Food, glorious food…

One of the greatest pleasures of living in Budapest is the sense of discovery when I find a new place to eat – one that warrants talking about. When meeting the illustrious BA for lunch on the eve of his collecting yet another award for one of his translations (this time extracts from The Hangman’s House by Andrea Tompa),  I agreed to try Bohémtanya on Paulay Ede utca. I’d never been there before, but by all accounts this 37-year-old restaurant has its share of devotees in the city.

Arriving promptly at noon, we had our choice of tables. Choosing a main course was a little more difficult as the menu is quite expansive. Not so much so that I began to question the quality of the food on offer, but detailed enough for me to read, and read again, and again, each time narrowing down my choices. I’m a sucker for house specialities, figuring that if someone is going to put their name to a dish, it has to be good so I opted for the Bohémtanya borzas finomsága hasábburgonyával which translates into chicken breast baked in  a spicy grated potato-pasta with fried garlic, cream and cheese. I plumped for the house white – a 2010 Villányi Rizling – which was very palatable and a lovely companion for what  truly was an excellent meal.

Since arriving in Budapest nearly five years ago, I’ve been in search of the perfect Cosmopolitan and have  been so unsuccessful that I’ve resigned myself to making my own. Not so with the traditional Somlói galuska something that is quite beyond my culinary expertise. I’m always on the lookout for one that’s better than what I’ve had before. While not the absolute best I’ve ever had, Bohémtanya’s was quite respectable indeed, garnering 8/10 on the Murphy scale, and was perfectly accompanied by a glass of Tokaji Szamorodni – a rather lovely dessert wine.

The service was friendly; the food was excellent; and the conversation wasn’t half bad either. What a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Looking out the window at the more popular restaurants on the other side of the street, I felt a little sorry for  those diners and what they were missing. The Bohémtanya might look a little like an old-fashioned rustic tourist trap, with its traditional chequered tablecloths and stout wooden furniture, but believe me, it’s kitchen has mastered traditional Hungarian cuisine and it is certainly good value for your forint. I can see this place becoming a personal favourite.

1061 Budapest, Paulay Ede utca 6 / open 12-24 every day

Grateful 23

Am happy, relieved, and dare I say it, optimistic. It’s finally been confirmed, again, that I don’t have MS (whew) and that my symptoms might simply be indicative of a vitamin D deficiency (how that is possible in the sun-blasted city, I don’t know, but I’m open to suggestions!). Wouldn’t that be nice? Will know more in a month or so.

I had some interesting meetings, a few new projects are fermenting in the pipeline, and life generally is as good as ever. The inimitable GM is back in town so I’ve had a roommate and I’ve had occasion to cook. So lots to be grateful for.

As I thought about what to focus on this week, one thing leaped to mind: clean sheets. English poet Rupert Brooke describes ‘the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon smooth away trouble’ and how right he is. There is nothing quite like getting into a freshly made bed with crisp cotton sheets that have been ironed and cooled. Were we not living in an environmentally challenged world, I’d have clean sheets on my bed every night. As it is, it’s the one thing I do if I’m not feeling well, am in a bad mood, or need to do some serious thinking: I change the sheets and then I crawl into my haven, the sanctuary that is my bed, and immediately feel better. I’m lucky –  I have a bed and I have spare linen and I can go to bed whenever I want to.

Walking the streets of Budapest, I see so many homeless, wrapped up in dirty sleeping bags or in this weather, just sleeping in their clothes on a patch of grass or a bench. I see them huddled in doorways, in the subways, at bus stations. It’s been a long time since many of them have known the joy of a clean bed and I’m once again reminded of how fortunate I am to live the life I do. Yes, it’s the simplest things in life that often afford the most pleasure.

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

Big brother… and big sister… are watching

I have been known to get a little paranoid at times. Not too often, mind you, but enough to make me question my reality on occasion. It’s particularly strong if I’ve had a week of reading back-to-back spy novels or watching old movies featuring the great conspiracies of our time. But I’m nowhere near Chicago comic, Emo Phillips who ‘was walking home one night and a guy hammering on a roof called [him] a paranoid little weirdo. In morse code.’

