A matter of perspective

IMG_1429 (800x589)My computer clock tells me that it’s 2.09 am on 31 December and yet my wristwatch says 15.o9  on 29 December. Such is the joy of being in two places at the one time. I really wanted to go for a swim today – after mass – so we went down to Pebble Beach, also known as IliIli  (lots of small pebbles) in Captain Cook, Honaunau. We had the place practically to ourselves but any thoughts of taking a dip were put to rest as the waves surged and roared their way to shore.

IMG_1437 (800x589)The view was spectacular and as the currents ripped and tore the pebbles, the world came into perspective. Such was the strength of the ocean that no one stood a chance. That lone man – a hefty 6 foot +, weighing at least 250lbs – went flat on his ass  and sat, stunned, as the water washed over him. Those who turn their back on the ocean do so at their peril.

IMG_1439 (800x600)Walls of water showed little mercy for anything caught in their way. We perched far enough way to enjoy the spectacle, out of reach of the spray, but still, by times, a couple of waves came close enough to make us scramble. It was mesmerising. Who needs special effects or TV when you have this in your front yard. The locals are a tad upset that this beach features in the guide books – it’s not a swimming beach – not in winter, and every year people get caught out. Not necessarily swimmers, but those on shore who turn their back on the water and fail to see what’s heading their way. And the only sign posted is one that says nudity is prohibited.

IMG_1457 (800x600)The beach is littered with black pebbles, all of which are gone by February, swept out into the ocean along with the sand from the other beaches on the island. Where do they go? And how do they find their way back? And where did this lone white pebble come from? Given a few more hours, I’m sure that the answer to the meaning of life would have come to me …. but we were expecting visitors and the cocktails were acalling.

IMG_1479 (800x599)I can’t think of a better way to end the year that to sit underneath a palm tree on the edge of the ocean and watch Mother Nature do her thing. And yet again, for the fifty millionth time,  I promise myself that the next place I live will be within hearing distance of the sea.  It has wonderful way of putting things into perspective and making me realise that there’s little point in worrying about stuff I can’t change. Far better to appreciate what I have and give thanks for that.

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Grateful 1

When I started this Grateful series at the start of this year, I had no idea of how it would work or what shape it would take. It’s been quite the experiment. In that first post, Grateful 52, I wrote: I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if more people took the time to give thanks – to themselves and to others. Thanks for the little things that make life worth living. Thanks for the people in our lives who keep us sane. And thanks for karma – who, will, at the end of the day, make sure that all wrongs are righted.When I wrote that first Grateful piece, little did I know that I’d be writing the last one for 2012 from Kona, Hawaii.

IMG_1351 (800x600)Today, we visited the Painted Church in Honaunau. I’ve been there a few times and it hasn’t lost its charm. It was built 1899 by Father John Velghe who decorated the inside of the church with his paintings. Fr Velghe was a Belgian priest of the order of  the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Society – the Picpus Fathers. Located on the slope of Mauna Loa, a 13,680 feet volcano mountain, it overlooks the Pacific ocean and those buried in the cemetery have a gorgeous view.

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The small wooden church is both simple and intricate and, perhaps, fancifully, I believe that it’s all the holier for it. To find a church that is open without a resident caretaker comes as such a surprise. To see a stand outside selling crafts with an honor box beside it, was enough to restore my faith in human nature.

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IMG_1372 (599x800)The paintings are a little faded and when the sun hits, it’s hard to see what they depict but the overall effect is still quite wondrous. There are six pillars inside the church, each with something inscribed. While we were there today, this guy was telling his wife that the inscriptions told the stories of the wall paintings. But he was wrong. I checked. Each contains one of the six mottos of St Benedict, after whom the church is named.

O ke kea hemolele ko’u malamalama – The Holy Cross be my light
Hele oe pela i Satana – Begone, Satan
He poino kou mea i ninini mai ai – You have poured forth trouble
Aole o Satana ko’u alakai – Satan is not my guide
Ua oki oe me kou mea pau wale – Stop with your perishable things
Nau no e inu kou poino – Drink your own misfortune.

