Overheard in Budapest

Some years ago, I came across an annual Irish initiative that goes by the name of ‘Overheard in Dublin’. Throughout the year, people send in snippets of conversations that they have, literally, overheard in Dublin and then, come Christmas, a compilation of the best is published in book form. Some of them border on the ridiculous, others are nearly too extreme to be believed, and more again are downright hilarious.

eavesdroppingYou’re so sharp, you’ll cut yourself

An example of Irish intelligence was overheard at Dublin airport when two Irish lads were boarding an early flight, still drunk from the night before: ‘Will we get in the front or the back?’ says one to the other. ‘Are ya mad?’ came the reply. ‘Have you ever heard of a plane reversing into a mountain?’

You can’t make a racehorse out of a donkey

An example of Irish awareness was overheard on the train from Maynooth in Co. Kildare. One girl says to the other: ‘I normally get the bus home from town and I noticed the other day that it goes past a Mosque. I didn’t even know there were any Indians in Ireland.’ Ahem. It gets better. The other replies, laughing: ‘That’s probably the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard. Of course there’s Indians in Ireland! And anyway Mosques are for Jews not Indians.’ It’s been a while since Ireland was known as the island of saints and scholars.

Patience and perseverance brought the snail to Jerusalem

An example of Irish sympathy was overheard in the National Museum at an exhibition of 2000-year-old bodies which had been found preserved in Irish bogs. After viewing one of these bodies, an elderly Dublin woman turned to her son and said with heartfelt sympathy: ‘Ah the Lord ‘ave mercy on ‘im. I bet he never thought he was goin’ to end up in here.’ There are fates worse than death, apparently.

Now, my Hungarian, as regular readers will know, is not up to creating a similar initiative here in Hungary. But occasionally, I overhear gems in English.

She lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech

On the No. 6 tram on Monday, two young people were chatting in accented English. The fellah was wearing a miniature dumbbell pierced through his nose. She had hair the colour of Turkish delight that had sat in the sun for a little too long. He was recounting a story about being out over the weekend and running into a couple of girls who he and his mate took a fancy to. She was all ears, yet trying hard not to appear too interested.

Apparently one of the girls he had met had politely shaken his hand when the lads introduced themselves; the other had given him the finger, flipped him off. He reckoned that between the two of them, he had covered every extreme in manners and taste. He then went on to repeat the boring conversation that ensued and ended by saying that as they were leaving, he got his own back by shaking hands with Ms Polite and flipping off Ms Rude. Said it was payback.

As conversations go, it was innocuous, verging on the mundane. He didn’t even tell it well. But he did make an interesting point about the deterioration of manners in modern society and the chavvish behaviour of some young, ahem, ladies. I was mulling this over when the little old lady standing next to them leaned over and said (in heavily accented but perfect English) ‘You’re being extremely rude.’ Not giving him time to react, she followed on with ‘Your life is not so interesting that everyone on the tram needs to hear about it.’

You’ll never plough a field turning it over in your mind

He didn’t have to think for very long before he came back with ‘No one was asking you to listen.’ Her rejoinder? ‘I’m standing right beside you. How could I not hear.’ His polite and patiently spoken reply? ‘I said “listen”. Obviously you can’t help but overhear but no one asked you to listen.’ Classic.

It got me thinking. What’s more, it had me digging around for a quote I heard when I was in India a few years back, one that stuck in my head. Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), author of the Future of Humanity, made the following point: ‘When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.’

It’s a sad reflection on today’s world that we really don’t listen very well. We hear. But we don’t listen. Our speech is peppered with trite assurances, such as ‘I hear what you’re saying’. Our heads nod in understanding while our brain is already formulating a response. All too often we fail to really listen. We don’t hear the pain behind ‘I’m fine’ or the frustration behind ‘it’s alright’, or the fear behind ‘no problem’. We just hear what we want to hear, what suits us, what we have time to deal with. And that’s sad. We would do well to remember that a good listener is a silent flatterer.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 May 2013

A little piece of calm

Anyone remember the first series of Black Books with Dylan Moran? The first show in Series One? Where Bill Bailey swallows the Little Book of Calm? I felt like swallowing a library of them last week – but thankfully, I rediscovered the calming effect of Reiki instead.

