The threat of exposure

Over the course of the last couple of months, I must have read close to 40 crime novels by everyone from Michael Connelly to Val McDermid. I’ve noticed that I’m becoming increasingly paranoid; my imagination is running away with me. Holes in ceilings now house hidden cameras. I talk in code while on the phone. And if I happen to meet the same random stranger in the street twice in one day, they’re following me. It’s obvious.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that the recent brouhaha over a recording of a telephone conversation which was posted on YouTube in July allegedly between Zenonas Kumetaitis, deputy director of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Eastern Neighbourhood Policy Department, and Renatas Juška, Lithuania’s Ambassador to Hungary has me worried. The recording is still available on YouTube, subtitled in English (although one of the comments beneath says that the subtitles are incorrect) so I’m at the mercy of translators.

wifiContrary to Lithuania’s official position, Amb. Juška is apparently leaning towards Armenia, as they, too, are Christians. The two chat about Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius’s visit to St Petersburg and share personal opinions on Azerbaijan-Armenia relations. Politics aside, what’s amusing me is that in their world, the most difficult problems are apparently solved over Blackberries, without having a chance to sit face-to-face and discuss not just a particular issue, but those that might be relevant to it. This worries me. A lot. I have a deep-seated fear (crime-novel-induced paranoia aside) that we are losing our ability to communicate in any meaningful sense.

In a rather amusing opinion piece on the situation, Rimvydas Valatka of 15min. lt says: The leaked conversation has revealed that, over the last couple of decades, Lithuania has trained a generation of diplomats with faculties for critical thought as well as good sense of humour. I hear vague echoes of reflections on the writing abilities of US diplomats in the wake of WikiLeaks and wonder, yet again, what purpose these leaks serve.

One point though that Valatka makes really got me thinking: What if recorded conversations are not leaked but instead sent to ambassadors themselves? ‘Listen, guys, this and that, we can upload it on YouTube and you’ll end up like Žurauskas and Juška; or we can have a deal. A tit for tat for mother Russia..’.

Could it ever come to that? Could the threat of exposure on social media be enough to influence behaviour?

First published 29 August 2013 with DiploFoundation

Lost… in Budapest

address cardWere my head not screwed on, I’d likely have lost it in the course of the last couple of weeks. I’ve lost just about everything else, from my driver’s license to my tax card to my tin opener. I thought I’d lost a bush that had been planted outside my front door but one of my neighbours took pity on it (or me) and did some triage. It might survive. The Irish licence I can salvage; it just means spending a day when next I’m home reading a book (an entire book) as I wait in line at the Motor Tax office, after having one of the local Gardaí sign my photos saying that he knows who I am. Replacing my tax card I can do by post. Replacing my resident’s card will be a little trickier. But first on my list was my address card (Lakcím kártya) … and I was dreading it.

I’d taken advice from the ever-so-helpful team at Everyday Solutions, a genius venture set up by a team of young entrepreneurs here in Budapest to help non-natives navigate the country’s maze of bureaucracy and find everything from a plumber to a butterfly tattoo. The charge? A donation of €5.

At the same time, I emailed another company in the market that helps expats abroad and they were happy to go get my card for me – no need for me to be there at all. I was tempted. So very tempted. I break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of interacting with Hungarian bureaucracy. I know personally how much is down to fine print and personal vagaries. And if I could keep out of it and pay someone else to feel that pain, then great! But when the quotation came in at 29 040 huf + VAT (about €95 + 27%) … I decided that I needed to explore my options further. I think of everything in terms of travel – and for that sort of money, I could fly to Dublin, one-way, next week, or take the train to Prague and stay overnight!

So I phoned a friend for directions and then asked another friend to come with me to the local municipality office, about a 10-minute walk from my flat. The chap at the door gave us a number. We waited for 10 minutes for it to be called. And 15 minutes later I walked away with new address card at the cost of 1000 ft (€3.50). I was home inside an hour.