In the groIMG_1354 (590x800)unds, there’s a monument to Fr Damien, who so famously worked with the lepers of Kalaupapa.  [I didn’t know that leprosy is known as Hansen’s disease.] His story, too, is a remarkable one of simplicity and courage. In a world where religion has been the cause of so much hardship, I’m reminded by what Kofi Annan once said: the problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah, nor yet the Gospel. The problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other. In this small community of Honaunau on the island of Kona, the faithful are doing an admirable job of staying true to their faith. And it shows.

As this year draws to a close, I’m grateful that my faith takes me places that I might otherwise miss; I’m grateful for the friends who travel with me as I make my way through life; and most of all, I’m grateful that I believe.

A building … alive

IMG_0605 (800x600)Nothing could have prepared me for what I met at Fort Monostor in Komárom. No explanation, or description, or photographs could have done justice to the quite surreal sense of history that followed me around the whole time I was there. Designed not to be seen from the air, or from the river, the fort is built into the hillside. It dates back to 1850 and is the biggest ‘modern’ fortress in central Europe. The buildings themselves occupy      32 000 square metres set in 25 acres and contain 640 rooms. In its day, when full to capacity, 8000 soldiers lived here.

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A railway track runs through one of the buildings. It was used to ferry goods  unloaded from barges on the Danube through the quarters. We wandered the maze of corridors following the painted arrows, trusting that we would eventually see the light of day. At times I wondered. It seems to go on for ever. The place echoed with footsteps and muffled conversations as if the ghosts of yore were still very much in residence.

IMG_0573 (800x600)The occasional room was still furnished, to give a taste of what life was like back then. One plaque tells the story of the men who trained and lived here during the First World War. From 1914 to 1918, 352 tiszt (officers), 1326 altiszt (junior officers?) and  34412 gyalogos (infantrymen) from this fort lost their lives. Hard to imagine what it would have felt like to strike out for the front line from the relative safety of Fort Monostor.

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From the inside looking out, it felt a little like being inside a camera, viewing the world through a lens. The shadows added a sense of yesterday that was so far removed from today, it seemed as if we’d gone back in time. There was a stage when I felt as if I was in an art gallery, looking at pictures, framed in brick. While the Internet has plenty of detailed information on the history of it all, none of it captures what it actually feels like to walk the corridors and stir the dust.

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Outside, in the courtyard, monuments of a different kind stand sentry.

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The place is crying out for some enterprising head to take charge and make the most of these amenities. To have a proper café, a gift shop with books and histories of the eras, some military demonstrations… it’s almost as if someone was left it in a will and is still struggling to know quite what to do with it. Mind you, selfishly, I’m glad I got to see it on a day where there were just a handful of others visiting, too. The larger the crowds, the harder it will be to let yourself be carried back in time.

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One image that will remain with me is that of the names etched into the brick walls – thousands of soldiers far from home might well have seen this as a prison – a prelude to something far worse. The other is that sense of infinity, accentuated by the building’s design. It was like looking into the future somehow. And to think it was built back in the 1800s. Compare this to what’s being built to day and I’m left wondering how many of our modern structures encapsulate that same sense of spirit, of being, of life. Fort Monostor is well worth a visit. Add it to your list.

Note: The city of Komárom was split as a result of the Triannon Treaty. Komárom remained in Hungary while the part of the town on the other side of the Danube became Komárno, in Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia).

Brussels sprouts and bourbon barrel cake

Yet another Christmas Day dinner has been enjoyed and with it, another year of marvelling at the seemingly universal hatred of Brussels sprouts. I am convinced that these baby cabbages suffer from bad press and that this has a lot to do with the rather unimaginative way inbrussel_sprouts_card-p137036866297087578envwi_400 which they’re cooked – steamed or boiled. But if you check the myriad online recipes, you’ll find everything from stories of frying them in bacon and drizzling with cider vinegar to shaving them for a salad.