I consider myself to be a rational, intelligent human being with a healthy inquisitive nature and a mind that’s open to exploring all sides of a debate before taking a stance. I know first-hand what it’s like to be judged; I’ve been on the receiving end of bigotry and racism; and I know the harm a lemming mentality can do.

Anti-justice

As I write, I’m in shock. My heart is thumping and my knees are shaking. I am taking deep breaths and trying to convince myself that this country, my adopted home, is not going to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

I’ve just heard about the flashmob that convened outside László Csatáry’s home last week (I’m a little behind the times not having a TV – if it even made the TV). I’ve watched some of the videos shot that day and it seems to have been a peaceful protest against the crimes of man who was allegedly instrumental in sending 300 so-called alien Jews to their death in Kamenetz-Podolsk in Ukraine in 1941. A long time ago, admittedly, but as William Shakespeare put it so succinctly, time is the justice that examines all offenders.

Apparently, Csatáry has lived in Hungary for the last 15 years, and for the latter 6, with the knowledge of the Hungarian government. That scares me. Justice is one of the cornerstones of democracy and if the government (our elected guardians) turns a blind eye, what hope have we? But on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being slightly disturbed and 10 being terrified to the extreme, I rated a 3 in this instance. I’ve become used to this government and although upsetting, it didn’t surprise me that they knew he was here and chose to do nothing about it.

Anti-neighbour

What has me quaking in my bare feet right now is that the day after the flashmob, the right-wing website kuruc.info enlisted the help of its readers to identify those who exercised their democratic right to protest and to stand up against what they believe to be wrong. Kuruc.info even offered a reward of 100 000 forints (about €350) for the most useable information. Word has it that within just 48 hours, more than 90 000 readers had managed to identify most of the participants, so-called anti-Hungarian Jews, who are now being harassed via phone and Internet. Ye gods – we are turning on each other!

Anti-Irish

Brian Whelan recently did a piece in the Irish Times on the return of anti-Irish prejudice to the UK. Irish emigrants heading to the UK these days differ from those of yore in that they are almost completely unaware of past lives, with no real sense of history. Since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, more and more young Irish people are seeking their fortune abroad. Reminiscent of the mass exodus of the 1980s, this wave of emigration comes on the back of a relatively stable Ireland, in political terms. The Troubles have, for the most part, been relegated to the distant past and the Protestant-Catholic divide has narrowed to the point where it can be stepped across with relative ease.

Admittedly, according to Whelan, there are signs in the UK of the previous tension: a total stranger might approach you in the pub upon hearing your accent to let you know their relative was killed while serving in the North, as if you were to blame or should apologise. But it was the BBC3 documentary about Irish rappers (who knew!) that drew quite a commentary recently on Twitter.

I read some of the Tweets and found them to be racist, bigoted, and downright nasty. Yet Whelan makes an interesting point: Similar Tweets about any other nationality could potentially get the person arrested or fired from their job, but when the jokes are aimed at the Irish it is written off as ‘banter’. This is, in most part, probably down to our own innate self-deprecation. We like a laugh and we’re well able to laugh at ourselves. Yet the day is dawning when this type of rhetoric needs to stop.

Anti-humanity

Why can’t we all just get along? Why the persecution, the harassment, the singling out of individuals? Why not peace, justice, and freedom for all? At the end of the day, we are all part of the one race – the human race. Or is someone not telling me something?

First published in the Budapest Times 27 July 2012.

Last stop on the No. 11 bus

‘Come to dinner’, he said. ‘See my new place. I’ve rented out my flat in the city and moved to the Buda hills. We can go walking.’ Dinner and walking in the same sentence? They sort of cancel themselves out in my mind, one being pleasurable,  the other being penance.

He met me at the last stop of the No. 11 bus that wends its way from Batthyány tér to Nagybányai  út. He asked again if I’d like to go for  a walk in the hills, warning me that it was quite steep in places and checking to see if my shoes were suitable. They passed. I tried to pass but didn’t really have the nerve. It was obvious that he wanted me to see his neighbourhood. So we walked. And walked. And walked. And I heaved and sputted, pulse racing, breath catching, all the time cursing my inability to say ‘No’ and deal with his disappointment. Perhaps he wouldn’t have cared – but then again, perhaps he would have.