Reiki is a Japanese word, or rather two words: Rei meaning ‘the higher power’ and Ki meaning ‘life force energy’. Combine them and you get a spiritually guided life force energy. The history of Reiki is a little spotted and, at one stage, after WWII when the US banned the practice of alternative medicine in Japan, Reiki practitioners went underground. Few knew of it. And the only way apparently a Japanese could train in Reiki was to go to the USA to be trained by an American who had been trained in Japan. No wonder so many look at it a little skeptically.

Many moons ago, while working in London, I did my Reiki I – the first of three stages to become a Reiki practitioner. I don’t remember much about it, other than when I was ‘graduating’ – can’t ever remember the Reiki term for it – I felt this huge wad of emotion feed up from my toes, through my body, and release in the form of a major bout of hysteria. I bawled. In front of the whole class. Hysterically. And I was the only one to have such a reaction. But man did it feel good. It reminded me of a cult I saw interviewed on the Late Late Show once – they called themselves the screamers and had a commune up in Donegal somewhere. Their therapy was to stand in a field and scream their heads off, something I’ve been known to do on occasion… and not in a field 🙂

On rare occasions since then, if someone was in pain (physical or emotional), I have offered to ‘do some Reiki on them’ – and admittedly I’ve had varying degrees of success. But it takes a huge amount of energy and it’s not often that I feel the urge to volunteer. Selfish? Perhaps. But I know my limits.

Anyway, as I was bouncing the walls over the last couple of weeks, tearing my hair out over this dastardly dissertation and trying to stay sane while at the same time endangering every close relationship I have by overdosing on a mainly (but not always!) irrational angst, I thought again of Reiki. And I sought out the lovely PA who just happens to live in my neighbourhood. Five one-hour sessions later and calm has been restored to 66A.

I can’t say that I felt any miraculous energy flooding through my veins as PA went through the laying of the hands. I usually fell asleep. I only cried once. The first time. Whatever demons that were on the rampage inside obviously upped and fled as the remaining sessions were … well.. quite quiet. But the difference they’ve made!

I’m like a new woman. Back in my stride. Taking everything as it comes. Stressing no more. I had forgotten the concept of being in the perfect place at the perfect time … and even if it seems far from perfect, the secret is to find the perfection in it.

Now, the skeptics say that Reiki works as well as any placebo. And so it may. Whatever, I say… it worked for me. And I really don’t need to understand how or why – just feeling the calm is enough.






2013 Grateful 32

IMG_4314Weddings can be horrendous affairs, attended out of duty and obligation rather than any great desire to see the son of a distant relative’s next-door neighbour’s daughter hook up with some young one he came across while riding bareback across the Mojave desert. And then, on the other hand, some can be great craic altogether, where you wish you had an inexhaustible supply of energy that would carry you through till the early hours of the third morning after the celebrations had started. That was me, this weekend.

Burning the candle at both ends doesn’t even come close to describing how I was working under the misguided notion that I’m still 22 and don’t need my sleep.  My mates K&R got married and despite months of watching K and her spreadsheets, all the time wondering why on earth she was bothering with such detail and taking on such organising, I can say now that it all paid off. In spades.

Probably for the first time ever, I realised what weddings are really about: an opportunity for two people to mix the product of their entire lives in one room and, in front of all of their friends – people who have in some way helped shape who they are – take that first step down a new path. To put faces to names that I’ve heard mention, to hear stories about both of them from days of yore, to see what an eclectic collection of friends they’ve amassed, and to be part of it all, was simply amazing.

That I’m as tired as I can ever remember being is no exaggeration but from the time it started on Friday at 6pm, till it finished early this morning at about 4am, it was worth every minute of it. As a favour for K&R, I made my debut as a tour guide on a double-decker tour bus specially hired for the occasion. I had two tours – my first and my last. It was quite the experience I tell you. What surprised me most, other than the miscellaneous facts I’d gleaned about Budapest in my frantic last-minute research on Friday afternoon, was how much I’ve come to regard this city as my own. As I spoke of architectural periods and construction dates, as I listed places I like to go and would recommend that the other wedding guests see too, as I recounted things that have happened to me here over the last few years, I got quite emotional.

It was an emotional weekend all round, really; a brilliant weekend and one of the best weddings I’ve been to. Now, please – don’t anyone else get married until I’ve had time to recover from this one. And, as I fight my way out of a coma-like stupor and try hard to focus on what needs doing this week, I’m grateful that every now and then, big romances happen in real life, not just in the movies. And I’m truly grateful that I had a tiny part to play in this one.

