Moving city

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited a city I thought I might live in. No matter how fleeting the thought, it was there. Riga might have its problems (what city doesn’t) – it’s a curious mix of old style and new money with the former making up for the bad taste of the latter – and yet it’s decidedly attractive.

Famed for its Art Nouveau, it’s thought that 40% of the buildings in Riga are in this style – the most of any city in Europe. The style was at its peak of popularity when Riga experienced a financial boom and the building regulations were relaxed – the architects of that period had a field-day. There were a couple of places I wouldn’t mind living opposite. For instance, I don’t think I’d ever tire of looking across Alberta iela at this building.

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And some I wouldn’t mind living in. Imagine looking out this window every morning – mind you, from what I remember, the view is a building that houses the Design Company Frank & Stein. That could wear old pretty soon.

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Elsewhere in the city, it’s hard not to stop and gawk – literally. There is so much of interest to look at. Walking the streets is like being on one long treasure hunt – just when you think you’ve found the most amazing building, you find another, even more beautiful.

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Yet as you walk through the city and out to the suburbs, there’s a curious mix of old wooden buildings trying in vain to hold their ground in the face of modern development. Splashes of tired, resigned colours offer a more subtle balance to the screaming attention-seeking oranges and greens of the new builds.

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Some are just crying out for a little attention as the valuable real estate around them is sold off to developers and private individuals with plenty of money and very little taste. I’ve bitched about this before taking Gozo as a case in point. And I was still bitching as I walked the streets of Āgenskalna priedes, a suburb across the Daugana River much neglected by the guide book. It was here, though, that I actually stopped, considered, and then applauded this creative melding of old and new.

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IMG_3942 (590x800)There are some hideous examples of new trying to look old – I wonder if there’s an architectural equivalent of the idiom ‘you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’? Although I number two architects amongst my close friends, I don’t claim to know anything at all about their profession. Like art itself, I simply know what I like… and don’t like. And I found this type of ostentation offensive. A strong word, perhaps, but honestly… if you have that much money, build your castle in the country. Miles from anywhere.

IMG_3933 (599x800)This didn’t work for me, either. Although the intent to blend in was clearly visible, I wanted to scream ‘Have some confidence! Be yourself! Don’t try to ape yer man next door!’ But then, in fairness, when this does happen and when the new monstrosities appear, I’m the first to bitch and moan about them. Strange… when I’m so easily pleased most of the time. When I looked back at some of the many photos I took, I noticed that I am more fascinated with old, run-down decrepit buildings than I am with the newer ones. Give me peeling paint over a gloss veneer any day. I wonder what I’m projecting? Perhaps there’s material there just crying out for analysis.

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Yet the juxtaposition of old and new still fascinates me and I wonder if anyone else really gives a toss?

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The door to hell

I was under the impression that the KGB had disbanded in 1991 – but apparently, it, or a version by the same name, is still alive and well in Belarus. Just last month, reports appeared about the Latvian Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB)  being concerned about Belarus KGB agent activity in the country. Am I a victim of random Googling, or is there any truth to this, I wonder?

IMG_3651 (600x800)I’ve just been trolling the Net in an effort to discover more about the KGB monument in Riga. The guidebook said it was a memorial on the corner of Stabu and Brīvības. We got to the corner and didn’t see anything resembling a monument. We walked a little ways up Stabu and had passed the door before we realised what it was.

Backtracking, we read the inscription: During the Soviet occupation the state security agency /KGB/ imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building.

Known as the Stūra māja (the Corner House) the actual address of the former KGB headquarters is Brīvības iela 61. The building itself was apparently originally built as a hotel of ‘questionable repute’. Stabu iela also has an interesting history in that up until 1849, it was the site of a pillory – a wooden framework on a post, with holes for the head and hands, in which
offenders were formerly locked to be exposed to public scorn as punishment. Strange how some places seem to breathe malevolence.