‘Not far now. Just up around that corner’, he said. I was failing miserably to look as if this were a stroll in the park. But seconds from falling flatfaced and continuing on my hands and knees, we arrived at Árpád pihenő. And the view was worth it. The lookout terrace was built in 1925 by  Glück Frigyes, a hotel owner and restauranteur who established many walking trails and lookout points in the Buda hills. Árpád pihenő stands on the edge of the flat plateau of the Látó hegy and is neither as old, nor as high as  Glück’s other lookout, Erzsébet kilátó (built in 1908-1910) which stands atop János Hegy and is the highest point in Budapest. But the view is gobsmackingly gorgeous.

As we wandered round the lookout, I could see  Parliament off in the distance. I could count the bridges crossing the Danube. And from my vantange point, the air was cleaner and smelled of life. It was fresh and windy and approaching dusk. And standing there high above the city, looking down on where I’ve come to think of home, I could see why he’d chosen to move to the hills. As we wandered back down to civilisation, he told me stories of distrubing wild boar on his night-time runs. I really was in a different world and yet we’d not even walked one whole kilometre!

Later, sitting on his balcony, eating dinner while watching the lights come on in the hills around us, I was struck by the silence and how very different life in Buda must be. I briefly contemplated moving, but then I reminded myself that I was a Pesti-girl at heart. But should I ever feel the need for some fresh air and solitude, I can always catch the No. 11 bus.

When the lights come on in Sarajevo

I doubt there’s a village, town, or city in the world that doesn’t look good when the lights come on. There’s something magical about dusk – that corridor of time between daylight and darkness, when street lamps come to light and buildings morph into man-made stars. Sarajevo is no exception.

From the terrace of the Park Princeva restaurant on Iza Hrida br., the view of the city is stunning. The synagogues, the mosques, the Catholic cathedral – the diverse culture clearly visible to the naked eye.The building you can see here, if memory serves me correctly, is the Academy of Arts – but I could be wrong.

The restaurant has been in operation since 2001, long enough for them to get the food and the atmosphere right. My veal fell apart as soon as my fork touched it. And the local wine? Superb.  Four musicians played a selection of Balkan ballads  and yet again, I witnessed the great regard in which musicians are held.

Wandering down the hill at closing time (our taxis had gotten lost), all was quiet. Sarajevo closes early and unlike Budapest or Belgrade, there are few places to go after midnight. Lights reflect off the Miljacka River. Very shallow in daylight, its waters takes on new depths once the sun has gone in and the moon is out.

As we walked across the Latin Bridge and stood where Archduke Ferdinand was shot, time stood still, just for second. It was on this very spot that World War I started. I wondered briefly how different life would have been had Gavrilo Princip not found his mark. What would Sarajevo look like today? I believe that everything happens for a reason. I also believe that I have no need to know the reasons behind all happenings. But on occasion, I’m given to flights of fancy and wonder where I might be now, if something or other hadn’t happened as it did in my life. It seems as if everything I have every done has led to me sitting here, writing this blog post. And if I had my life to live over, I doubt I’d live it any other way.

Grateful 24

I checked my mailbox the other day and found a padded envelope, postmarked in the Netherlands. It was open and empty except for a cheese slice. I didn’t recognise the handwriting but had an aha moment when I recalled admiring MN’s slice last time I was in Dublin as it was so much stronger than the one in my kitchen drawer. So I emailed her and thanked her, assuming that she had been thoughtful enough to get me one the last time she was in Holland. She said she hadn’t sent it and suggested that perhaps LN had, as she had just been there. So I emailed LN to thank her for her kindness and she said she hadn’t sent it either, but that she had asked BN to send it to me from Haarlem. In any event, it arrived safely.

This happens to me quite regularly and has been happening on a regular basis for years. I comment on something or say I like something or ask someone where they got such and such and days, or weeks, or even months later, I end up with one too. This type of consideration, the paying attention to small details, the taking notice of wishes expressed and things said in passing is one of life’s greatest treasures.