Not for the first time I wonder at the cost of being a foreigner living abroad who doesn’t speak the language properly. And not for the first time I’ve resolved to get to grips with the dreaded Magyarul.

Massive thanks to all involved… next stop, immigration.

2013 Grateful 19

I mixed up my Paddys. I thought I was going to Kobuci to see Paddy, he who sometimes plays in Jack Doyle’s. I had visions of a rousing ballad session with more than a hint of Irish. Having dinner beforehand it was obvious from the general conversation that I’d mixed up my Paddys.

What I was actuallpaddy ky going to see was a gig by Paddy and the Rats. And the confusion didn’t stop there. With names like Paddy O’Reilly, Sam McKenzie, Joey MacOnkay, Bernie Bellamy, Vince Murphy, and Seamus Connelly, I was expecting a six-pack of Irish lads on stage, but when I spoke with Bernie afterwards, he was obviously Hungarian. So I’m still clueless.

From what I can gather, the boys hail from Miskolc and banded together in 2008, listing their genres as Pub ‘n’ Roll, Celtic Punk, Sailor Punk. What I know for sure is that the gig was bloody amazing. It’s been a while (my first Firkin gig in BP actually) since I’ve seen grown men body-slamming, or girls being shouldered by their lads, or every foot in the place rocking. I had a permanent grin on my face and with the mantra ‘bloody amazing’ rollicking around in my brain as the rest of me seemed to be going in fifty million directions – yet all perfectly coordinated. The music gets into your bones.

paddy5Paddy O’Reilly, whoever he is when he’s at home, had the crowd in the palm of his hand – literally. He choreographed them like they were puppets on a string. I say ‘them’ because although I was there, I stood back, by the bar, to avoid the frenzy and watched with a peculiar mix of pride that I think only someone as romantically Irish as I can be could feel – a pride that our music has run the gauntlet, somersaulted across cultures and borders and landed so firmly in Hungary where it so obviously enjoyed.

paddy4The accordion work on Pilgrim on the Road was amazing. And while I struggled to catch the words (a combination methinks of accent, enunciation, and acoustics) Never walk alone is still rattling around in my head. As for the bagpipes, the fiddle work, and the drums… am already itching for more.

This week, I’m grateful for the invitations I get to go places I’ve not been before, for the exposure to music I’d never discover on my own, and to those who hang tight till the wee hours and make these forays so much more enjoyable. And even if I was the common denominator in the series of accidents that befell the city this week … ta very much, lads. I had a blast.

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

Educational epitaphs

I thought I was a little odd visiting Bródy Sándor’s grave each November and leaving flowers, but I have nothing on this 40-something French girl who comes to Ireland five or six times a year to visit Michael Collins’s grave and also sends flowers for Valentine’s Day and his birthday. Amazing what Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the great man can ignite.

IMG_7245 (600x800)Mind you, I inherited a photo from my aunt of a man in uniform, sure that it was of my grandfather. A friend visiting from Ireland said he was surprised that I’d have a photo of Michael Collins on my wall. I’m not sure who got the bigger shock.

Michael Collins ranks up there as one of Ireland’s great historical figures. And Glasnevin cemetery is full of them. Parnell, Larkin, O’Donovan Rossa  – they’ve all secured a place in history and a plot in this cemetery. Used as I am to rather banal epitaphs, it was quite a shock to see cause of death etched in stone. Walking through Glasnevin was like leafing through a history book.

IMG_7241 (589x800)IMG_7223 (594x800)I felt stirrings of that elusive thing called patriotism as I was reminded, yet again, that the freedom I enjoy today is courtesy of so many who gave up their lives to secure it for me. There were two sides in the Civil War and to this day, there are two camps alive and well in Ireland. I wrote a while back about the American Civil War and the South’s reluctance to move on and let go, so it was with more than a little chagrin that I listened to our guide tell of visitors who would refuse to stop at de Valera’s grave or walk by Michael Collins without as much as a nod. And I wondered, not for the first time, about history and how, how it is passed on  shapes our view of the world.