The monument, installed on Stabu iela by the Museum of Occupation of Latvia to commemorate those who died there during Soviet occupation is known locally as the Melnais slieksnis (the black threshold, or the black door). It looks like a door half-open, a door no one in the their right mind would want to pass through. It is said that from the rooftop you can see Siberia – and many of those who did pass through its doors ended up there, never to return. In the first year of Soviet occupation, about 300 Latvians are said to have been held here.

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Freelance journalist Aleks Tapinsh describes the building as such: The building is designed to trip your senses. The labyrinth-like layout of the basement makes you realize you wouldn’t know where to run if you decided to escape. The three elevators inside located in such a way that you may never seen another inmate, or you wouldn’t even know you are being taken into the dreaded basement. Undoubtedly, the Soviet secret police improved on the architecture and design to suit its own needs and established a process to control the population.

Back in 2012, The Guardian ran a piece on Latvian Boris Karpichkov, former KGB operative and double agent. It makes fascinating reading. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d worked out of this building and what he knew of what went on inside its walls.

Nearly 20 years ago, in 2004, the Latvian government decided to make public all KGB files. Prior to this, while each individual could see their own file, files were only made public if you were thinking of running for public office or joining some law enforcement agency. According to Latvian law, anyone with a KGB record could not stand for public office for 10 years. As the KGB was officially ‘retired’ in 1991, the statute of limitations has run out on this one. Twice, though, it cost people their parliamentary posts: two Social Democrat MPs, Juris Bojars and Janis Adamsons, in 1993 and 2000, respectively. Both had worked for the KGB. (I tell kids to watch what they post on Facebook and Twitter as an innocent comment now might ruin their chances of presidency in 30 years time. How far we’ve come!)

There was concern that releasing the files would open old wounds. At the time, Indulis Zalite, director of the Centre for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism, pointed out in a BBC interview that the files were incomplete and didn’t contain information on those responsible for the atrocities of the 1940s and 1950s. He maintained that ‘Making this information public today is unfair to all those people who simply played by the government’s rules.’ A heady thought.

TheCeļotājs website quotes a few lines from the artist who designed it,  Gļeb Pantelejev: With time all secrets become known. It is human nature to expose secrets, especially if the secret of much suffering. Behind the Chekha door we are confronted by a black wall – the monolith of inconceivable suffering – unknowable or understandable. For future generations it will not be the abode of the Chekha. It will be history. Our duty is to leave a message that is not self-serving, a missive that is an antidote against the recurrence of similar tragedy. Our successors must not only know but they must emphasize.

Must not only know, they must emphasize… I have to agree with that.

2013 Grateful 36

Sixty-two, I said.
What? she asked.
There were sixty-two carriages on that freight train, I replied.
Why did you count them? she asked.
I don’t know… why did I?

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I realised this weekend that I have the strangest habit of counting things. Standing at the station in Dárzini, about 25 km south of Riga, a goods train passed. Without thinking, I started to count the carriages. I’ve never stopped to think about why I do this but on reflection, I do it often. I’ve narrowed it down to those times when I’m not doing anything else – when I’m waiting for someone or something to happen. Perhaps it’s my version of doodling. In Prague last month, I counted the steps (100) up to our apartment. I know there are 127 leading up to mine in Budapest. At mass on Sundays, I count the people in the church. I know that it takes 121 seconds on the escalator to get out of Széll Kálman tér metro station (I’ve counted them). I know there are nine towns between Waterford and Dublin (I know them by heart).

I can tell you how many times you’ve said my name in conversation, or how often you’ve used a particular filler word. I can tell you the number of times you’ve stirred your tea/coffee or how often you’ve checked your phone. I’m not doing it to judge (okay – the checking your phone is a definite judgment thing) – I just do it. And it doesn’t matter who you are or how well I know you. That has no bearing on anything at all.

I counted my postcards before I dropped them in the postbox today – I knew there were 15 but still I counted them. I counted toothpicks on the restaurant table at dinner, and the number of tables, chairs, and coat pegs. Sometimes, I even count my peas. I don’t need to know this information; it serves me no purpose. And I’m not suffering from a latent version of OCD. I just have this thing about counting… a thing I only realised I had today.

