Where has all the wine gone?

Awash with wine as we are in Hungary, it’s nigh on impossible to imagine that globally, we could be in crisis. If anything, I’m noticing more cellars adding their bottles to the supermarket shelves, which may simply mean that marketing has upped a notch or two. Or perhaps I’m being a little more adventurous and dipping my palette into new waters. My current favourite wine region is Szekszárd; I’ve happily drank my way through the region’s rosés this summer and have even dabbled in a red or two.

As my wine reach broadens, I’ve had a couple of wow moments when I’ve opened a bottle of what turned out to be a particularly nice tipple. Anyone heard of Áldozóhegyi and the Áldozói Aranyveltelini 2003? I can’t for the life of me remember who gave it to me but it’s worth tracking down (and if it was you, drop me a line!)

IMG_4454 (800x600)Hungary’s wining apparently dates back at least to Roman times. There are 22 wine areas in the country which, depending on the day or publication, are grouped into 5 or 7 regions, some being more popular than others. Mind you, I suspect that this is more to do with savvy marketing than the quality of the wine. And, for the trivia heads amongst you, seven grape varieties are said to have come from Hungary, including Ezerjó and the popular Irsai Oliver.

When I read today’s news that the world is facing a global wine shortage, I was a tad concerned. According to the BBC News:

Research by America’s Morgan Stanley financial services firm says demand for wine “exceeded supply by 300m cases in 2012”.

Compare this to 2004 when supply outweighed demand by about 600m cases. So where has it all gone?  Apparently the USA has doubled its wine consumption since 2000… mmmm…. and China is up there with them, too. Thankfully, (and selfishly) a 2012 EU report tells me that my intake won’t be adversely affected by supply.

Sharp production decreases in Italy together with smaller decreases in Portugal and Greece were offset by higher production in France, Germany, Romania, and Hungary.

Vague memories of my economics classes and the concept of supply and demand tell me though that wine prices are likely to increase. Now, that’s not good news. But then again, when I can get a perfectly decent bottle of Hungarian wine for €3, I’m not too worried.

Ask my phone

I was sitting in the Abacus Hotel in Herceghalom on Friday, having lunch, when the chap beside me picked up his phone and spoke to it. Not in it. To it. He asked it to check to see when Csaba someone or other was free to meet on Monday.

I was a tad uncomfortable, thinking he’d lost the run of himself. It had been a while since I’d been outside the city limits and I was feeling a little light-headed. I thought perhaps that the fresh air and sunshine had gotten to him, too.

But then he looked at the screen, read the reply, and then again, spoke to his phone saying: Yes, Siri, go ahead and set up a meeting with him for Monday at 11am.

siriCuriosity won out. I asked who Siri was. He was surprised that I (a) didn’t have an iPhone (and there was me thinking I was technologically posh with my Samsung Galaxy) and (b) hadn’t heard of Siri. Apparently everyone knows about Siri.

Siri lets you use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it.

Is that scary or what? I get great amusement out of my dad asking me to ask ‘the computer’ who’s winning the golf and yet for all my cheekiness, I felt just as he must feel when I was confronted with Siri.

Talk to Siri as you would to a person. Say something like “Tell my wife I’m running late” or “Remind me to call the vet.” Siri not only understands what you say, it’s smart enough to know what you mean. So when you ask “Any good burger joints around here?” Siri will reply “I found a number of burger restaurants near you.” Then you can say “Hmm. How about tacos?” Siri remembers that you just asked about restaurants, so it will look for Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood. And Siri is proactive, so it will question you until it finds what you’re looking for.

The mind boggles – both at how far behind the times I actually am, and how much further behind the times I’d like to be.

2013 Grateful 10

Just returned from the wilds of Alaska back in 2001, I found myself in Carlow at a nightclub. Some lad was chatting me up. His opening line? I can see by ya that ya like a bit of chocolate. Ten out of ten for observation, I thought. Zero out of ten for propriety.