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

Books in Óbuda

There’s nothing quite like the smell of old books. Stepping into one of the many antikvárium (shops selling old books) in Budapest is like stepping back in time. Shelf after shelf groans under the weight of millions of words, miles of paper, and litres of ink. To find one that has an English book section, however small, tucked away in a corner is a find indeed.

I have been taking the bus to Buda [thank you, BKV, for extending the route of the No. 9 (the mutant child of the former 109 and 206 routes) to my neighbourhood] for about a year now over to Kolosy tér in Óbuda. I was early one day and had time to kill before my appointment. Looking though the window of a bookshop, I saw some English titles and, heart beating a little faster, stepped inside.


Up until 1993, the National Book Distribution Company ran the secondhand-book shops in Budapest. Óbuda Anitkvárium was the one that served the III district. It began a new chapter as a private business under the guiding hand Gábor Pécsi and is now run by his son, Balázs.

Balázs took his apprenticeship seriously, initially spending time in the ‘company of the broomstick more often than the books’. The shop is designed to suit all tastes, whether you’re a bibliophile or a leisure reader. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can order it and Balázs will do his utmost to find it for you. He buys a lot of personal libraries which makes for an interesting collection. And it’s nice to think that books go to a good home once their owners have passed on. The wall space that can’t hold shelves is given over to myriad prints and photographs which are also for sale.


Travel by public transport and you’ll increasingly see commuters reading from a tablet or a kindle or an iPad. I can’t see me ever crossing that line, although it would be a lot simpler to bring a virtual library on holiday than a real one. Yet for me, reading is as much sensory as it is visual. The touch, the feel, the smell of old parchment. The fleeting wonder at a pencilled note in the margin or why a particular word was underlined. That mystery conjured up by a dedication – To Agatha on her 18th birthday, September 1935 – is Agatha still alive? Where did she live? What did she do? And yes, I know you can annotate and highlight electronic text – but it just ain’t the same.


Sadly, I see bookshop after bookshop after bookshop closing down in the city. I visit apartments and flat that are devoid of books, though the residents might be avid readers. I worry about the fate of the printed word and the old-fashioned notion of reading for pleasure. We have so much we have to read – reports, textbooks, reference books – that the joy of leaving this world temporarily and travelling to another for a few hours in the company of a set of characters who have things to do is something that is becoming increasingly valuable, not least because it’s more and more difficult to find the time.

Treasures like to Óbuda Antivarium will only survive with custom. Balázs has merged the old with the new with an online market and ordering service. I, for one, hope that the online part never takes over to the point that my armchair disappears and the half-hour I spend there once a month or so is no longer an option.

If you’re in the vicinity, drop by. III district, Lajos utca 49/B

Voting…from the outside

hungarian passportI read with some interest today that some
360 000 Hungarian passports have been issued to Hungarian speakers not resident in the country since the government, in its infinite wisdom, introduced a fast-track scheme in 2010. Most are from neighbouring areas that were once part of Hungary. Most are from Romania –  a country that is already part of the EU – and some from Ukraine and Serbia. This I can understand as it will give them access to the EU and fair play to them for taking advantage of what I see as a very ill-advised and suspect move on behalf of the government.

What is a little frightening, though, is that these 360 000 people, regardless of whether they have ever set foot in present-day Hungary let alone lived here and paid taxes, will have the right to vote in the 2014 elections.  The article  in the Budapest Times reported that another 80 000 applications are being processed, which will swell the electoral roll by 440 0oo new voters. I dread to think how many will choose to show their appreciation for their new útlevélek at the ballot box and what influence these absentee voters might have.

I am reminded of my time in Oxford when my flatmate was horrified when I received a polling card to vote in the local elections. I wasn’t British. So why should I have a say in who ran the city, let alone the country. But I was living there and paying taxes, which to my mind qualified me to vote. It gave me a say.

I am now wondering what entitlement I have as card-carrying resident of Hungary with an Irish passport. I live here. I pay taxes. Does that entitle me to a vote? Does anyone know?

I have a US passport but would never in a million years dream of voting in a US election as I haven’t lived there in more than 12 years. Should I ever return, top on my list of things to do will be so register to vote. Equally, I have an Irish passport, but do not vote there either because I don’t live there permanently. Ditto re registering. From where I’m sitting, if I’m not part of the daily grind, if I’m not affected by the policies of the government, if I’m not subject to its laws, then I don’t have a say in who does what. Yes, I can have my opinion and I can bitch and moan with the best of them on the state of play in either country, but vote? That’s an honour to which I don’t think I’m entitled.