This week was an interesting week – it started off in Budapest and ended up in Riga. Those sorts of weeks are always interesting. Apart from having the wherewithal to travel and good friends to travel with, this week I’m grateful that after all these years of living with me, I still manage to surprise myself. That can only be good, can’t it? Perhaps it’s a growing sense of awareness of what I do and why I do it, or perhaps it was simply prompted by that simple question – why? Whatever. It’s not important. I’m just grateful that I’m still able to keep myself amused.

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

Sublimimal messages

As I was reading Henning Mankell’s The dogs of Riga in January, I never guessed for a minute that I would end up in the city a scarce three months later. I’ve always known I was gullible. I’m every advertisers dream. I go into a store for milk and come away with every product I’ve seen advertised that week. Which is why I don’t have a TV. Am way too impressionable.

IMG_3531 (800x600)What I knew about Riga last week could have been written on an ink-repellant beer mat. Okay, I knew it was the capital of Latvia, but that’s it. I didn’t know, for instance, that the Old Town is listed with UNESCO as a world heritage site. Or that it’s the biggest city in the Baltic States (in fact, I’m not sure I could name the Baltic states!). I had some vague notion that it will be European Capital of Culture in 2014 but didn’t know that it is the only city in Europe where five religious churches are located. I also didn’t know it was the cleanest capital in Europe in 2007 and I wonder how they worked that one out…

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

The Sun Stone building is the tallest in Riga and the second-highest in the Baltics (122.78 metres)  and the first of its kind to be built after the Russians left. Located on the west bank of the Daugava river, it’s known locally as Saules akmens or  Swedbank’s Central Office.  The Cable bridge (Vanšu tilts) is 595 meters long and was built during the Soviet era and originally named Gorky Bridge (Gorkija tilts) after the man himself  Maxim Gorky.

Latvian TV skyscraper

Latvian TV skyscraper

The TV skyscraper is a mere 22-storey construct, built on the island of Zakusala. It reminds me a little of the Needle in Dublin – even if it looks nothing like it.

Library (left), stone bridge, and Central market (right)

Library (left), railway bridge, and Central market (right)

The National Library of Latvia (NLL) is home to 4.1 million books in 50 languages. I could get lost in there. I’m not at all sure though whether I like the building. It only opened to the public this year and what I find most remarkable is that back in 1999 almost all 170 UNESCO member states adopted a resolution to ensure all possible support for the implementation of the NLL project. What registers on people’s order of importance in the grand scheme of things is truly subjective.

Up until the eighteenth century, a common pronouncement heard in Riga was ‘as impossible as a bridge over Daugava’. The Swedes put paid to this, though, when in 1701, they constructed the first floating bridge that connected Vecriga with Pardaugava. This was replaced by a pontoon bridge and in 1872 and 1914, two more bridges were built, including the Iron Bridge which was destroyed in WWII. The Daugava River in Riga now has five bridges: the Railway bridge (Dzelzceļa tilts); the Stone bridge (Akmens tilts); the Cable Bridge (Vanšu tilts); Salu Bridge (Salu tilts); and the Southern Bridge (Dienvidu tilts).
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These photos were taken from the seventeenth floor of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a 21-storey building thought to be the first skyscraper in Latvia. It took ten years to build (1951-1961) and strangely enough was built on the site of a Lutheran cemetery and church. I’m superstitious … I’d have trouble working there, magnificent and all though the building  is.
Interestingly, when I Googled it, I came across a page listing the mind-boggling achievements of science in Latvia that doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2007. I wonder if there’s a message in that? And speaking of science … apparently some doctors in Riga have opened a restaurant called Hospitalis where the dining room looks like an operating room and the waitresses wear nurse’s uniforms.  There are syringes and operating tools for cutlery as well as test tube and beakers for wine glasses. A skip or a must-see?

The hedgehog in the fog

I don’t think I’ve been this far north in Europe before. Yes, I’ve dipped my toes in the Arctic Ocean but that was in Alaska. The furthest north I’ve been until today was Lithuania. Now I’m in Latvia. In Riga. We left behind a steaming 28+ degrees in Budapest and landed in a rather balmier 10 degrees this evening – but I’m not complaining. I’m already dreading the summer in BP.