Me? I’d eat them hot or cold, by the potload. I can’t get enough of them but for some odd reason, they are indelibly linked with Christmas and rarely get an outing any other time of the year. This is something I have to work on.

From a health perspective, they have some cholesterol-lowering benefits if you steam them.  They also protect our DNA, stabilising the insides of white blood cells. And they’re big in glucosinolate content –  important phytonutrients and the chemical starting points for a variety of cancer-protective substances. So really, what’s not to like about them?

IMG_1301 (796x800)From my favourite Christmas food, let’s move to one of my favourite presents this Christmas. A delicious Bourbon Barrel Cake from Kentucky. This caused great consternation when it arrived with both the postman and my dad marvelling at how much it cost to mail – a whopping $47. It had pride of place in the living room and doubled as a conversational piece all over the holidays. I was torn between lugging it back to Budapest or eating it before I left. I had it figured for a fruit cake but when I finally cut into it on Christmas even, was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a moist brown-sugar cake with pure maple and chocolate cake topped with walnuts, chocolate, and caramel bourbon icing.  [MM: there’s a lot of cake in there… ]

Every Christmas Eve, our neighbours come to call. They start wandering in about 10.30pm (after mass) and then stay still the small hours of the morning. We’ve been doing this for more than 30 years and with each passing year, stories that haven’t been told before are aired and many old favourites are repeated. Before I cut the cake, I explained its history. Or rather my connection with the sender. When I went to Valdez, Alaska back in 1997, RB was in charge of the Ballast Water Treatment Facility. I worked for him for a few months, before the Rutz man took over. RB was transferred across the bay and we stayed in touch, both of us working on the Board of AVV, a domestic violence shelter in Valdez. When he retired, I was asked to be one of the speakers at his going-away do. It was my second public speech and one of my best. That was back in 2000 (I think).

Since then, we’ve stayed in touch as he moved to Tennessee and then to Kentucky. Always marching to the tune of his own drum, RB is one of a small group of men who have had a profound influence on my life. I’ve not seen him in 13 years, something I intend putting right in 2013. (how’s that for poetic alignment?) But miles and distance haven’t dampened my enthusiasm for him. He is, and will remain, one of those who made, and continues to make, a difference.

IMG_1302 (800x600)The cake would have received a standing ovation had there been room to stand. As it was, it filled the room with ecstatic sighs and questions from the cooks as to the ingredients. One neighbour even suggested that we all chip in for the postage next year!

So, between Brussels spouts and the bourbon barrel cake, my Christmas culinary experience was complete. Thanks RB – the neighbours send their love.

Grateful 2

IMG_6919 (800x593)I’ve been in Ireland since Wednesday and have been on an emotional rollercoaster for most of it. This has been my longest absence in years – four and a half months. In the usual run-up to Christmas, people are in a reflective mood and for the most part these reflections make for depressing hearing. Tales of foreclosures, untimely deaths, theft, suicide, and barely making ends meet are rampant. In the villages of Ireland, isolated incidences vault to the top of the list of evidence of why the country is going to the dogs. In Clane, three girls stole four dresses from the local boutique (one each for them and a fourth for the getaway driver). Another girl had her handbag nicked when she was stopped by a man in a car asking directions. His job – to distract her. His partner’s job – to leap out grab the bag and jump back in. And then just last week, the tyres on ten cars were slashed – randomly. And this is just our village.

Taxi drivers in Dublin warn me of the simmering racial angst that is just waiting to explode. They tell me of the drunken mess that Dublin turns into after 2am. They explain the cheap shots and cocktails that have tempted less seasoned drinkers away from the stable fare of beer and wine and have turned our youth into a vomiting mass of blowdried hair teetering on six-inch heels. Add to that heady mix the rumours filtering through that things are kicking off again up North.

For me, Christmas in Ireland is a time of tradition. I’ve been meeting the same three lads every year I’ve been home since I left in 1994. We’ve all aged. And the Bank we used to work in has disappeared, both in spirit and in substance. But Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this annual homage to times gone by. And every year since God knows when, the Nugent-Manning’s have had a Christmas party where people who might not see each other from one end of the year to the next catch up on what’s going on and the morning after is filled with ‘Did you know….’ At home, we say the rosary, sit around, drink tea and catch up on who’s dead or dying. Every Christmas Eve, after mass, our neighbours come in for a drink or three and the whole country is put to rights as opinions abound and experiences are shared.

