Grateful 14

‘So’ said she, as she leaned closer, her voice dropping to a whisper, an implicit promise of confidentiality imbuing the two little letters – ‘… have you had any work done?’ I laughed. Out loud. I might be just a few years shy of 50, but apparently I don’t look it!

Samuel Ullman – he who penned the poem Youth – wrote: Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.  I’d like to think that the absence of wrinkles on my face is also mirrored by an absence in my soul. At the end of what has been an exhausting week on so many levels, I am grateful that this tiredness comes from pushing myself to my limits  – communications workshops, dinner theatre, first round of the Gift of the Gab, speech competitions, dinners and parties in Bath – and not from any lack of enthusiasm on my part.

For those of you who have never met him, let me introduce you to Mr Ullman:

YOUTH  by Samuel Ullman

Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite, for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in a man of sixty more than a boy of twenty. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the infinite, so long are you young.

When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.

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

All aboard

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be trapped aboard a ship with the same people for days on end. I’ve never quite understood the attraction of cruises. And I can’t for the life of me see myself ever taking one (at least not when I’m still in possession of all my faculties).  Yet I was dead curious to see the inside of one of the hundreds of boats that sail the Danube.

I’ve been aboard the QEII – the Queen of Cruise Ships – so I know what the top end of the scale has to offer; the Transatlantic kind. What I was interested in seeing was what the river cruises had to offer. Some Aussie mates of mine were disembarking in Budapest en route to Ireland last week and invited me on board for lunch. All my curiosity has been satisfied.

Narrow corridors, lots of blue, and plenty of seating. Some of the cabins have floor-to-ceiling sliding windows and I could see myself passing time sitting by the window watching the world go by. Others have portholes which frame the outside world and make it all look a tad surreal.

The food wasn’t bad. The flowers were fresh. And the staff were extremely friendly and seemed to know everyone by name and cabin number.  Quite an amazing feat, considering. What would drive me to  distraction is the cats chorus of complaints, commentary, and criticisms. Suddenly everyone is an expert and life is not so much about experiencing a port of call but taking photos, buying souvenirs, and then dissecting it all over dinner.

I count Americans amongst my closest friends. I’ve lived there on and off for 10 years. I’m a card-carrying American myself.  Yet I’ve long since thought that Americans who go abroad on holiday are bred for export on some huge ranch in Montana. Never once in ten years did I come across in the States the likes of those I meet on holiday.

Waiting patiently for the lads to pack and disembark, I sat for a while in the lobby and eavesdropped. One particularly annoying woman in her late sixties was stating quite vehemently that she was not getting off here. She didn’t like Budapest. It was dirty. It was dull. And it wasn’t Vienna. Duh. Pressing her compatriots to choose between Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, none were brave enough to disagree. Another couple reckoned that Budapest didn’t have class. More still said that it wasn’t at all impressive. I screamed inside: Hey! Look over your shoulder and see the castle, the parlament, the bridges – what does it take to impress you!

These snap judgements (they’d been on a tour in the morning to the Castle and to Hero Square) based on very little information are so annoying. The high-pitched whine that passed for a voice would drive me to distraction. That authoritative tone that brooks no argument is like a red rag to me. Conversations overheard at lunch led me to believe that those present did not share my politics and  images of daggers at dawn or napkins at noon came to mind. Not because we differed in opinion, mind you, but because the reasons proffered were so asinine.

I learned two things: I have become extremely protective of Budapest and can’t believe that people would rate Vienna or Prague ahead of it (as one lovely American tourist I know put it –  Prague you visit; Budapest you live). And secondly, I just don’t have the mental or emotional stamina to keep my opinions to myself for a whole week. I couldn’t sit by and not comment. I bet that when Dale Carnegie wrote his tome – How to win friends and influence people – he didn’t suggest that people take  a cruise.

I can now cross that one off my list.

A shattered mirror in a secret room

If ever I need a dramatic rise in bloodpressure, I take myself to the Párizsi Nagy Áruház on Andrássy. I go upstairs to the café and sit and wait. And wait. And wait. The service is atrocious. When I’ve been hopping up and down like a hen on a hot griddle for minutes on end, getting my feathers in a flap, someone might deign to take an order – or might not. When it comes to paying, the same thing. They tell me I’m being impatient. Can’t I see that they are busy. I tell them that if they paid attention to their customers and worked the room, everyone would be happy. Multitasking. It’s all about multitasking. Being aware. Taking notice. Making bloody eye contact. They irritate me and I know I irritate them. And yet I keep going back because it is so stunningly beautiful.