About 30 minutes out of Riga, the ground beneath us was partially frozen. It looked a lot like tundra, with a few houses pitted here and there. As we got closer to the city, there were trees, and more trees, and more trees. Most peculiar. Add this to the towering concrete blocks, the expansive harbour, and the fishing boats and trawlers bobbing the bay and you’d have little trouble conjuring up Kurt Wallander and his Dogs of Riga.

Our apartment is smack in the middle of the old town looking out over the river but this evening, tourists were scarce enough and it would seem that the locals give it a wide berth. We did pass some interesting-looking Russian-type enclaves on the way in from the airport but when we asked our driver where we were, we were told it wasn’t a place that tourists wanted to see. When we asked about a flea market, we were told that it wasn’t a place tourists could safely go. And when I asked about the concentration camp, they’d never heard of it. The next few days should be interesting. In the old town, at 8pm, there was little sign of any action with waiters in near-empty restaurants dancing attendance on a couple of diners – no more.

IMG_3422 (776x800)We had spotted Ezítis Miglá at the beginning of our first quick look-see and on the way home took our appetites inside. It literally translates to the hedgehog in the fog, a Soviet-era cartoon character. Cosmopolitan? Would that be the word I’d use? Or has Budapest spoiled me and what came to mind was an upholstered version of Szimpla Kert on a smaller scale. What distinguished it though was the orderly queue at the bar where you order what you want, pay the bill, take your drinks, and then sit and wait for your food. The wait staff were there to deliver food and bus tables. Nothing more. It’s quite the system and the queue moves quickly.

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IMG_3407 (600x800)From my shameless bout of people watching (quite a young studenty crowd mixed with some young professional types armed with smart phones, iPads, and laptops, all together yet all apart) it would seem a popular spot with some great 80s music on the turntable. The menu didn’t seem to know what part of the world it was in with a mix of pasta, tortillas, and the Russian/Ukranian solyanka. I was in hog heaven. I ate solyanka for a week once and never got sick of it. What we didn’t realise though is that the portions this far north are huge. They obviously have long, cold winters in mind and with 10 degrees outside, spring hasn’t quite arrived. And, thankfully, while the women I’ve seen so far are rather lovely, a sizeable proportion of them are in the double digits size-wise. Comforting to see.

With eyes biIMG_3421 (800x600)gger than our bellies, we had also ordered the Mexican platter. About the only thing remotely Mexican about it was the tortilla chips. Gives taking culinary license a whole new meaning. But at least we left with the makings of a good omelet for the morning. A full ten out of ten to the staff who were pleasant, helpful, and seemed to really enjoy what they’re doing. I’m already giving thanks that we have what has the makings of a ‘local’ practically on our doorstep. Sometimes, things do go according to plan.

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A bookie’s money is only ever on loan

Civilization is drugs, alcohol, engines of war, prostitution, machines and machine slaves, low wages, bad food, bad taste, prisons, reformatories, lunatic asylums, divorce, perversion, brutal sports, suicides, infanticide, cinema, quackery, demagogy, strikes, lockouts, revolutions, putsches, colonization, electric chairs, guillotines, sabotage, floods, famine, disease, gangsters, money barons, horse racing, fashion shows, poodle dogs, chow dogs, Siamese cats, condoms, peccaries, syphilis, gonorrhea, insanity, neuroses, etc., etc.

No, that’s not my opinion – I pilfered it from Henry Miller because I was glad to see that he included horse-racing in his list. (I’m hyphenating it, because my trusted OED says to do so. Picking a dictionary is a little like choosing a religion – you have to keep the faith!)

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There are few outings I like more than a day at the races. At home, where it costs upwards of €30 to just get through the turnstile, it’s an absolute pleasure to walk through the gates of Kincsem Park and pay nothing. Zero. Zilch. Free entry. And to have the place practically to yourself is another bonus … of sorts. Nothing can quite compete with the atmosphere at the Curragh on the day of the Derby or the Christmas festival at Fairyhouse or the Galway races – there, the crowds add to it all. Yet there’s something very attractive about the leisurely pace of Kincsem Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April.