My question to other expats in Budapest: Do you vote? Can you vote? And, if so, how do you go about registering? Is speaking Hungarian a prerequisite? And is having a Hungarian passport a necessity?

2013 Grateful 33

My week went from bad to worse. Arriving back from Ireland still irritable and mad with myself for flaring up at my mother (who has the patience of Job and the last woman in the world you could possibly be annoyed with), trying to fit too much into too few days, and getting not one word written on my dissertation, I was feeling antsy. I was tired, cranky, and not at all secure about myself and what I’m doing. It’s been a while since this has happened but swings and roundabouts eh? I’ve been ‘up’ for so long now, a ‘down’ period was inevitable. Whoever said Murphy was an optimist obviously never met me.

I started smoking again. Postively jonesing, I drove down to the village to the local shop and asked for 10 cigarettes. The woman looked at me as if I’d come from another plant. They’d stopped selling cigarettes in packs of 10 years ago in Ireland. What kind did I want? I couldn’t think. Anything that had a 3mg nicotine content. She started to look a little wary but opened the machine and pulled out every pack until she found one that said 3mg. Long skinny ones in a purple box that looked like the toy cigarettes I used as a child when I wanted so much to be an adult. Very appropriate for my child-like tantrums.

As the week unfolded, it brought disappointment after disappointment. Nothing seemed to go right. A line from an old performance appraisal came back to haunt me. Perhaps I do need to better manage my expectations.

My retina specialist told me that the damage to my eye from the BRVO is irreparable and despite my having 100% visual acuity, I will never see things as sharply again. Maybe that’s worrying me on some deep subconscious level and has me questioning my judgement in other issues, too. My weight had soared – I gained four kilos in as many days – and a headache that came to call on Monday was still around on Friday. And still not a word written on my dissertation.

Other people’s last-minute issues suddenly became mine – could I help? Sure. Anything rather than do what I was supposed to be doing. And so followed long nights working on other people’s projects, work I was both happy to do and resented doing at the same time. If that won’t screw with your mind, what will? And this was just the start of it. Something as straightforward as booking a car in June in the States ended up needing phone calls to New Zealand to fix.  Something as mundane as making a hotel reservation for the end of May has resulted in a chain of emails, each one talking at cross purposes and still nothing booked. Other stuff happened that left me fixating on whether I was able to see the wood for the trees. I was slowly driving myself bananas. And still not a word written for my dissertation.

IMG_4239 (699x800)Then the doorbell rang and the postman gave me an envelope of chocolate sent from  Ireland. It wouldn’t help my weight issue, but it would certainly induce some endorphins. Then it rang a second time: the most gorgeous flowers and a beautiful crystal vase. And most precious of all, ten free-range eggs. I’d been for a reiki session that morning and TPA had given me the energy I needed to get through this week. Perhaps things were changing.

Friday night, I watched the movie Black Hawk Down and realised that my issues, as the inimitable NKJ would say, are first world problems. No one had died. Nothing was insurmountable. I wasn’t a wet-faced 18-year-old dodging my way through enemy fire hoping to make it home alive. I wasn’t watching my kids die of starvation. I wasn’t a general sitting in a control room watching my men getting picked off, one by one,  on CCTV. Yes, I live in a country whose future I truly fear for  (particularly in light of the PM’s recent posturing in his latest Friday interview) and I wonder what tomorrow will bring. But no matter how crappy it gets and how hopeless it seems, I have friends who will pull me through it, ignoring my kicking and screaming, telling me not what I want to hear, but what I need to hear. To you all, I am truly grateful. I promise I’ll be back on form next week.

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

The benefits of nosey neighbours

As events in Cleveland Ohio unfold and take centre stage on the world news platform, I’m left wondering what my neighbours are up to.

For more than ten years, Ariel Castro, 52, registered owner of 2207 Seymour Ave., Cleveland, allegedly held three women captive in full view of his neighbours and friends and family. His is not a secluded country cottage at the end of a laneway, or a manor house set on ten acres with a mile-long avenue from gate to front door, or a remote mountain residence in the middle of nowhere. It’s an ordinary house on an ordinary street in ordinary America.