This time though, I ventured up to the second floor. To the new art gallery. It’s chock full of Hungarian art – with some really interesting pieces. Furniture covered in cartoon strips really took my fancy and gave me pause to briefly consider moving flat to accomodate them. The walls are covered in paintings, pastels, watercolours, oils… all by Hungarian artists (one of them has my name on it – subject to measurement).

But the piece de resistanceis the secret room. The curator invited us in to a special viewing. Four paintings on one wall, five on another. All by Hungarian artist Kö Ferenc. We looked at the four and paid attention as she told us to. We looked and saw. And then she changed the light to UV and we were somewhere else entirely, looking at something else entirely. Simply amazing. And then it was dark and everything was different again.

Hungarian artist and theorist György Kepes, in his essays in Language of Vision (1944) describes light as a ‘creative medium’, capable of creating ‘a fresh sense of space’. Kö Ferenc, goes beyond this again. I’d have given my last forint and sworn that it was nothing more than a broken mirror.

Stop by. Check it out. And then tell me you weren’t impressed.

Still rolling at 86

I’d just finished a rather graphic account of my recent foray into colonic hydrotherapy when he turned to me and asked – ‘Do you like strudel?’ Completely missing the connection, I said…um… yes. The sharp right turn explained the non sequitur.

Making strudel is an art form. Think very thin sheets of pastry – very very thin. Legend has it that  the Austrian Emperor’s cook (a perfectionist) decreed that the pastry should be so thin it should be possible to read a love letter through it. The super-thin dough is laid out and spread with filling: walnuts, cherries, cheese, apple, plum, cabbage – whatever you fancy. Then said super-thin dough is rolled up carefully and baked in an oven. Hey presto – you have strudel.

Well, in Austria, it’s strudel. In the Balkans, it’s  štrudla or savijača. In the Czech Republic it’s  závin or štrúdl. In Slovenia, it’s  štrudelj or zavitek. In Slovakia it’s  štrúdľa or závi. Go to Poland or Romania and you’re back to ștrudel. Hungarians have thrown s and z  to the wind and call it rétes. A shop (bolt) that sells rétes is a… rétesbolt. (Amazing how much my Hungarian is progressing, isn’t it!) This particular rétesbolt has been in operation since 1926.

I’ve had rétes before – and I’ve liked it. But I’ve never had it from the rétesbolt and now that I have, it will be hard to settle for anything else. There are no adjectives that come close to  describing how gobsmackingly gorgeous it is – so I won’t even try. I had a walnut (dió) one, a cheese (túró) one, an apple (alma) one, and a cabbage (káposzta) one [and no, not all at the one time – over the course of two days!] The túró was my favourite but I’d happily have any of the others again right now. I could also have had poppy seed, apple and poppy seed, honey and poppy seed, plum, peach, banana, or pineapple. Throw in some very friendly (and patient) staff who were happy to answer questions and let me practice my Hungarian, and it’s a little slice of heaven.

It’s open Monday to Friday from 10am to 8pm and till 6pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Budapest XIII, Lehel utca 38. Across the road from Kika. Do yourself a favour and drop by. I’ll have a túrórétes please… no, make that two!

Grateful 15

A woman who is willing to be herself and pursue her own potential runs not so much the risk of loneliness, as the challenge of exposure to more interesting men – and people in general. Well, Lorraine Hansberry (African American playwright and author of political speeches, letters, and essays) may only have lived to the ripe young age of 35, but her words certainly resonated with me this week.

It’s Gift of the Gab time again and in the midst of readying the stage for the next seven months, SzSz, BA, and yours truly made a quick trip to the orphanage in Göd where the oldest resident is about 35 and most are severely handicapped. Our mission: to drop off  a pair of new wheelbarrows and some donations (TV, DVD, clothes) and take measurements to replace some interior doors. Regular readers and Gab Fans will remember that this fundraising event all started when I met Norbert in July last year. To say that he made an impression would be putting it mildly. This week, I met Kristof.

Kristof is deaf and he doesn’t talk. He is of indeterminate age – 14, 20, 24, 28, 32 – with a tight buzz cut. He is extremely effeminate and easily mistaken for a girl – not that it matters much to him as his world is the orphanage and interactions with strangers like me are few and far between. We were in his ward, checking out the doors that need replacing (and, thanks to the money raised from the GOTG 2012, they can be). Having come without my measuring tape (no accident), I was standing around, not doing much of anything. A few of the lads, not suffering from the same social inhibitions that you or I might consider normal, came up to me and introduced themselves. One hugged me, one kissed my arm, one ran his hands through my hair. Kristof came over and shook my hand. For the next half hour, as the tape measurers did their work, me and Kristof had a long chat – in mime.