IMG_7235 (600x800)I’m a great fan of WB Yeats and have noted a couple of instances where he refers to a chap by the name of O’Leary. In September 1913, he writes: Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone; it’s with O’Leary in the grave. And again, in the poem Beautiful Lofty Things: Beautiful lofty things: O’Leary’s noble head. I’d always wondered who this chap was and now I know. Buried next to James Stephens, for whom he was best man, O’Leary was a Fenian, believing in Irish independence and the separation of Church and state, and, apparently, a friend of Whistler. Now there’s a connection that would make for an interesting ‘six degrees of separation’.

IMG_7211 (800x600) (2)The prize for the best attended funeral goes to Charles Stewart Parnell – more than a quarter of a million people turned out to see him buried – a sizable number of whom wanted to make sure he was dead. Parnell was buried in the cholera pit, where more than 13 000 others met their end in a mass grave. It was thought that here, he’d be safe from the grave robbers and those who might want a piece of him.

In many countries, grave robbing has fallen off the statutory law wagon. Back in the day, when medical universities needed bodies to dissect, corpses were traded by the imperial inch. Just one body was worth two months’ wages in Ireland and in the UK, the same body would be worth six. In Austria right now, police are looking for a grave robber who has broken in the graves of composers Brahms and Strauss and stolen their teeth! Apparently he plans to open a museum. Oh, the workings of the human mind – what a mystery.

Touching coffins

There are more people buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin that are currently alive in the city. I heard that on Saturday and it still hasn’t sunk in: 1.5 million dead vs 1.3 million alive.  A tour of the cemetery has been on my list of things to do for years and finally, thanks to the ever-on-the-ball MN, I got to cross it off my list and may well have changed my life in the process.

IMG_7267 (600x800)Dominated by a large round tower – the tallest in the country – it’s home to many a famous Irish man and woman. The round tower, in fact, is the headstone on Daniel O’Connell’s grave and for those of you who are not familiar with the man Dan, there are those who believe that he discovered Ireland.

IMG_7183 (800x600)We share the same birthday – 6 August – but he was born into aristocracy in 1775 on the opposite side of Ireland, in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Despite having money, the family’s belief in Catholicism stood against them and denied them the status and influence their bank  balance would normally provide.  After stints in college, Daniel went to Lincoln’s Inn, London, and then to King’s Inn,  Dublin, where he studied for the bar. Qualifying in 1798, he was at this stage   fully committed to religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, democracy and the separation of Church and State.

At home, he was seen as a bit of  radical and despite his involvement in the United Irishmen, they themselves inspired by the French Revolution, O’Connell believed that the Irish were not sufficiently enlightened to hear the sun of freedom [An aside: when I read this, I remembered a Hungarian friend telling me in before the last elections that Hungary wasn’t ready for democracy – the parallels continue]. He was all for change, but advocated change within and through the system.

Fast forward to 1815 when O’Connell was probably the most successful barrister in the country and leader of the Catholic Emancipation movement. In 1823, he along with a couple of others, started the Catholic Association and had the brainwave to swell its ranks by offering annual membership for just a shilling. Their aim: to have the Act of Union repealed, to bring an end to Irish tithe system, to bring about universal suffrage, and to see a secret ballot for parliamentary elections. Despite being elected to government, O’Connell couldn’t take his seat in London in Parliament because he was Catholic. But he was a crowd-puller. It is thought that three-quarters of a million people gathered on the hill of Tara to hear the man they called the Liberator.