IMG_6921 (800x567)When I balance the two – tradition and reality – I worry about Ireland’s future. I worry about Hungary, too, but that’s a different sort of concern. For Ireland, I worry about her people. For centuries, we’ve been the toast of the world – everyone wanted us to visit. But now, Australia and the USA are having second thoughts because the type of people we are sending are not of the same calibre. There’s a latent agression – a feeling that the world owes them something – a hardness and a meanness that was never there before. The landscape, too, has changed. Modern architecture sits in subdued silence with the Georgian buildings of old and I can’t help but compare old and new.

I took the bus to Dublin one morning and as I sat, ears ringing from the chorus of disillusion I’d met with the night before, I watched the bus driver. He was a Dub, in his early fifties. He had a word for everyone. The return fare was €9.20 and those that hadn’t the 20 cent were forgiven. He helped people on and off with their bags and wished everyone a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. His good humour never faltered, despite the manic traffic and dangerous drivers. He stopped before a bus stop to pick up a couple making a mad dash for the bus. He stopped beyond one to shorten one woman’s walk in the rain. He sang along to the radio and over the 20 miles slowly restored my faith in Irish nature.

I had a box of Hungarian chocolates in my bag, intended for another home. When we got to Busáras, I was last off. I gave him the chocolates and told him that since I’d been home, I’d heard/seen nothing to give me hope that Ireland would right herself. And then I’d seen him in action. It was shortly after 11am on a Thursday morning in the Central Bus Station in Dublin. The two of us were hugging like long-lost mates, both of us close to tears.

At the end of this penultimate week of 2012, I’m grateful that I got to travel on this man’s bus and see for myself that the spirt of Irishness for which we are famous, is still alive.

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

Do you want to come up and see my etchings?

He didn’t actually ask me that. I can’t translate what he did say because I only got the gist of it and I’m certain there wasn’t an ulterior motive in sight. But it’s the phrase that sprung to mind when Goya von Gerendássy Ács György, known and loved by many as simply ‘Gyuri’,  invited me up to his studio to see his art work.  The phrase is a bastardisation of phrases in  Horatio Alger, Jr. The Erie Train Boy, a novel by Horatio Alger, first published in 1891. In it,  a woman writes to her boyfriend:

I have a new collection of etchings that I want to show you. Won’t you name an evening when you will call, as I want to be certain to be at home when you really do come.

The boyfriend then writes back:

I shall no doubt find pleasure in examining the etchings which you hold out as an inducement to call.

IMG_1266But back to Gyuri …  I run into him pretty regularly in Jack Doyle’s and as my Hungarian slowly improves, we have more to say to each other. I knew he painted. But I had no idea what. I was really just curious to see how a working artist lived. I am also the first to admit that my art lexicon is limited. I have a vague idea of surrealism, impressionism, and such but am generally clueless, preferring to find solace in what I actually like rather than what I should like.

IMG_1250 (800x600)Gyuri started his artistic life by winning some children’s drawing competitions. He took drawing classes at the Kálmán Könyves Grammar School in Újpest, under the auspices of Béla Gábor. From drawing, he moved to  silver and goldsmithing and then to graphic design. When the exhibitions kicked in, Gyuri started work at Képzőművészeti Kivitelező Vállalat (Fine Art Production Company)  as a sculptor producing small-scale decorative sculptures and reproductions of original museum art pieces. He worked on sculptures of  Zsigmond Kisfalusi Stróbl, Imre Varga, Pál Páczay and László Szabó. For a year at the end of the 1970s, he was a goldsmith at the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and discovered that the Mediterranean lifestyle suited him. If he had his way, Gyuri would introduce the siesta to Budapest during the summer, napping mid-afternoon and then staying up half the night (hmm… sounds familiar!).