He described in minute detail various dresses that he’d designed. His creations had long sleeves, short sleeves, and no sleeves. They were thigh-length, knee-length, calf-length, and full length. They were fitted at the waist, under the bust, or at the hips. They had scooped necks, high necks, and v-necks. They were off the shoulder, halterneck, and strapless. No detail was too small to be omitted. Each one had its own accessories: rings, gloves, belts, earrings, and necklaces. One even had a  Spanish comb holding a long veil in place. And each of them was for a special occasion – dancing, dining, weddings, walking, shopping. Once he was sure I could ‘see’ the dress, he’d get in character and play the bride, the socialite, the shopper. He’d hug me. Kiss me. Or shake my hand, depending on who was wearing his dress. He had me in stitches. Completely amazed at how he could communicate in such detail without one single, solitary  word, I stood in awe of him. Once he’d run through his repertoire, he linked his arm in mine and we took a short stroll down the corridor. He allowed me to say hello to his mates, to shake some hands, but if anyone got too close, they got a shove. I found out later that Kristof’s mood could turn on pin – and a shove was mild.

When our business was done, measurements taken, and even more needs identified, it was time to leave. Krisof kissed me four times – twice on each cheek. He held both my hands, looked up at me, and smiled. As we left the ward, the double doors were locked behind us, locking me out of his world. He looked out through the glass panel and blew me a kiss. And I cried a little inside.

As this week draws to a close, I think again of Hansberry’s words. In being myself and in pursuing my potential, I am lonely sometimes. But the life that has chosen me  exposes me to many interesting people – men like Norbert and Kristof whose lives are so far removed from mine it’s a miracle that our paths have crossed. And yet they have taught me so much. People like the Gift of the Gab speakers who are willing to take to the stage to raise some money for this worthwhile cause. My friends and supporters, who give of their time to sort venues, take tickets, update websites, take photos, and sponsor room rental, trophies and prizes – all those who make sure that the show goes on. And the many people who will come along on Wednesday 26th September to the Cotton Club, and leave 1000 ft at the door (€3.50 / $5) so that in the coming year, we can do even more to make the orphanage a better place to be. For this, I am truly grateful.

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

 

A view from above

‘You can’t miss it’, he said. ‘It’s the second-tallest building in Budapest.’ This was what was rattling around in my head as the metro approached Nagyvárad tér. I couldn’t place it. I’d been above ground on this square (tér) countless times but could I remember a really tall building anywhere? Not for the life of me.When I surfaced and saw, I wondered how I could possibly have missed it.  I was looking at Semmelweis University’s elméleti  tömb (theoretical block) and I needed the nineteenth floor.  The lifts are programmed by reception. You check in , state your raison d’être, name your floor and then go to whichever lift you’re assigned. Definitely not somewhere for control freaks.

Naturally enough, the windows on the nineteenth floor open inwards at an angle. Not nearly enough room to climb through and requiring faith and safety straps even to get a decent photo.

I was surprised, and nicely so, at how green Pest is. So many trees planted between the concrete towers, something that is not quite as obvious when you’re walking on the streets. This bird’s-eye view is quite remarkable. I saw buildings I’d never noticed before and once again reminded myself that I really had to start turning left instead of right when I leave my apartment. There’s a whole new world out there. The triangular building is not one I recognise. I’ve passed it on my way to Keleti on the No. 24 tram but hadn’t realised that it had three sides to it. Who’d have known?

From this vantage point, the ‘little Basilica of Esztergom’ on Rezső tér look even more magnificent than it does when you stand in front of it and once again  I made a mental note to self to find out more about this place.

I saw Ferencváros football stadium in the distance, standing in all its glory, empty and alone. It contrasted strangely with the visions I have of crowds of supporters spilling out onto the streets, or as I saw in Nyíregháza, busloads of fans under armed escort.

I wondered briefly what  Nagyvárad tér would look like at night, and decided to stay and find out.

There really is nothing quite like a change of perspective.

Lángos, langalló or pompos

Lángos is often touted as the Hungarian pizza. But it’s deep fried or shallow fried. It doesn’t come out of an oven. Is its pizza-ness due to the fact that it’s (a) round and (b) has toppings? Probably. [Tasty Trix has some good instructions on how to make lángos at home!] But what then do we call what comes out of the traditional brick oven?

The dough is rolled flat, as you would a pizza. It is then cut into rectangles and topped with various stuff, loaded onto a shovel and set to bake in the oven. So, except for its shape, it’s still pretty much a pizza and more in line with the traditional western idea of pizza.