In 1841 he became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin and continued to fight to have the Act of Union repealed, yet he would die in Genoa in March of 1847 without doing so. On his last trip to Rome, he visited Paris where he was touted as the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe.  He never made it to Rome and on his deathbed is reported to have said My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, and my soul to Heaven. Whether or not he meant this literally is a mystery but those who heard him decided to grant his wish. His heart was removed and sent to Rome to the Irish College while the rest of him was shipped back to Glasnevin cemetery, the country’s first non-denominational cemetery which he had started back in 1832. Apparently, his heart went missing about 110 years ago…

IMG_7186 (800x583)IMG_7194 (800x600)O’Connell’s coffin sits in a crypt beneath the round tower. Holes in the marble casing allow you to reach in and touch the coffin, which is supposed to bring good luck. (Yet again, I’m fascinated by our ability as a people to conjure good luck out of anything from the combination of a black cat and an ambulance to repeated numbers on a digital clock.) Touch it I did, and more than once. In fact, had the opportunity presented itself and were good luck guaranteed, I’d have gotten into the coffin beside him.

IMG_7188 (800x600)His family and their first born are also entitled to a space in the crypt… in a side room, stacked on top of each other in lead-lined caskets. Lead creates a seal, a vacuum of sorts, that preserves bodies and as hair continues to grow long after we die, one can only imagine the state the family would be in now.  In what might seem as an effort on behalf of history to rewrite itself, O’Connell’s coffin is 9 feet long – while the man himself was reportedly much, much, much shorter.

IMG_7210 (800x600)Even in death, O’Connell still presides over the cemetery where 800 000 bodies lie in unmarked graves. Vast expanses of innocent-looking lawns cover mass graves where bodies were buried regardless of religious or political beliefs. One can imagine the conversations …

2013 Grateful 20

There’s a house across the road from us at home that I’ve coveted for years. As kids, me and my mate would sneak in the back, through the fields, and try to get as close to it as possible before the caretaker caught us and frog-marched us home to whatever punishment awaited us as repeat offenders. We never learned. It was a place of intrigue, somewhere forbidden.

IMG_7286 (800x600)In 1917 it was used as a military hospital to treat the wounded from WWI. In 1928 it became a TB sanatorium where those with the dreaded affliction also known as the white plague and consumption came to enjoy the restorative fresh air of the countryside and ultimately meet their death. It is said that the mortality rate in Firmount House in the 1920s and 1930s was 100%. One former nurse, still living, said recently that in the 1950s, with the cure for TB discovered, things got better and they only lost, say, one patient a week.

As kids, we knew that the place had been a sanatorium for those with tuberculosis. But instead of making it less appealing for our adventurous forays, it drew use closer. Death was just one of those things that happen, eventually, to us all. And whether we go of TB or cancer or in a car accident or in our sleep, it is inevitable. I knew enough, even then, to know that there are worse things than death and for many it can come as a blessed relief.

IMG_7280 (800x600)The house was taken over by the Department of Defense in 1964. Watching members of the FCA (An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, as the Army Reserves were known back then) walking up the road on their way to the village became a hobby. Like the house itself, they, too, were exotic.

I’ve always wanted to see inside and this weekend, I had my chance. The local history group was giving a talk and I went along to see what I’d missed in not buying the place when it was on the market (it went for 250k and while I might have scraped together a deposit, the renovation costs would have needed a lotto win).

For years and years and years I’ve wanted to live there, to look out those windows onto the fields and hills and to enjoy the relative seclusion offered by the long avenue leading up to the house. And I never once thought of the hundreds who had died there over the years from TB. I was gutted when I heard it had finally sold and my plans to turn it into an artists’ retreat or a shelter for victims of domestic violence went with it (a big difference I know – but them’s the swings and roundabouts my dreams enjoy).

This week, I’m grateful, in a weird way, that the house has sold and that that particular dream has vaporised. One fewer focal points might narrow my choices a little and render decisions about the future a little easier. And, with due consideration for the TB patients of old, I’m extremely grateful to be healthy.