I’ve written before about how much I like my food. I like to cook and I like to eat. I’ve been known to cook for myself, and to set the table with  a linen napkin and my best crystal and silverware. I’m partial to a bit of finery and on occasion I even enjoy a little luxury.

I’d heard in passing about KNRDY – the restaurant with no vowel in its name. It’s on October 6 utca and by all accounts had prices well out of my reach. The billionaire’s burger on the menu comes in just shy of 12 000 ft (about $56 or $40). Enough said.

20131024_200152_resizedBut I was curious and the universe provided. A friend invited me to dinner there. I was impressed from the outset by the service. Displaying just the right amount of attention without that obvious insincerity that similar high-class restaurants in Budapest seem to wear as a trademark, the staff were knowledgeable, friendly, and very professional. The reading lights on the menu made it easier to read without taking from the atmosphere and attention to detail was evident in everything from the offer of a purse holder to the watchfulness of the waiters.

20131024_202909_resizedNicely mellowed by what had to be the best cosmopolitan I’ve had in this city to date, we decided to split some seared yellowfin tuna sashimi with cucumber salad. The creamy wasabi mayo was a perfect complement to the meaty fish and I was greedily regretting having agreed to share. Still, even the half dish was ample and I would be glad later that I’d saved room.

20131024_205216_resized20131024_205207_resizedI went for seared king scallops on cumin and coriander lentils and while I enjoyed them immensely, I have to fess up to looking enviously at the bone-in Omaha ribeye that sat across the table. We shared some potatoes roasted in duck fat and a gorgeous dish of creamed spinach and leek gratin. All this was nicely accompanied by a Pouilly Fumé from Pascal Jolivet. I prefer to drink Hungarian wine in Hungary but who was I to argue with the choice. Delicious. A red wine from Villány accompanied the steak –  a 2007 Wunderlich Ars Poetica. Apparently KNRDY’s owner liked it so much, he bought it all – every bottle. And while I am reluctant to drink red wine, I liked the taste I had of this one … a lot.  Dessert, a New York cheesecake and some pecan pie, was set off beautifully by a glass of Mezés – a Tokjai furmint. Heavenly.

From the minute you set foot in the restaurant, you can see what’s on offer. The various cuts of meat are on display right inside the front door. Chalkboards tell you the weights of the pieces they have available. Tables are far enough apart that you don’t feel you’re eavesdropping on your neighbours’ conversation (mostly men, by the way) and the music from the 70s and 80s was a refreshing change and quite nostalgic. Rumour has it that the staff was trained for six months before the doors opened and that is obvious in itself. What’s also obvious is that Mr K knows what he likes – I got the distinct impression that he had personally approved and tasted every dish on the menu.

As we toasted our blessings and sat for a minute in silence reflecting on how lucky we were to have had such a meal, I gave thanks yet again for where my life has taken me. And when the bill arrived, I was even more grateful that I wasn’t the one paying it.

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

How deep is too deep?

The stapes is the smallest bone in the human body – and that’s about the size of the radical feminist streak that runs through this very traditionalist body. Don’t get me wrong:  I’m all for women’s rights – the right to choose what happens to our bodies, the right to vote, the right to equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal treatment . But I draw the line at the notion that equality of the sexes in terms of physical and emotional strength and capacity can ever exist. Men and women will never be equal; we will always be different – and Amen to that. (And, for the cynics amongst you, as Timothy O’Leary pointed out: Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.)

Occasionally I come across situations that get my dander up, like the recent clothes row that’s going on at the University of Kaposvár. Ferenc Szávai, the university’s rector, has apparently introduced a swathe of rules that requires students to be neat and tidy every day (a stretch for some, admittedly) and will restrict what they can wear on campus. This has been met with topless protests and the disapprobation it deserves.

decFrom my understanding (and I’m open to correction if I’m getting this wrong), Szávai’s rules decry the wearing of too much perfume, skirts that are too short, and décolletage that is too deep. I laughed out loud when I read this and immediately began to wonder how he plans to measure too much, too short, and too deep.