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And it doesn’t matter that I don’t know one end of a horse from the other when it comes to spotting form. I fancy myself as being in the know but at the same time I know I’m only codding myself. I bet the minimum 200 ft but can say with some pride that I now have enough Hungarian  to know how to do a reverse forecast… and one even came up! I was well impressed with myself. Mind you, it was the only win I had all day 🙁 but as my mother would say – a bookie’s money is only on loan. It’s a shame that there are no bookies at Kincsem – just a tote… so the winnings will never be massive, but a win is a win is a win.

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Whether  standing by the track or viewing from the stands or even inside looking out from the bar, just being there is enough. And speaking of bars – the bar at Kincsem uses a very nice Bock rosé for its fröccs (spritzer) – cheap at half the price, no expense spared. Yet the place must be losing money hand over fist. But was I complaining? Hell, no!

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It’s a shame to see the old stand no longer in use. And it’s hard to imagine why it was built there in the first place, so far from the track. Perhaps things have changed since the park was in its heyday. I have very little difficulty imagining those days of yore and the horse-drawn carriages pulling up to discharge their gentile passengers, dressed in their finery. The place oozes a sophistication that is reminiscent of times past.

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Had I been born slightly smaller in stature, more petite (more? how am I kidding?), I reckon I’d have thrown my hat at a jockey or three.  I love the idea of that life. Dick Francis is about the only author whose books I read over and over and over again. I never get tired of them. Someday, somehow, somewhere I will be in the winners’ enclosure collecting a trophy when my horse crosses the finish line first. As it is, with the imagination I have, I can just about get the feeling of what it must be like to have so much invested in such amazingly majestic creatures. I’m not talking money here, rather time, emotion, and hope. The pride the owners, trainers, grooms, and jockeys must feel when their horse comes home in front is envious.

If you’re in Budapest this summer, take a Sunday out for Kinscem Park. You won’t be sorry. And, of course, mark your diary for the IHBC derby day on the first Sunday in July. I’ll see you there.

2013 Grateful 37

One of my favourite TV sitcoms of all time is Cheers!  For years I had a thing for that Boston bar, and the incorrigible Sam Malone. I loved Carla’s attitude and figured Cliff to be one of most entertainingly boring guys that ever walked a postal route. But Norm, he was my favourite.

It wasn’t so much the story line (what story?) but the sense of community it portrayed. That quintessential meeting place where ‘everybody knows your name’. For a while I harboured dreams of having my own pub, where I would reign in the same supreme fashion as Sam Malone, minus the balding spot and the male equivalent of the irritating Diane. One of my favourite men in the whole world has a bar in San Francisco that is a little along the Cheers line in that he knows his regulars and his regulars come in because of him. And when I go there, they know me, too. It’s nice.

I’ve reinvented myself enough times over the last twenty-five years to know that having my version of ‘Cheers’ in whatever city I’m currently living, is important. That feeling of walking through the door and being greeted by name is something many bars don’t give enough credence to. When I first moved to London, every day for a week, at the same time, I stopped in the same pub to have a pint and a cigarette before heading back to my digs. Every evening, the same bartender was on duty and every evening I was his only customer. I ordered the same thing each time and when, on Friday, he still asked what I would like, I gave up.

Back after seven years in Alaska, I was in Dublin on the night of the Ireland/Scotland rugby game. Out on the town with my mate Macker, I had one goal: to find someone who remembered me from seven years before. We visited all my old haunts. In Neary’s on Chatham Street, I recognised the bartender – Pat Lennon. He asked for my order without blinking an eye in recognition and I was so disappointed. But when he returned with our drinks and said: ‘Well, Mary Murphy! Long time no see. Seven years? Where have you been all this time…’ he made my weekend.


Now some would have it that I live in Jack Doyle’s – my Budapest version of Cheers. Some believe that I’m a regular and spend far more time than is good for me propping up the bar seven nights a week. Truth be told, I might venture  over every couple of months or so to catch the Jookers on a Thursday night, or to watch a match. I’m more likely to drop in for lunch or coffee during the day, especially when I get a craving for Elek’s goat’s cheese salad. But every time I go there, no matter how long it’s been since my last venture forth, I’m greeted by name. And I’m looked after.