Whether it’s making sure there’s milk and food in my fridge when I get back from a trip or sending flowers just because, or remembering that I’ve been looking for a good cheese slice, these random acts of kindness go a long way towards making me a better person. Because they are done unto me, I then try to do likewise for others. A virtuous circle.

This week was a difficult one and the appearance of that cheese slice made all the difference. I’m reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:  You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late. And I’m grateful for the reminder that I shouldn’t think twice about acts of kindness or consideration. I should just do it.

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

The lakes at Szombathely

I have no sense of direction and had it been left to me to find our way to the lakes in Szombathely, I’d have called a taxi and saved myself the angst. But with the inimitable KG in charge of navigation we set off on what was to be a hot and somewhat torturous journey for me but with its reward looming at the end.

It was so hot that even the minnows took shelter under the willow trees. Szombathely lies by the  Perint and Gyöngyös streams, where the Lower Alps meet the Little Hungarian Plain.
It is the only place in Hungary that has been continuously inhabited for 2000 years. Legend has it that residents of Szombathely, fleeing from the Huns, went to Italy and founded Venice. I wonder what the Venetians think of that!

The lakes ( there are two) are a haven for boaters, fishermen, swans and ducks. There are plenty of seats and places to stop along the way and despite the ice-cream stand closing when the sun was as its peak, the place seemed normal enough, although again, I was struck by the lack of people and again I wondered where everyone was.

There’s a beautifully sited restaurant right on the shore that makes the best hazi limonade I have ever had.I was tempted to just stop there and not move until the sun went down and I’m sure that with my book and a some lemons, I’d have been quite happy. But the noise of people woke me up and tempted me forward. Life! Inhabitants!

Dragon boat races on the lake! What looked suspiciously like a team-building event with people in same colour t-shirts and dopey hats, was well underway . I’d never seen one of these dragon boats before and slightly in awe of the energy they could muster to row to win. Did I mention I how hot it was? But we were almost at the end of our walk – and the baths.

Day passes without access to the slides were a meagre 1200 huf – considerably less that what I’d pay in Budapest to spend the day at Palatinus. The pools had plenty of room and there was ample space to sling a towel in the sun or in the shade of some old pine trees. There were plenty of people but nothing near what I’d have expected. I reckon that this will be one of Hungary’s unsolved mysteries: Where do the people of Szombathely go?

Given how crowded Budapest’s baths are these days, it’s almost worth the three-hour train journey to Szombathely to have the space to swim and move around. Almost!

A step back in time

I’m a sucker for living history museums. The best I’ve ever seen was near Plymouth, in the USA, where the actors played their parts to the hilt, never wavering, despite the trick questions put to them by the tourists. Here in Szombathely, however, the Vas Museum was not so lively. Like most of the city, what was notable was the absence of people.

Since it opened in 1973, 43 buildings have been transplanted from 27 settlements in the region. Lying on the western bank of one of Szombathely’s fishing lakes, the museum is home to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porták (farmhouses) that once stood in villages in the Őrség region. As was usual in villages on the western border, the houses are arranged around a semicircular street and include Croatian, German, and fenced houses.

Most of the houses can be visited and the interiors seem quite authentic. It isn’t hard to imagine people eating, sleeping, and cooking in these rooms but what stands out above all is the coolness of the buildings. No airconditioning in sight and yet the interiors feel 15 degrees cooler than the temperatures outside. So much for progress.

The whitewashed walls, daub floors, and wooden furniture are brought into start relief by splashes of colour found in the chimney tiles and  bed linens. It’s a quiet place to wander and quite easy to let yourself be pulled back through the centuries to a time where the community was such an important part of village life – a time where people actually knew each other, met up, and shared experiences in person. A time when life was simple and uncomplicated. I’m reminded of how far we’ve come and ask myself if I would swap my flat and the complexities of my life to go live back in the nineteenth century in one of these farmhouses. The jury is still considering.

According to what I’ve read in Lonely Planet, nettles from a strange plant called kővirózsa (stone rose) growing on the thatch were used to pierce little girls’ ears.

Buildings include wine cellars, a wooden belfry, and a nobleman’s house complete with porch. On St George and St Martin’s day, the place comes alive with folk art and fairs. Open all year round, entrance fee is 800 ft and well worth a gander if  you’re in the neighbourhood.