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

Something about Szeged

IMG_6994 (800x600)In Szeged last weekend for Porgy and Bess, I was followed by a feeling of disquiet the whole time I was there. It was as if something was going on and I was the only one who wasn’t in the know. I realise that university towns without their students are odd places to be and yet this feeling of ‘otherness’ couldn’t just be put down to the absence of half the town’s usual residents.

The city is old but doesn’t really look it. History tells us of the presence of mammoth hunters in the region 24 000 years ago. The name Szeged itself didn’t appear on record until  1183, when King Béla III granted passage to three ships carrying salt to the church at Nyitra. Now the third largest city in Hungary and home to the university that bears its name, there’s something about Szeged that isn’t entirely … well… Hungarian.

IMG_7004 (800x569)So I did some reading and discovered that the city was wiped out on 12 March 1879. It was almost completely and utterly destroyed by the flood which resulted from a breach in a nearby dyke. Only 265 of the existing 5723 houses remained. The world united to rebuild the city. The main streets feature Rome, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, Moscow and Vienna, a permanent reminder to the donations received from around the world to help with the reconstruction.
IMG_7007 (599x800)Wandering into town from the train station, relatively unimpressed by what I’d see thus far, the  Gate of Heroes took me by surprise. Erected in 1936 in honour of those who had died in WWI, the arch is covered in frescoes painted by Vilmos Aba-Novák. When the communists came, they painted over the artwork and it wasn’t until 2000 that the frescoes were restored to their original form.IMG_7032 (800x600)IMG_7030 (800x586)The university itself is lovely – and pretty much dominates the main square. I hadn’t realised that it was originally the University of Kolozsvár in Romania which began in 1872 and had to move to Hungary after the Treaty of Trianon in 1921. It was reborn as the  University of Szeged and amongst its alumni is my favourite Hungarian poet, Jozsef Attila. From 1962 to 1999 it was actually call after him, too. Amongst its faculty it includes Nobel-prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi,  he who is tied forever with the isolation and extraction of Vitamin C from paprika. IMG_7039 (800x597)Szeged definitely had the feel of a university town, even if the students were missing. Mind you, despite the added sense of summer culture that comes with the outdoor festival, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something about Szeged that I just didn’t get.  We tried the famous fish soup (excellent), shared a plate of tepertó (goose crackling), and slept the sleep of the innocent at the Hotel Mozart. IMG_7062 (800x582)IMG_7052 (800x600)We walked the banks of the Tisza and remembered the mayflies and got some great people-watching in. It was a lovely summer evening and there was plenty going on and yes, I’d go back. If only to try and figure out what it was that I missed.

IMG_7072 (800x587) that

It ain’t necessarily so

How I had lived this long and not seen Porgy and Bess is beyond me. Summertime is one of my favourite songs but I had the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong version in mind. As for It ain’t necessarily so, well, it ain’t, but then again, I had the Cab Calloway version in mind. In my head, Porgy and Bess wasn’t an opera… it was a jazz musical. And when I make up my mind about something… well…

In Szeged, a few miles from the Hungary/Serbia border, last weekend, I had my first taste of the annual open-air festival that the town is famous for. The key performance this year was supposed to be the Kung-Fu Legend dance show but, thankfully, they cancelled and New-York-based theatre company Living Arts Inc., brought the jazz opera Porgy and Bess to the Hungarian stage for the first time since 1991 instead.

IMG_7125 (800x594)

In 1926, George Gershwin read the novel Porgy penned by DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina. But it wasn’t until 1934 that his plans to write a folk opera came to pass. And here the mind boggles: a Southern gent and a Jew collaborating on a folk opera set in black America. George was quite explicit in his instructions: all white characters (two, that I saw) in his opera had to be sung by white singers, and the black characters by black singers.  It was hard to count how many actors/singers were involved – somewhere between 25 and 30 at a guess with one more talented than the next. I couldn’t help but wonder when the town’s demographics had last been so upset. Mind you, this little stipulation of Gershwin’s was ignored when the opera was first performed in Hungary in 1970. It ran for over 100 nights, with the lead roles sung by Hungarians. The mind boggles, again.