There was some debate when Charles and Elvi first opened the place as to how authentically Irish it was. Certainly, it’s a far cry from the traditional spit-on-the-floor shebeen, decked out with wooden booths and red-headed, freckled bartenders that some might see as the epitome of Irishness. But as I pointed out then, there’s more to an Irish pub than traditional wood panelling. What makes a good pub of any nationality is its sense of community, its regulars, its staff. Such places are hubs where people connect on many levels and divulge as much or as little of their personality as they are comfortable with. When you’re not living amongst kith and kin, pubs like JD’s  in some, odd way, can often substitute  for home. Maybe I should start going there more often!

JDsThis week, after popping into JD’s for lunch on Thursday and catching up with Elvi and Viktor, I’m reminded of how grateful I am that in my travels over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to find my version of Cheers! in whatever town or city I’m living in at the time – that place where  everybody knows my name.

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

Lads (and ladies)…get a grip

Samuel Osgood’s relatives might sit around their dinner table and recount with some pride that teetering on a leaf on a limb of the family tree is the first Postmaster General in the United States of America. At my dinner table, he’s famous for the 15 words he strung together one night, after reflecting on the rarity of a good handshake: I love a hand that meets my own with a grasp that causes some sensation. Osgood died 200 years ago but I am certain that were he alive today and willing to come to dinner at mine, he’d be saying exactly the same thing.

I get to shake a lot of hands. It’s part of my job. And I am constantly amazed at the poor quality handshakes I meet. Lads – listen up! We women are not so delicate that you have to be wary of causing some sensation. Straighten up. Get a grip. Be men, for God’s sake. Likewise, ladies, this applies to you, too. Don’t let the side down. I’m sure there’s many a man out there who would like to grasp a hand that causes some sensation.

handshakeWhile some may think the handshake to be little more than a formality, to others it speaks volumes. I’m in the volume camp. There’s a theory out there that the handshake originated with knights clasping the arms of their opponents to ensure that they weren’t hiding daggers up their sleeves. An age-old expression of equality, it is hard not to read a novel into something that comes accross as anything less than equal.

I’ve studied this subject in some detail and have participated in a number of Diplomatic Protocol and Etiquette workshops. Granted, I’m not exactly renowned for my expertise on handshakes, yet I figure I pay them more attention than most.

Let’s have a look a what’s out there:

The macho cowboy handshake: Think John Wayne on a bad day. Think bone crusher. Think macho man wanting to assert his manliness, be it with the little lady or someone he feels superior to. This is guaranteed to make me wince and you’ll know you’re doing it when you see my hand go white and my smile turn into a grimace.

The dead fish handshake leaves me feeling as if I’ve just held a handful of slime, an experience I’m not likely to want to repeat any time soon. The key here is that you ‘place’ your hand in mine. You expend zero effort. You leave it there for me to do with what I will. You simply can’t be bothered. And, wearing my heart on my sleeve as I do, my distaste will be clearly evident.

The early shaker handshake, also known as ‘the monarch’ or the ‘four finger’, is best avoided unless you’re of royal vintage. It smacks of superiority. It tells me that you don’t think me worthy; that you don’t consider me of the same social class; that I should be grateful to get the tips of your fingers and that you’re deigning to greet me at all.

The cold and clammy handshake is dangerous and wide open to interpretation. You could be nervous, or ill, or seriously uneasy in my company. You could suffer from agraphobia, xenophobia, or gynophobia. Or you might simply be hungover. Or have a guilty conscience. It will certainly leave a lasting impression but perhaps not the impression you were aiming for.

The power grip smacks of ego and is usually restricted to same sex handshakes. An interesting one to watch out for though, if you’re interested in how players position themselves on the corporate ladder and wonder who is in charge. If one party has grasped the other’s hand from above, then they’re clearly stating who’s the boss.

