drop by on Thursdays to chat with Steve about working abroad. They role-play social situations in English, like going to the post office, or eating at a restaurant, or asking directions. On market days, the traders mix freely while starting off the day with a non-traditional Ír kave. While some might choose to avoid the place on these days, others are following Steve’s non-partisan example and leaving their reservations outside.

Spending power

Like many other towns around the world, the population of Ráckeve is feeling the pinch. Couple that with the Hungarian notion that going out for a coffee is a treat and not a necessity (as it is for so many addicts I know) and I have to wonder how long this little oasis of learning will survive. It’s all well and good during the summer months when tourist dollars complement the regular spend but what about the winter months when survival depends on local forints?

There should be grants of some sort available to help forward-thinking enterprises like the Repperio Coffee House – enterprises who contribute to the community, provide a service, and do their bit to build bridges. If you’re reading this, and know of some way to keep this enterprise afloat, let know. Or better still, pop down to Ráckeve and talk to the man himself.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 June 2012