Yet apart from his desire to put an end to bare feet on campus, all the restrictions seems to be pointed at female students. There’s nothing that I can see asking the male fraternities not to wear too much aftershave, or to refrain from baring their midriffs in summer, or asking them to hike up their jeans and avoid a wanton display of underwear … or bum cheeks.

Admittedly there are times I see some of my sisterhood and wonder if they passed a mirror on their way to their front door, so little has been left to the imagination. But surely dress is a matter of personal choice and taste, an outward manifestation of style and personality. Such a pointless imposition of restrictive measures seems… well… pointless.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 October 2013.

Stop the world… I want to get off

No matter how good life is, or how much everything seems to be going in the right direction, bad days are inevitable. What we do with them says a lot about who we are. I’m a wallower. I don’t wallow for long, or indeed indulge myself all that often, but on occasion I have to fight the urge to scream at the world to stop… and let me get off. I get a perverse enjoyment out of being miserable. I can feel sorry for myself with the best of them.

A mate of mine sent me this photo of his dog, Hammer. I’m not a huge animal fan, having lost a series of pets as a child to traffic, poison, and bigger animals. I learned early not to get attached, but Hammer … him I like. There’s an empathy there – I swear he can talk and read minds.


Today – a holiday here in Hungary that dawned warm and sunny, and started off well with some exciting creative prospects in the offing and a lovely breakfast with a good mate. And then, just as a sudden storm might brew, or a  cloud disgorge an ocean of  rain, my inbox swelled to overflowing. It seems that everyone wanted a piece of me…yesterday.

I worked for hours on a particularly nasty proofreading job and found myself increasingly wondering about the possibility of a career change. This is unusual. I like working with words, without human interference, just me and my track changes or my red pen. I like it so much, in fact, that I don’t even consider it work. But today, today was different.

Today I wanted to disappear. To get on that boat. To go somewhere without Internet. Without people (well, maybe not all people). But I have a deadline – a series of deadlines in fact – that forecasts pretty much the same for the next few days. So I stopped and took time to wallow. And then I looked at the second photo PM sent.

Hammer 2And I could just hear Hammer saying: Silly cow – just get on with it. You don’t know how lucky you have it. But I do, Hammer, I do. It’s just today…




2013 Grateful 11

When I arrived in Budapest all those years ago, with two suitcases, two framed pictures, and an assortment of mental and emotional baggage, Keleti Station left me speechless.

Keleti stationIt was as if I’d stepped off the train and into a whole other world, a world that still belonged on a movie set. The glass frontage, the statues set on high, and the wrought iron and steel that encases the places all lent themselves to a John le Carré novel. I was enchanted. Today, the view that greets the new arrivals is less than stellar. They descend the steps to a construction site, their view marred by cranes and scaffolding, but like all things in life, these too will pass. [A note from 2017 – it’s all looking rather lovely, now.]

IMG_7548 (800x600)

Trains arrive from Prague, from Munich, from Vienna, each one disgorging a sea of passengers of all creeds, breeds, and generations. Those waiting for their trains are no less colourful than the myriad people who seem to live in the place. Hawkers, cabbies, currency touts all ply their trade and occasionally, you might even be lucky enough to catch a chess cowboy on the make.

There’s the juxtaposition of old and new –  the old-fashioned frontage at street level and the more modern metro station underneath –  both of which talk to the Budapest I’ve come to know and love. That curious mix of progress and posterity that I find so fascinating.

IMG_7547 (800x600)It’s been a long week. An interesting week. A week full of people. Four days in a row with full-on public interaction is never good for me. I need time to recharge, to regroup, to hole up. Those who don’t really know me might well mistake me for an extrovert – and I certainly have my Leoine moments – but it takes its toll. I’m more the shy retiring type… deep down.