The delayed release is one I detest. If you’re using the basic form, you simply won’t let go of my hand (the holder). If you’re using the more advanced form, then not alone will you not let go, you are also pumping up and down (the shaker). Eye contact says a lot here – perhaps too much. Be careful. You could be telling me all sorts of things you’d rather I didn’t know.

The double-hander is not one to try unless you know me really well or are significantly older and wiser than I am.  Cover my hand with your second hand or take hold of my elbow while we’re shaking hands and you’ll have me wondering what’s up. What do you want from me? My vote? My approval? My undivided attention? On an intimacy level, this is a line you’d better be sure you want to cross.   

The ringed torture is one a lot of us women inflict upon ourselves. Don’t be caught unawares. Stay alert. Be ready to slip that knuckle-duster from your finger if you get within clasping distance of a macho cowboy.

So lads (and ladies), take a leaf from Mark Twain’s speech, The Begum of Bengal, and note that when you meet someone you want to impress, a handshake should be: a most moving and pulse-stirring honor – the heartfelt grope of the hand, and the welcome that does not descend from the pale, gray matter of the brain but rushes up with the red blood of the heart.

For the rest of your handshakes, you’re on your own.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 April 2013

Not in our town

What makes people join neo-Nazi groups? Why do they want to purify the American northwest? What is it about us, normal, everyday folk, that lets us be selective about the causes we support and the oppression we resist?Isn’t one injustice the same as the next? When will the media stop classifying crimes according to colour, creed, ethnicity – isn’t a crime a crime no matter the pedigree of the perpetrator?

On Monday last, I attended a symposium at the Central European University where filmmaker Patrice O’Neill, founder of the Not in our Town movement spoke about a PBS documentary she made back in 1995 in Billings, Montana. The townspeople, faced with racial attacks on Jews and Native Americans, banded together and spoke with one voice telling local neo-Nazi groups that they would not tolerate hate crimes in their town. This act of solidarity was a catalyst for similar actions across the United States, and indeed all over the world. The success of the people of Billings prompted others to stand firm and say No! You bite one, you bite us all.

nOITNIOT’s mission is to guide, support and inspire people and communities to work together to stop hate and build safe, inclusive environments for all. In Hungary under the sponsorship of CEU’s Center for Media and Communication and the US Embassy, with Hungarian translation provided by the Embassy of Norway,  O’Neill’s presentation was shown in the face of what Norwegian Ambassador Tove Skarstein called ‘a burning challenge for Europe’ – Roma inclusion. Her visit will also include a trip to the Police Secondary School in Miskolc, and to the University there, and to the teacher training college in Nyiregyhaza.

The Hungarian government was represented by Dr Zóltán Kovács, Secretary of State for Social Inclusion, Ministry of Human Resources. He spoke of Roma inclusion as something that has been ‘put aside […] not dealt with’ for the last 20 years. He also referred to Hungary’s role in developing an inclusion strategy for the EU and the move to legislate for social inclusion at home. I found this hard to take seriously, particularly in light of the Parliament’s recent approval of a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to make living on the streets illegal. One has to wonder how social inclusion is defined.

O’Neill described herself not as an expert, but rather a ‘story carrier’ and indeed NIOT is a film that has a lot to say, even 18 years after the fact. In it, then Police Chief Wayne Inman talks of silence being akin to acceptance. When a Native American’s woman’s house was vandalised with swastikas and hate slogans, the local painters union came to her aid to cover the damage. One painter pointed out that her kids were old enough to read, but not old enough to understand and while they could paint the house and cover the damage, nothing could paint over the kids’ memory.

After watching the 30-minute documentary, audience members were asked to turn to those next to them and share which person they identified with most in the film. For me, it was the painter who said that for years he’d stood on the sideline and not done anything; but now he was standing up for what he believed to be right. I’m relatively new to activism – so new in fact that I’m still teetering on the first syllable. But I do know right from wrong, rational from irrational. And I have all but given up trying to understand antisemitism.