Since 1997 he has been painting again – mainly commissioned work – and taking part in exhibitions organised by the Független Magyar Szalon (Independent Hungarian Saloon).

IMG_1263 (600x800)In an interview published on bpressmedia.hu, his work is described as having some ‘impressionist and surrealist characteristics’. He says he makes decisions  by listening to his mind, which means that he listens also to his heart. His art searches for answers to questions like what road should we take in the world, why are we here? When a goldsmith in Florence, he found beauty everywhere; everyone was an artist, he says.  And Budapest could be that way , too.

It’s probably no surprise to learn then that this quiet, unassuming, and very talented man is a lineal descendant of the great Spanish painter, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. His dad studied art in Paris and was an art advisor and restorer at the Fine Art Museum in Budapest. His godfather was Kálmán Németh, the Kossuth-award-winning wood sculptor whose house can still be visited in his hometown of Fót.

IMG_1269 (600x800)While his art is bright and colourful, Gyuri doesn’t just want to influence people’s emotions, he also wants to make us think. One exhibition catalogue described him thus: ‘His pictures are the results of the eruptions of  emotional states that have been smoldering for a long time. They are the erupting volcanoes of thoughts that have been niggling for a long time. Finally, these could manifest themselves on canvas on one afternoon.’ But according to Gyuri, he’s as much a surrealist as an impressionist. In our rampant consumer society, when it seems as if everything is conspiring to do our thinking for us, he wants us, his viewers, to start thinking. In one picture, he painted the House of  Parliament (above) surrounded by tin houses on both sides of the river, drawing attention in his own quiet way to the social problems in the city.

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Gyuri lives and works in Budapest  and is very attached to the city because of its cultural and intellectual tradition. Széchenyi, Petőfi and Kossuth come to his mind when he walks the streets. Erzsébet tér used to be home to the Nemzeti Szalon – a 1920s exhibition space, where both amateur artists and art school graduates showcased their work. His wish for the area in which he lives? A place  where both artists and their fans could meet; an exhibition space, a coffee shop, a restaurant, somewhere that is open all night.

In the meantime, if you see him in Jack Doyle’s, say hello.

From the archives

IMG_1244 (800x600)I first visited Budapest in December 2003. Shortly afterwards, I wrote this letter about my impressions. The inimitable DLW, who hoards her correspondence, dug it out of her archives for me. It was fascinating for me to read nearly ten years later, to see how much and how little has changed.

9 December 2003

Hi ya’ll,

Trust you’re all well and truly over Thanksgiving and ready to take on Christmas and the New Year.

I spent the last few days in Budapest – lovely city. We stayed on a boat on the Danube on the Pest side of the river (yes, Buda and Pest are two cities linked by a series of nine bridges across the Danube.) Our boat was moored just by Margrit Bridge, off Margrit Island. Very picturesque altogether and definitely had one up on your normal budget hotel. I had half expected to be lulled asleep by strains of the Blue Danube wafting across the river but never heard it once…

Pest is a lovely city, easy to negotiate, and hard to get lost in. Even with lots of underpasses, it’s surprisingly safe. I’d be hard pushed to wander down an underpass in London late at night but didn’t feel in the least bit threatened while wandering underneath the city. The metro and tram systems are wonderful…trains and trams every 3-4 minutes. Just as well really ’cause it was bitterly cold. It’s got some amazing buildings – Parliament in particular – and you have to wonder how it survived the wars. When you think that in 1919, Hungary was a rather big country gradually annexed off, piece by piece, until it’s now one of the smallest European countries… it sort of explains the sense of purpose that’s evident everywhere – something akin to “You ain’t getting any more, mate!”. People don’t stroll…they’re going somewhere. Life is planned; it has purpose. Queues are orderly, even in the biting cold. The pubs seem to have a secret shift order worked out – Afternoon shift making way for the evening shift making way for the night (pre-dinner) shift etc. (And yes, we did sit through most shifts one evening…)