That he might have kidnapped Michelle Knight, then 21, in August 2002 and held her captive until last week boggles the mind. That he might have abducted Amanda Berry, then 17, in April 2003, beggars belief. That he might have spirited away his daughter’s friend Gina DeJesus, then 14, in April 2004, is beyond comprehension. But that he might have held them all, in his house, for more than ten years without anyone suspecting a thing … that’s the stuff movies are made of.

Call first

Castro has nine siblings, an extended family, and a love for classic cars. Friends and relatives have variously described him as ‘smart and funny’ and ‘quiet and private’. Yes, he had some strange habits, like only entering and leaving his house by the back door and not encouraging people to stop by for a coffee. But that’s America.

In the ten years I was Stateside, my ingrained Irish habit of popping in for a cuppa unannounced was quickly replaced by the need to ‘call ahead’. I soon learned that while the Statue of Liberty might have welcomed the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses who were yearning to breathe free, suburban America was a little more guarded about whom it let in its front door. But to each their own. I took it simply as a way of living and soon adapted.

In Ireland, by noon, the village knows what you’ve had for breakfast. The churchyards and corner shops are the nexus of the gossip mill. Any strange or peculiar behaviour is noted in the Captain’s log to be trotted out and appended to the next entry when it is made.

Of course, this is changing. The influx of global immigrants has shifted the balance and this neighbourly nosiness is waning. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t see how Castro could get away with it for so long.

Business as usual

The victims were reportedly kept in chains in the basement and then later moved upstairs to live behind secure doors. Fed through holes in the doors, they report being subjected to beatings and sexual assault.  Surely some family member would have noticed the new décor? Can it be that none of his kids ever stopped by? Did no one have a spare set of keys?IMG_2342

Neighbours are now claiming that they did, in fact, call the police over the years to report unusual sightings such as a naked woman on a leash in the backyard or a child at the window in a house with no children. And yet until Amanda Berry escaped last week and famously ran into the arms of Charles Ramsey, no one other than the girls and Castro apparently knew what was going on.

Drawing parallels

Are we so wrapped up in what’s going on in our own lives that we fail to notice something’s amiss? Are we so self-centred that anything which doesn’t revolve around us is not deserving of attention? Fed as we are by a constant diet of social media updates, have we lost our powers of observation, our ability to spot something out of the ordinary? Have we lost our ability to think? To reason? To deduce? Have we lost whatever innate curiosity we might have been born with? Has it been replaced with an unquestioning acceptance of what is?

Admittedly, I’ve been pretty wrapped up in the Holocaust lately with visits to the camps at Terezin and Salaspils and I’m more than slightly worried at the apparent lack of indigenous concern about what I see as a visible increase in overt anti-Semitism in Budapest, so I can’t help but draw a parallel, however much it might be a figment of my imagination.

Back then, some people also claimed not to have been aware of what was going on in nearby camps. They said they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. And what they did notice could be plausibly explained. The odd comment here, a throwaway remark there – there’s a fine line between quiet castigation and blatant defiance. If our neighbours and friends are behaving oddly, do we not owe it to them and to ourselves, to ask why?

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Cleveland had one of Casto’s neighbours or friends or even one of his extended family members been a little more curious, a little nosier … perhaps Michelle, Amanda, and Gina might have seen the light of day a little earlier.

Last week, I might have bemoaned the fact that my neighbours could report chapter and verse on my comings and goings. This week, I’m strangely secure in the knowledge that at least they’re paying attention.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 May 2013

Sugar Daddy

When Tom Jones opened his concert in Budapest, with the U2-penned song, Sugar Daddy, I cringed. The very words – Sugar Daddy – make me want to throw up. So when I came across a piece in the Irish Independent when I was at home last weekend, I thought it time to start wondering why two simple words, each on their own rather innocuous, can conjure up such feelings of revulsion.

sugar daddyThe article featured an online site called Seeking Arrangement.com which is billed as the No. 1 Sugar Daddy site. It classifies an arrangement as a mutually beneficial relationship/arrangement between two people. In other words, both parties give as much as they take. According to the site, most ‘regular’ relationships are not mutually beneficial in nature (here I stop, and think, and do a quick evaluation, and breathe a sigh of relief – I think I’m okay on this score). Many of us are, apparently, in a relationship where we ‘feel used, or taken advantage of’ and give more than we receive (again, I stop, and give thanks that this isn’t me).