William Warfield, who sang Porgy in the 1952 revival, said in a PBS interview that when they played Vienna, ‘only the principals were black. The chorus and the dancers were all made up to look black.’  Back when it opened first, in 1935, not even the Met in New York could ‘assemble an all-black cast’ so it opened on Broadway. The mind is still boggling.

The story itself is quite simple. Porgy is a crippled beggar who lives on Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. He sees this chap Crown kill a guy and flee the scene, leaving his gal Bess (a waterfront hooker) behind. Porgy takes her in and, true to form, they fall in love, and adopt the Summertime child when its parents die in a hurricane. But Crown doesn’t give up on Bess and comes back to fight for her. Porgy, despite his disability, is having none of it and Bess says she wants to stay, so Porgy kills  Crown and is arrested (what a man won’t do for the love of a good woman eh?) While Porgy’s overnighting with the cops, Bess’s resolve to go straight and do good by her new man falls apart when Sportin’ Life, the local drug dealer, gets her back on the happy dust and takes her to New York (silly woman). Poor old Porgy comes back, a free man, only to find that his missus has absconded to New York. The show closes with him setting out to find her. Now. That’s. What. I. Call. Love.

Dom squareIt’s a classic.  Transported as we were to the Charleston waterfront, the show had all the ingredients necessary to make the trip worthwhile: births, deaths, religion, sex, passion, superstition, love, hate, murder, strength, weakness, good, evil… everything imaginable. Staged in Dóm tér (Cathedral Square), in the shadows of Szeged University, a 4000-seat grandstand, complete with boxes, was full to capacity. Temperatures were in the high 30s and the fans were out in force, creating a breeze of their own. Those in the know brought their cushions. Those who didn’t will know to do so next time!

IMG_7100 (800x600)Played by the  Szeged Symphony Orchestra, and punctuated by the odd boy-racer on a motorbike, the music was jaw-droppingly powerful. Part of me wondered what it would have been like to be outside the crowd, in the street, just listening. Would it have been as effective?I think, yes. Yet while the score was amazing, I remain convinced that opera and the English language do not make good bedfellows. Large screens on either side of the stage translated the colloquialisms of the south into Hungarian, and those not fluent in English (even I had difficult hearing some of it, and we had great seats!) had to choose between watching the antics on stage, or understanding the lyrics.

But I’m used to that with opera. What I had a hard time with was marrying Ella and Cab with the operatics of Stephen Finch (he who used to come to the first season of the Gift of the Gab every month without fail and sit upstairs in the balcony at Spinoza) and Angela Owens. They were truly marvelous but the bit of me I left behind in South Carolina was screaming across the miles: this ain’t how it should be!

So you can imagine my surprise, when, back in the hotel (the show ran from 9pm till after midnight) I asked my smart phone to conjure up the original… and lo and behold… it was an opera. Well, ya learn something new every day! But then I got to diggin’ and apparently America at large had a similar problem. Gershwin’s P&B wasn’t generally accepted in the USA as a ‘real’ opera until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera’s production of the complete score put it on the map (Texas and opera? Mind: stop boggling!) Up till then, it was a musical. Feeling somewhat vindicated, I began to wonder if, perhaps, I’d seen it after all, back in the 1930s, in a previous life….

2013 Grateful 21

I’ve lived to tell the tale. I’ve survived yet another birthday week. For those of you not yet old enough (or fortunate enough) to have experienced this particular phenomenon, first introduced to me by the inimitable DF in Washington, let me outline the basic concept. Once you pass the tender age of 40, instead of forgetting about birthdays altogether, you have what she calls a birthday week – you celebrate for a whole seven days. Nothing like a series of late nights and revelry to keep old age at bay.