Considering that communism was alive and kicking as recently as 1990, the locals are happier looking than their Prague counterparts. Again, in contrast, the church was packed to the rafters on Sunday – not as overtly Catholic as Poland, but definitely a healthy proportion still practicing. The House of Terror museum is excellent, depicting life in Hungary through both wars and the revolution. It’s right up there with the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. very well done. Quite disturbing to walk through a corridor made from bars of Jewish soap…

Most of the major statue relics of communism have been removed from the city to Statue Park in south Buda. We got the bus out there and it was quite depressing. Again, like Prague and the outskirts of Warsaw, the old communist block buildings are dismal. Makes you wonder how conditioned we’ve gotten to our aesthetic lives…. where functionality just isn’t enough. things have to be prettied too. It’s quite something wandering around these giant statues; brings to mind how the Lilliputians felt when Gulliver dropped in.

The highlight of it all though was meeting Dr. Sardis. A volunteer at the Jewish Museum, she survived Birkenau…hearing her speak of her time as a 14-year old in the camps was sobering. She was in the chamber, with other young women, waiting to be gassed, when the order came to ship them out to Germany to work in a munitions factory. Liberated from there in 1945, she  told us of being in a shop as seeing the same Jewish soap on sale…made from real Jewish fat. She’s quite concerned now at the so-called liberating effects of democracy where fascism is viewed as another opinion in a world where everyone is entitled to their opinion. She told us of young neo-nazi groups meeting in the villages outside Budapest; the rising popularity of fascism amongst young people; and her fear that it could all happen again. Add this to the young Polish people talking of how Jews had totally assimilated into Polish society… and you wonder… could it all happen again?

St Nicholas’s Day is December 6 and all the children put shoes out on the windowsills so that St Nicholas can put presents in them. The Christmas spirit was alive and well and it was all quite magical. The big ice ring; the roasting chestnuts; people clutching cups of mulled wine as they wandered around the open-air craft fairs – if only we’d had snow… Surprisingly, while eating out is very reasonable and local beer, wine and cigarettes quite cheap, fashion goods (how’s that for an economic term dredged from the memory) are on a par with London and Dublin. Definitely no bargains to be found. And the Market Hall with its fruit and veg and dead ducks hanging from the rafters, is quite the experience. Like the indoor market in Modena, it would make you want to live around the corner so that you would never have to set foot in a supermarket again…

While not exactly the ‘new Tuscany’, Budapest is a thriving city that reminds me a lot of where Ireland was before she joined the EC. All predictions are that things will take off there in the next few years and the Hungarians will experience their version of the Celtic Tiger. Half of Ireland is buying apartments in the city… watch this space…

So, on the home front, am chasing a job in Dublin…fingers crossed and good vibes to be sent my way please… I really want this one. Should know more in the next couple of weeks. Lots of serendipity at work…contract here up Jan 4th, lease up Jan 4th, running into GMcD (whose company is hiring); being put in touch with the chap who’s hiring to discover I dated him briefly years ago and knit him a jumper! and the constant appearance of a saying I’d only heard once before, when I was leaving Alaska…’a ship is safe in a harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.

Hopefully, this will be the turning point…

Going home December 18th… will be in touch in the New Year. Have a wonderful holiday…and have one for me!

Beannachtai na Nollaig dhaoibh

Cheers

Mary

Grateful 3

Back in the days when I first started travelling, I had this urgent need to see everything. I’d visit cities having done my homework and armed with a checklist, I’d get up before the milkman and hit the streets. I was a woman on a mission. In Amsterdam one year, I finally realised that there was no rush. I could always go back. And go back again and again until I had seen all I wanted to see.

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When I’d come back from somewhere without having seen THE sight, it no longer bothered me. I was happy enough to have a reason to return. For me, in Malta, the thing to see was the Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa) on the island of Gozo. I’d seen postcards and photographs. I knew what to expect. It wasn’t going to be a surprise. And yet it was – on so many levels. Photographs and postcards might capture the reality but they miss the essence: the smells, the sounds, the feel of a place.