But what’s it called? After much searching I came across a rather spurious account that claims that the baked-in-oven variety is called langalló and is, apparently, enjoying a resurge in popularity in recent years. I have visions of hoards of enterprising would-be millionaries reclaiming old pizza ovens  that were long since banished to the outhouse or the back yard.

Still further investigation reveals that lángos came from people tearing a piece of dough, flattening it, and putting it into the oven before the bread was cooked thus giving rise (ahem) to langalló or kenyérlángos. Those who didn’t have the luxury of an oven, took to frying it in fat, thus giving us lángos .

Whatever its story, whatever its provenance, don’t depart this Earth without having tasted the fried stuff… to die for (and, most likely, given the fat content, that’s not as improbable as you might think!)

But the question remains – if lángos is fried langalló, what is pompos?

Grateful 16

Image from rozsanderson.com

I wasn’t reading. I was standing. There were no seats available on the tram. And as I’ve not yet mastered the art of simultaneously reading, standing, and holding on, I needed some other sort of diversion. In my defense, they were talking quite loudly: a young one of about 25 and and older woman tipping 65. Both Hungarian and yet both speaking in English, each with her own peculiar accent. I thought they knew each other but no. It was a chance encounter.

Conversation started with a casual comment admiring a watch. Not a wrist watch, but one that hung from a 36-inch chain around the young one’s neck. She was at pains to point out that she had her own style and that this was her nod to feminine form – the biker jacket, boots, jeans, messenger bag, and nose piercing all said something else. She’d spent some time in the UK working all sorts of jobs and was contemplating returning. She had a peculiar fascination with the fob watches that nurses wore over there and I suppose it’s as good a reason as any to go back. Conversation turned to the cost of living and how much cheaper it was to live in Hungary than in the UK or indeed the USA.

The older lady had returned to Budapest from California after 30 years on the West Coast. She’d come home to an aging mother and some cousins as all her friends Stateside had moved away or passed on. She was quick to point out that if you’re 25 and earning, with a future littered with paycheques looming ahead of you, then yes, life was better, not as expensive. But if you’re on a fixed income, with no promotion or payraise in sight, then life ain’t so pretty.

This has struck me before. Pensioners on fixed incomes, at a time in their lives when they should be enjoying the fruit of a lifetime of labour, are instead beset with worry. We’re living a lot longer. Seventy is the new fifty. And we need our money to stretch.  This plagued me earlier this year and although at least now I have a pension in the making, I can’t help thinking of the hundreds and thousands of older people in Budapest who are watching their pennies.  Position that against those who work work work and save save save only to drop dead two weeks after they retire. There’s a balance to be struck.

While in the USA recently, after the fifty-sixth repetition of a description of my life in Budapest, each telling gathering a few more exaggerated threads, my inquisitor looked at me and said: Sounds like you’re living the dream.  He was right. I am.

This week, as my meds wear off and I return to reality, I am truly grateful that even with the ups and downs, all is well in my world and life is indeed treating me kindly.

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

 

 

Hands up!

What is it about the human race that makes it so hard for us to admit that we were wrong? Why do we go to the ends of the Earth to justify our behaviour and to avoid taking responsibility for our actions? When will we learn that putting our hands up and publicly owning our mistakes – admittedly the road less travelled – is by far the easiest path forward? As eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope is said to have said: ‘A man should never be ashamed to own he has been wrong, which is but saying in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.’

 Taking a perverse pleasure in prevaricating

Many of us are experts at ferreting out the mistakes that others make. We’re quite capable of criticizing their errors and, to our shame, quite often take delight in it all. (Remember that old saying: gossip is when we hear something we like about someone we don’t?). We become armchair experts, convincing ourselves that if we were on that putting green, or facing that goalpost, or in front of that particular press cabal, we’d not have made the same mistake. In our own minds, we make better golfers, better footballers, and better politicians than those who are paid for their talent (or lack thereof). And yet, when it comes to engaging in some self-reflection and being honest with ourselves and those around us, we have a litany of excuses to draw from which explain what we did wrong, and why.

Academics and scientists have a label for it: cognitive dissonance. Behaviourists believe that we mainly do things for reward; economists believe that we are capable of making calculated and rational decisions. But the theory of cognitive dissonance upsets both.  As we mere mortals find it incredibly uncomfortable to have two opposing opinions at the same time, we often resolve this sorry state by digging our heels in and refusing to admit that we are wrong, despite evidence to the contrary.