The founder of the site, Brandon Wade, believes that ‘successful relationships are formed out of two people being brutally honest with each other – about who they are, what they want and what they can offer’ [mmmm…interesting juxtaposition of ‘brutal’ and ‘honesty’].

So no matter what you are seeking whether it is love, companionship, friendship or some financial help, and whether it will be for a short-term, long-term or life-long arrangement, he hopes users will find the perfect match on his site. 

sugar-daddyNow all this looks like a good marketing ploy and in the finicky field of Internet Dating, not a bad prospect at all, particularly if you happen to favour the more mature man (or woman).  What caught my eye was the growing number of Irish university students using the site as a way to get through college. According to the Indo, some 4,464 female undergraduates in Ireland have joined the site. Four of the ten universities with students subscribed to the site are in Dublin: UCD tops the list, with 399 members, followed by Trinity College Dublin at 395.

The thoughts of young attractive girls (and boys) in their late teens, early twenties actively searching for mature people as a means of supporting their studies is, on the face of it, admittedly a solution that is a little more appealing than saddling themselves with debt, particularly as the hope of getting a decent-paying job on graduation is a hope that is shrinking by the second. And yet, a survey by the site itself shows that 80% of these ‘arrangements’ involve sex.

Why am I not surprised.

I’ve had many conversations here in Hungary about the merits of marrying for love vs the need to marry for money and admittedly my illusions of a sisterhood united in favour of love over money have taken a battering. It would seem that I’m living in the movies and need to get a grip on reality. And yes, I’m fortunate that my reality (while occasionally giving me cause to worry about pensions and providing for my old age) is such that marrying for love is still a viable option with thoughts of securing tomorrow overridden by concern for making the most of today.

On due reflection, it’s not the concept per se that breaks me out in a cold sweat, it’s the terminology. Mention Sugar Daddy, and I think of fat, foolish and perhaps even flaithiúileach (generous) men who have long since passed their best-before date. And I think of them accessorizing with women young enough to be their granddaughters. A sort of Beauty and the Beast, without the romance or the emotion. But hey, that’s my stereotyping at work. I’m sure there is many a 22-year-old who dotes on her octogenarian boyfriend  – I just wish I had faith enough in human nature to believe it to be true.

And, on second thoughts, who am I to judge. Each to their own. And if these mutually beneficial arrangements are really mutually beneficial and no one is under any illusion as to what they represent, then have at it, Brandon.

Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet

I’m not quite sure what is happening in my head these days. I seem to have developed an irrational fear of a collective forgetting, a fear that once the aging survivors of national and international atrocities die off, the rest of us will stop remembering, or worse still, start denying. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in camps like Terezin and Salaspils. Or perhaps it goes back even earlier to the realisation that things have happened in my lifetime that I simply wasn’t aware of. Like the last partisan in Lithuania emerging from the woods when I was sixteen.

HotelAnd then I think of books and authors, and the role they play in keeping this collective memory alive. I’ve just finished Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet and yes, I realise that the operative word here is ‘novel’ – it is a work of fiction but one that is based on real life events in Seattle, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

This   heart-rending account of how Japanese Nisei (second-generation) and Issei (first generation) and Sensei (immigrants) were treated as spies, collaborators, saboteurs, and threats to national security under the guise of protecting them from the nationals is beautifully written. That much of the West Coast was declared a military zone; that the Japanese themselves built many of the camps they were housed in; that huge numbers of those interned were second-generation American and didn’t even speak Japanese shows just how far we can be carried along by the tide of mass hysteria and collective frenzy.

On February 19th 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, some 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified their action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown disloyalty to the nation. In some cases family members were separated and put in different camps. During the entire war only ten people were convicted of spying for Japan and these were all Caucasian.

hotel 2Harrowing accounts of people burning wedding photos and kimonos and anything that might tie them to being Japanese show the lengths we will go to belong. Stories of some Chinese putting their safety on the line to store precious belongings for their Japanese friends or even hide them, as Jews were being hidden in Europe, testify to the ability of friendship to break through bigoted boundaries. These passages resonated all the more given the title of this blog – unpacking my bottom drawer – and the collection that I have amassed over the years that is very much a mirror of my life.Would I willingly destroy it all?