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This natural beauty spot has starred in the  Clash of the Titans (1981)  and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), in the television miniseries The Odyssey (1997), and HBO’s TV series Game of Thrones. The sad thing is though, is that it’s slowly wearing away. Large pieces of rock are falling from it and despite the signs, irresponsible idiots keep walking on top of it. Earlier this year, a sizable chunk fell, widening the window even more.

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Experts say that it’s only a matter of a few years before it crumbles altogether. This week, as I finally unpack my suitcase from that trip in preparation for my next one, I am grateful that I got to see it, in all its majesty, on a perfect November day in the company of three wonderful women. It is on days like this that I am reminded of how blessed I truly am.

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

Selfish? Perhaps

A few years ago, I was invited to South Africa by an amazing woman, EK where I met many of her wonderful friends. Two who continue to inspire me are J and E; they work with the kids and gogos (isiZulu for grannies) of eSizameleni township on the outskirts of Wakkerstrom in South Africa. [eSizameleni translates to ‘we help each other’]. When I can, I give to their self-funded organisation, Smiley Families.

I have plenty of stuff; I don’t want for anything. When asked what I’d like for Christmas or my birthday, I say ‘money for  my township’. It’s not mine, of course, but through the regular updates from J, I feel as if it’s a small part of me. They showed me around when I was there and it was quite a sobering yet heartlifting experience.

IMG_0520 (800x518)Compared to this typical two-roomed house in eSizameleni that is often home to extended families of ten or more, my single-occupancy multi-roomed flat in Budapest is palatial. I could spend my days feeling guilty about having so much when others have so little but that would be both a waste of time and a waste of energy. Each of our circumstances is different. Who knows what the next life might bring for me… or you. I have friends better off and worse off than me in the material stakes: some make salaries I can only dream of (were I so inclined); others are barely making ends meet. What we have in common is not our material wealth, but our values, our outlook on life, our shared sense of compassion. These are what matter.

SA Football teamA couple of years ago, the money I sent was used to buy kit for the town’s football team. When I opened this photo, I cried. Not from any sense of misguided self-congratulations – it wasn’t a case of ‘wow, how great am I’ – but rather from that sense of achievement that only comes from being in a position to make a difference, however small, and choosing to do so.

Giving financial help to strangers is relatively easy; giving it to friends is not as easy. We are conditioned to going it alone; to seeing financial help as a handout. We are taught to be self-reliant, to be independent. Offers bounce back with choruses of ‘Thanks all the same but I really can’t accept.’ Can’t? or Won’t? That year in Wakkerstrom, EK taught me an invaluable lesson: in refusing to let her buy something for me (I was broke at the time), I was depriving her of the opportunity to do something nice, to pay it forward. I was being selfish. Instead of smiling, saying thank you, and making us both happy, I went through the litany of shouldn’ts, couldn’ts, and can’ts. In her own inimitable way, she patiently explained her logic. It took a while for me to be comfortable with her generosity.  It was a difficult lesson to learn. If you cut me open I’m sure that you’d find the words ‘self-sufficient’ tabooed on some part of my innards. But in learning how to accept graciously, I’ve become a better person. I continue to pay it forward. And the more I give, the more I receive. Not euro for euro or forint for forint or rand for rand, but in terms of friendship, love, consideration, and a general sense of well-being. Sadly, it’s not easy getting people to agree with me.

One of my heroes, Antony de Mello, makes the point that we shouldn’t delude ourselves. When we give to the homeless in the street, we do so to make ourselves feel better, not with any great expectation of making a huge difference in their lives. We often don’t give because we reckon they will spend our hard-earned money on booze and cigarettes. But so what if they do? If it makes their lives a little easier, why should we care? In giving to friends, we pay it forward in the hope that when the day comes that we need help, someone will be there for us, too.

I had an e-mail from J recently telling me how my last contribution had been spent. I know he won’t mind me quoting it.