 Sorry … a step in the right direction

Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is on record as stating that ‘one of the hardest things in this world is to admit you are wrong. And nothing is more helpful in resolving a situation than its frank admission.’ Here in Budapest in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen plenty of examples of excuses begetting excuses. Instead of fessing up and taking responsibility and apologising for returning  convicted murderer Ramil Safarov to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he received a full pardon, pay rise, and promotion for killing Armenian Gurgen Margarjan with an axe in Budapest in 2004, our elected leaders are trotting out one excuse after the other – we had assurances, we believed, we never thought… Admittedly, an apology littered with excuses would do little to right the wrong, but it would be a start.

When the now famous audio recording surfaced in September of 2006, then newly elected Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány apparently admitted to his party: Nyilvánvalóan végig hazudtuk az utolsó másfél, két évet [we have obviously been lying for the last one and a half to two years]. Again, little consolation for the damage done by two years of lying, but it was (in my mind) a step in the right direction. Admission. Ownership. Accountability.

How does it feel to be wrong?

The list of descriptors that come to mind to describe how we feel when we are wrong is practically endless: annoyed, brainless, chastised, disappointed, embarrassed, foolish, gullible, half-witted, idiotic…  Is it any wonder that we see being wrong as something to be avoided at all costs. Who among us would voluntarily choose to lumber ourselves with any of these tags? While few of us will admit to always being right, fewer still would be able to remember ten examples of when we were, in fact, wrong. We don’t want to remember. We want to forget. We want to move on. Get over it. Get past it. And yet if we’d only own up to it, life would be so much easier.

If we detonate our detractors’ thunder, then what have we left to fear? By admitting we were wrong, that we made a mistake, we effectively disarm those who desperately want to rain on our parade. We leave them with little to beat us with. And while our friends and supporters (being the imperfect human souls that they are) might take a little private pleasure from our discomfort, it will be private. It is our imperfect selves that we need to learn to live with. And our politicians need to resign their Napoleonic stance of never retreating, retracting, or admitting a mistake and instead, be the first ones to put their hands up and fess up. Perhaps then, to avoid such public confessions, they will put more thought into the consequences of their actions. Way too simplistic, I hear you say… but then, in my little world, life is a lot less complicated.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2012

Thermal weapons and wine

Up until the mid-sixteenth century, thermal weapons were all the go.  The objective was simple: inflict maximum damage by scalding or burning. Hot water and sand. Perfect. Hot animal fat. Even better. Nowadays, especially in Hungary, the smell of boiling fat is synonmyous with festivals.

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In a country where vegetarian menus often feature dishes with bacon (which hasn’t yet been given full meat status here) and vegetable soups are often made with chicken stock, meat reigns supreme.

At the Budafoki Pezsgő  és Borfesztivál (the Budafok Wine and Champagne Festival) last weekend, the smells were enticing. I was particularly impressed with the sight of a full cow carcass on a spit. Beef is a luxury here in BP and it’s hard to find good stuff for anything less than exhorbitant prices. But this  simply fell from my fork. Beautifully cooked and a taste to die for.

In Budapest terms, Budafok is District XXII and home to most of the wine makers in the Budapest wine region. The biggest attraction at the festival by far is Törley. It opens its doors to the public this time every year, giving tours of the cellars and selling some of its harder-to-find champagnes.The rather clever exhibition hall includes a massive walk-through   bottle of champagne. Out in the courtyard, jazz bands keep the punters amused while the reasonable prices for 1dl of champers gives the guzzlers a chance to sample the fuller menu.

Hitting the main street, stalls stretch far into the distance with 13 wine cellars and dozens of booths offering all sorts in the line of craftware and oddware. It’s the first time I’ve seen Pivní Kosmetika (beer cosmetics) and can’t for the life of me imagine rubbing Carlsberg onto my face. It seems to be a Czech concept and I wonder if it will ever catch on here in Hungary.

This was the festival’s 23rd year and my 3rd. It’s the first time I stayed into the evening and really got to see what it’s all about. It’s a very local gig – and with tourists (foreigners) few and far between, they were quick to adopt the three of us. I laughed so hard that I cried. Between us, with what Hungarian we could muster, we did okay (Wales definitely took home the cup for Best in Hungarian).

Budafok seems to have its own measure of measures with 1dl differing quite dramatically between the various stalls.  As one blogger put it: ‘Here you still find wine makers who give you more than 1dl of wine just because they are proud of their product and not because they need to make the most money out of their stock.’ Others must be extracting vengence on whoever left them in charge. It’s a regular fixture on my calendar now and I’ll definitely be going back again next year.