I was rather surprised this weekend to be asked why I wasn’t racist. I was in conversation with someone I hope will become a good friend – an American Jew of Polish ancestry who is working hard in Hungary to enable inclusiveness, not only for Roma, but also for Jews. She asked me how many Jews I know and I had to think a while. I know three… now. Perhaps more, but three that I’m sure of. That, too, gave me pause for thought. It’s not something I ask of anyone. And I was amused at one intervention during the symposium, from a Roma woman who spoke of a gay friend wanting to confess something to her. She said – hey, I’m Roma and I know you’re gay – what more is there to confess? But as a teen, he’d been a member of a skinhead group. His reason? He simply wanted to belong.

Good parenting and good education are two powerful weapons against racism and intolerance. A third is good example, as another intervention recounted. It’s not enough to stand by and do nothing. Speaking up and saying how such talk/action/behaviour offends you and that you’d rather it stop, is just one small step yet if enough people take that step, then it can have a huge ripple effect – just look at NIOT and what people and communities all over the world are accomplishing in its name.

There is talk of establishing tolerance towns in Hungary, where all society can co-exist, peacefully, without fear or hatred. There were a number of mayors present in the audience on Monday night, and admittedly, their interventions were subject to translation so I can’t repeat the intent with certainty – yet when I hear of Roma being talked about as ‘them’ and ‘they’, I want to scream. As one activist said: give us our names as it’s the faceless mass that gives rise to racism.

More on this as the project unfolds.

Meat me

Back in October last year I shared with you my excitement at finding a new butchers in the neighbourhood. My lamb craving suitably sated, I then broadened my meat search to include good steak. And no, my life doesn’t revolve around food – honestly – but one thing I miss about living in America is the availability of prime rib.

Beef is hard to buy in Hungary – in all the years I’ve been shopping here, only once did I buy something that came even close to what I’d get in a restaurant. And I rarely order steak in restaurants here because a) it’s so pricey and b) it’s a gamble.

primeI like to see my meat before I buy it and am well capable of rhapsodizing over a loin of pork or a shoulder of lamb. So I have to be admit to being a little dubious when ordering steak from Prime Cuts, a relatively new enterprise in Budapest, with Canadian Rob Longworth at the helm. I’m not sure why I feel the need to mention that he’s Canadian  – perhaps because I suspect that North Americans have an innate respect for beef that some other cultures lack. Anyway, my uncertainty was due to the fact that I would be ordering blind – I wouldn’t get to see the meat first. Mind you, as Rob so rightly points out on his website, even seeing what Hungary’s meat counters have to offer is no guarantee of quality.

While I could dissect a lamb in my sleep, I’m pretty clueless when it comes to beef. I simply don’t know my cuts at all. So I turned to another North American for advice and armed with this expertise, emailed Rob my order:

  • Some Australian rib eye (bone in)
  • Some Irish rib eye (bone out)
  • Some US Black Angus rib eye (bone out)
  • Some Kansas Black Angus (bone in)

The process was painless. I had a confirmation delivery note back the same day with the cost/weight of each item listed individually. (I like to see where my money is going.) It was more or less what I’d expect to pay for steaks in Ireland so I was happy enough. I know Rob. I know he knows his food (he’s been in the restaurant business for eons). And I know where he lives. So, all things considered, I was confident enough that the meat would be okay at least.

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When it arrived (delivered to my kitchen, no less) I did get to rhapsodize at the marbling. And having grown used to boneless meat here in Budapest, I was already salivating at the thoughts of chewing those bones clean. So far, so good. I’d also ordered a couple of t-bones (just for the hell of it, to be saved for another occasion) and got a short lesson in the different steak cuts. I can now tell my porterhouse from my t-bone (every day’s a school day!)

To alleviate any possibility of bias, I invited people over who profess to know their meat but don’t know Rob. And we (I use the Royal ‘we’ here) BBQ’d. We had a taste test. And everyone was impressed. It’s amazing how expert people become when challenged to give an opinion. Individual preferences aside, all the rib eyes rated at least 8/10 with the Australian fare coming out on top. Everyone there wanted Rob’s number. Not a bad result.

Personally, I like a man who delivers on his promise.  I’ve put Rob’s number on speed dial and am already fantasizing about the prime rib I hope he can source for me…