I was going to try and take the grannies on a trip to a Zulu cultural and historic centre about 300 km from here to see if they could be inspired by some of the traditional crafts that their ancestors had produced.  Sadly this fell through as I could not get hold of a bus from the local bus company.  Eventually we opted for putting it towards some Christmas hampers.  We decided that rather than get them some of the day-to-day foodstuffs, we would get them some special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life. 

Misc 2012 12 08 015 (800x596)I read of this and of the 60 families that benefited and then saw the accompanying photograph. These special treats are a stark reminder of the material imbalance in the world. I firmly believe that those of us who have, have a responsibility to give. And the more we have, the more we should give. FI, in a Facebook update about the plight of homeless in Budapest, said recently: A piece of clothing, some food, perhaps a few hundred forints goes a long way in helping these people survive the winter of 2012. Since I read that, I don’t leave the house without coins in my pocket. Instead of shaking my head when approached on the street, I give. Even if it’s only 100 forint. I have no way of knowing how much or little difference it will make to them, but I know the huge difference it makes for me. Selfish? Perhaps.

All it takes is that extra second’s thought to remind myself that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Be it time, money, food, or simply a smile or a hug, in my mind, it is the act of giving that will save the world. Check out this video from Noah and the Whale… it explains the ripple effect of thoughtfulness better than I ever could.

To J & E … thank you!

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Finally … a decision

BZs came to breakfast. I told myself that if he drove, I’d ask him to take me to get a Christmas tree. One of the first things he said when he arrived was ‘Hey, I took public transport for once!’ The tree gods were telling me something. But still I was hankering. KG offered me hers as they are leaving for the holidays. But along with the hankering was the need for immediate gratification. I couldn’t wait till the weekend. I wanted it now. A quick check on Kika’s website showed me one that would do nicely – only thing was, I couldn’t be sure where it was made. Would I go there only to find it was made in China?

IMG_1281 (768x1024)The tree gods were talking to me again. I went. There was one big one left. On sale. And it was made in Poland. [Tip: If you want the world to look at you, carry a 1.5 metre metal tree on the tram and the metro.]

Going through my boxes of ornaments would have been everything I’d hoped it would be had I not been rushing to get a bus to Belgrade.  With time pressing, it was like a whirlwind tour of my life – with ornaments from all over the USA, from Alaska to Louisiana and beyond: a lobster from Maine, Santa on an alligator from Louisiana, cable cars from San Francisco.  Hungary is well represented too, with quite a collection of hand-painted bells, and cornhusk cribs. I have a miniature violin from Strasbourg, a lemon from Modica, a felt angel from Mongolia, and a gorgeous set of carvings from Bethlehem that I can’t place at all.

IMG_1274 (1024x768)Best of all though, I have been cataloguing these ornaments since 1994 – nearly 20 years! I have a record of where each one came from, where I was, when I was there, who I was with, or who brought it back from somewhere. People I knew (and still know), places I visited, places I have yet to visit , birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, births, deaths, marriages – all represented on my trees (yes, I bought two, little and large).

IMG_1237 (800x588)So what brought about this change of heart and mind? Well, I ‘did the markets’ at the weekend. I tried blood sausage in Obuda and was surprised that what I thought was a cranberry … wasn’t. But I survived. In the company of the lovely BS, we figured the safest course of action was to drown the bugs in mulled wine. It worked. We hit the food fair at Hold utca market where I capped off a wild mushroom soup with a rather expensive macaroon. From there we went for some better cake at the Bedő Ház.  On Sunday, we tried hot beer at WAMP and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

IMG_1249 (800x600)All this wandering about, and seeing the city dressed for the festivities, put a longing on me. I’ve made a note in my diary to stay in Budapest next December for as long as possible. The weather is great – cold dry days with the occasional blue sky. The type of cold that makes me feel alive. [Easy for me to say, I know, when I’m dressed for it – not so nice for those who are not.] It’s that time of year when goodwill abounds – people give to strangers, do good deeds, and generally are a lot nicer to their fellow-man. Dare I say it … I’m getting in the mood! ‘Tis Christmas!!!!

PS: Today is the 12th day of the 12th month in 2012 so at 12 minutes past 12 noon, make a wish.