The Saturday Place

Szombathely translates literally as the Saturday Place and is the oldest and tenth largest city in Hungary. Dating back to 45 AD, Constantine the Great is said to have visited a number of times.  Hungarians finally took up residence in 900 AD after a string of other nationalities had been and gone. Beset by tragedy, the city has had quite a colourful past. In 1710, 2000 people lost their lives in a plague. In 1716 the city was destroyed by a fire, rebuilt and again destroyed in 1817.

Synagogue is now a concert hall

After the Treaty of Trianon, the city ceased to be the centre of Western Hungary as it was now just 10 km from the new border with Austria. On three days in July 1944, 4228  Jews were deported by the Hungarian authorities from Szombathely to Auschwitz.

The Iseum, a temple to the Goddess Isis,  also known as the Isis Szentély Romkertje,  is a 2nd century AD Roman temple site dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. It was excavated in the 1950s. Today, part of the site has been reconstructed and you can still see the the ruins of two temples.

Walking around the town on a Saturday was a little surreal. Perhaps because it was so hot and the weather was keeping the people at bay. With a population of just 85 000 , it’s not exactly a metropolis but I’d have expected to see more bodies.  Like many other towns and cities in Hungary and indeed elsewhere, multinational chains have made their way to the high street but some locally owned boutiques are still clinging on for dear life.

At night, various cafés dot the town’s square and people sit underneath the awnings talking quietly. We ate at the Pannónia Ettérem and Café on Friday night, thankful to find somewhere open and still serving. The food was good, service pleasant, and atmosphere just right. A cocktail afterwards at Paparazzi rounded off the night nicely – and yes, they make a good cosmopolitan.

The next day, coffee at the Café Molo was a joy. Nestled right beside the music school, I enjoyed a morning cappucino to strains of jazz and blues while looking out over the Iseum. A picture perfect morning. The city is a curious mix of old and new and while it has a certain charm – not least the connection to Ireland via the ficticious Leopold Bloom – there is something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s as if the city is in some sort of parallel universe, untouched by the angst and normacly of twenty-first century living. I felt as if I was walking on a glass floor looking in but never really being allowed inside. Most peculiar.

Grateful 25

CS Lewis is reputed to have said that we read to know that we are not alone. How lovely is that. I can’t remember when I first started reading and I have never really felt alone. My earliest childhood memories are of me curled up somewhere with a book. When I was old enough, and with the blessing of the village librarian, I enrolled both my parents in the local library so that I could get books on their tickets, too. That was six books a week.I progressed from the  Famous Five, the Five Findouters, and the Secret Seven to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. John Buchan’s The 39 Steps was a major leap for me from teen fiction to grown-up books and I’ve never looked back.

Given my druthers, I prefer translated fiction. Somehow what has been written in another language and then translated has an added element of something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s as if I’m getting an insight into a world that by rights I should not know about as I don’t speak that language. I’ve been particularly taken lately with Srdjan Valjarevic’s Lake Como and Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

I’m smitten with Mikey Spillane and his ilk. Raymond Chandler is, to my mind, one of the best crime novelists out there. He has a delicious turn of phrase.  James Lee Burke is one of the most descriptive. I can get lost in the bayous of Louisiana with Dave Robicheaux and feel like I know him personally. Travelling through Italy with Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano is almost as good as being there in person. Spending time with CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake had taught me at thing or two about the Reformation and what Cromwell got up to in his day.Add to this list Jasper Fforde and Christopher Moore, for a trip to the ridiculous through the sublime; Robert Olean Butler and Paul Watkins for a more sober take on reality; the wonderful South African Damon Galgut for his take on post-Apartheid life; and the inimitable Amistead Maupin and his wonderful tales of the city. Dick Francis and Ian Rankin have never let me down. Giovanni Guareschi is the one Italian I would most love to have to dinner. And had I my pick of characters I could meet in person, it would be Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

I have lost myself in all sorts of books. I can while away an afternoon, or an evening, and on occasion a whole day in the company of my fictional friends.  This week, as the temperatures finally dropped and my sanity returned to normal levels, I am truly grateful for my love of reading. I can’t imagine my life without books and the sanctuary they provide.

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