The novel revolves around the friendship between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, their love of jazz, and a discovery at the Panama Hotel. Henry (the Chinese lad) has to wear a badge saying ‘I am Chinese’ in case someone might mistake him for being Japanese. Imagine. Through the reactions of the various random characters that pop up during the days they spend trying to assimilate, man’s inhumanity to man comes to the fore. It doesn’t elbow its way to the front row as happened with, say, the Holocaust, but rather edges its way forward until it is just as pervasive if not nearly as violent. Boycotting of Japanese businesses, refusal to sell to Japanese consumers, general maligning and debasing of their culture and traditions might seem light enough if placed side by side the trainloads of Jews that were being ferried to their death on the far side of the Atlantic. If we are speaking in terms of the numbers affected, the sheer magnitude of the atrocities committed, and the far-reaching effects that are still with us today, there is no comparison. But neither should have happened.

To my shame, I’ve only just gotten an inkling of what went on. When I was doing History at school we alternated between European and American and my year was on the European roster. While I am growing increasingly cynical about the ovine-like minds of the human race, it was a shock to read about the mass hysteria that cost so many people so much. Yet we saw the same in the 1960s in the UK where every Irish accent heralded a potential terrorist.  We see the same now with Muslims where every hijab masks a potential suicide bomber. I’m just back from Ireland, sickened by accounts from black taxi drivers of how the Irish (my people) openly scorn them and refuse to get into their cabs. This blanket painting of peoples as one collective image is keeping me awake at night. Literally.

The subtle treatment of the Japanese love of swing jazz is woven into the reaction of Black America to what was going on. Whether or not jazz legend Oscar Holden was in fact blacklisted from Jazz Clubs in Seattle for his outspoken protest against what was happening is something I can’t verify. I’d like to think it was true, though. It would go some part way to restoring my faith in human nature.

The Panama Hotel in Seattle is now on my list of places to visit (to think that I lived in  the vicinity for the bones of a year and didn’t know of any of this is disheartening). Jamie Ford is on my list of authors to watch. And the victims of this hysteria have been added to my list of those not to be forgotten.

2013 Grateful 34

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May? Remember those girls? From the E.E. Cummings poem?

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May went down to the beach (to play one day) and Maggie discovered a shell that sang so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,
and Milly befriended a stranded star whose rays five languid fingers were;
and Molly was chased by a horrible thing which raced sideways while blowing bubbles,
and May came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.
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 I was reminded of them recently when visiting the seaside resort of Majori in Latvia. I have a thing about the sea and prefer winter beaches with solitary walkers rather than the thronged sands of summer. It was a cold day – a wet one – and yet the minute we hit the sand, the sun came out, the temperature rose 10 degrees. It was like stepping into a micro-climate of sorts, one that enveloped us in warmth and held the cold at bay.

IMG_3805 (800x600)For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to live by the sea and one day it’ll happen. But it has to be a strong sea. One that crashes against the shoreline and screams in the night. One that howls its way to eternity and back and makes you believe in the fragility of life and the tenuousness with which you hang on to it. I have very vivid memories of an Easter weekend spent in Ocean Shores in Oregon and  a New Year spent on Achill Island off the West Coast of Ireland. I’ve a bank full of flashbacks to long beach walks either alone or in company and hours of time spent sitting on the rocks listening to waves crash and thunder as I felt so utterly and completely alone.

IMG_3812 (800x590)Were it not for the fact that summer fast approaches and the quiet solitude of this gorgeous old beach house will be broken by the raucous noise of tanned ravers, and its clean air disturbed by the toxic smell of suncream,  I’d have spent some time imagining a life there. As it were, I coveted the view and mentally refurbished it to my taste and style and wondered if I could live there just in winter.

Summer houses in Majori apparently attract a monthly rent of up to €25 000, depending on their size. It’s a popular spot for Russian money and the newly built houses are part of a growing body of evidence that money and taste are not necessarily constant bedfellows.  Some of the older buildings are tarted up in pastels, while the boutiques showcase the blingiest of bling.

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Indian poet, playwright, and Nobel Prize winner for literature, Rabindranath Tagore, said: You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. Don’t let yourself indulge in vain wishes. But what, I wonder, if I didn’t want to cross it … would standing and staring at the water be so bad? And I wonder, too, if I am indulging myself in vain wishes, or am I simply biding my time till that day I pack up and head for the coast?

This week, as thunderstorms of both a meteorological and a political persuasion rage across Hungary, I am grateful that I get to indulge myself every now and then with trips to the sea. I am grateful, too, that my wishes are not vain. One day…

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