IMG_6904 (600x800)Mine started on Saturday, 3rd August, at Kincsem Park – an open invite to join me at the races saw hats being demothballed, picnic baskets being aired, and the inner gambler in some emerge. It was hot, bloody hot, too hot to sit on the grass with no shade so we picnicked in the stands – just by the finish line. While we were awash with food and wine, we were a little light on tipsters. But with 10 races on the card, we had plenty of time to figure it out. Kincsem Park is a great day out, any day. Add some old friends, some new friends, and some good wine, and it’s even better. A swathe of taxis took the hard core to Grund – a garden bar in the VIIIth district – and then for a 2am snack at a great little place on Ulloi. Sunday, as it should be, was a day of rest and recuperation.

IMG_6976 (800x600)Monday was about being nice to me – hair do, manicure, long lunch, phone calls abroad. Tuesday, the day itself, started off with lunch at Kompót, my new favourite place to eat in Budapest. And then it was over to Buda (on a day pass!) to Kobuci where a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute band kept the floor heaving despite the temperatures. People came and went all evening and again, it was great to catch up with those I’ve not seen in a while. I like this idea of open invites – you never know who will show up. Another late one though as Szimpla beckoned and then some more dancing … at a great little place on Ulloi.

IMG_6956 (800x599)The week progressed with more lunches, dinners, coffees, and catch-ups. The cards came through the letterbox and transatlantic phone calls added to my days. And then on Friday, it was off to Szeged by train to see Porgy and Bess. More on this spectacular experience later. Back in town yesterday, for the official close of my 2013 birthday week, I found myself giving thanks to the good Lord for the people who have come into my life…. and stayed a while. For their generosity of spirit and that added extra they bring with them: different perspectives that challenge, provoke, and entertain and further enrich an already blessed life.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir


A convent-like experience

Finding accommodation in Oslo isn’t difficult. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses to choose from. Finding reasonably priced accommodation though, with breakfast and free Wi-fi included, is  a different matter entirely. I knew what part of town I wanted to stay in so, on the advice of a friend, I booked myself into the Gjestehuset Lovisenberg.

IMG_6616 (800x600)It fascinated me on two counts. One, it was a former training hospital for nursing nuns. The walls are lined with old black-and-white and sepia photos of the graduating classes, decked out in their habits and wimples. I was half-expecting to see an apparition or three during my stay, but given the price of a pint, there’d be no staying up on the surfboard after 40 pints of stout. And two, it provided a sanctuary for Jews during the Second World War. Situated in the midst of a hospital area, I had to wend my way home through the grounds, skirting the psychiatric unit, passing the MS unit, and giving a nod of recognition to the meningitis unit. It was a little peculiar to say the least. I’m more used to skirting bars and restaurants when traipsing back to my hotel than medical clinics.

IMG_6612 (800x599)At about €100 a night, the single room with private bath was the same as a double (and no single supplement – seems like Norway doesn’t penalise the unwed) so I splurged. Rooms were clean and basic, almost sterile. Toiletries supplied amounted to a single bar of soap – no shampoo, body lotions, cotton buds, or any of the niceties I’ve come to expect on my travels. Obviously vanity of any sort was not encouraged. It was a couple of days before I noticed I had no TV either. But I did have a chapel on my floor.

IMG_6535 (800x589)The abundance of holy pictures, angels, and other religious iconary may have made some a tad uncomfortable, but I was in my element. It was as close as I’m ever likely to get to living in a convent.

Breakfast was eaten in a silence that approached reverence – and again, I thanked the Lord for local knowledge because without it, I’d never have known to put the Kaviar cream on the hard-boiled egg, or to eat the herring with cucumber slices or to try the brown cheese with mackerel.

My one complaint was that my Thunderbird wasn’t compatible with their Internet so I had to collect my emails separately – a right pain in the proverbial. Yet the flip side was that this drove me out… to find other wi-fi in the area and discover other places in the locale. My conclusion: this part of town is convenient, well serviced by public transport, has good bars and restaurants, and were I to get ill…. I’d be well looked after.