The highlight of my week wasn’t the successful two-day workshop  or the jammed-packed GOTG session in the Cotton Club on Wednesday or the Dorothy Parker evening at the Budapest Secret Salon on Thursday. They were great – but I’d have swapped them all, in spades, just to be at Keleti this afternoon to meet some old friends who have just arrived to spend two months in my city.

I met Monica back in 1990 in Los Angeles. I met her husband Dave in Dublin Airport some twelve years later, after she’d married him. Both have been to Budapest to visit me, but never together. Both felt what I felt when I first arrived at Keleti and now they’ve come back to stay for a while and explore.

This week, I’m grateful for friendships that stand the test of time. For those with whom I’ve connected at what I like to call a maintenance-free level. It might not matter that we haven’t spoken in months or years – the connection is there. It’s just a matter of picking up where we left off. And to those of you living in Budapest, keep an eye out for them and if you meet them, say hello. Breathe some life into the Budapest-style welcome that I’ve been bragging about.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52IMG_7553 (600x800)



Love on the rocks

While not yet at a crisis point in my love affair with Budapest, I think our relationship isn’t nearly as strong as it was, say, three years ago. Back then, I was in the throes of passion and although not totally blind to her frailties, I was more than ready to forgive the occasional transgression. But as in any relationship, when the first cracks start to appear, everything takes on a new perspective and I find myself in danger of overreacting and blowing things out of proportion.

I read recently about a couple of students who were hitching a lift to Szeged from Budaörs. While they were waiting, they sat down on the grass to eat a couple of cheeseburgers. Two policemen approached and asked to see their ID. One of them didn’t have any and was fined 50 000 forints. The second was fined the same amount for littering (the litter in question was a cigarette box that didn’t belong to them). When one of the two unfortunates muttered ne már (come on!), this was seen as resistance and the pair were taken to the nearest police station. One paid his fine; the other opted for 60 hours of community service.

police1Down in Zalaegerszeg, a teacher crossing the street with her young daughter didn’t use the designated crossing. It was raining. She was in a hurry to pick up her son from kindergarten and then catch a bus home. Detained by the police for twenty minutes, she missed both and was fined 20 000 forints. (I’m not feeling the love here.) On the advice of friends, she reported the incident (it would seem that the policemen also addressed her using the informal te (which is most impolite in Hungary).  The result? A visit from the guardianship office checking on her suitability as a parent:  she had endangered the life of her child by not using a crosswalk. Overreaction?

I’m sure the police were fully within their rights to do as they did. But really, in the grand scheme of things, what good did they actually do? I’m a spirit of the law person myself, so perhaps I’m biased.   Then, noticing that Hungary is one of seven EU countries bidding to host CEPOL (the European Police College Headquarters), I couldn’t help but wonder whether on-the-job training will take on a whole new meaning.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 October 2013.

A flight of fancy

I can’t ever remember being in Donabate. But then again, given what my memory is like, I’m open to correction. No doubt even more years might have passed had I not been struck by an urge to see the sea when I was in Ireland last weekend and happened across a kind soul who indulged me.

20131011_174843 (800x600)Walking the limestone cliffs between the beach at Donabate and the beach at Portrane was as close to scenic heaven as I’ve been since Oslo.  About 12 miles north-east of Dublin, we couldn’t have been further removed from the sights and sounds of twenty-first century city living. A trinity of elements – crashing waves, a stiff breeze, and an autumn sun – composed a perfect picture.

We passed St Ita’s Hospital, which was once Portrane asylum and is now a home for those with intellectual disabilities or long-term mental illness. Until 1890, it was the largest public contract ever undertaken in Ireland … it’s massive. In its shadow sits a lone round tower. Curious as to its origins, I went searching…

20131011_183133 (800x600)Adjoining the Asylum is a modern round tower, erected on the summit of a rising ground by a former proprietor, Mrs Evans, as a memorial to her husband, whose bust is placed in the interior of the structure. This tower was formerly a very remarkable feature on the peninsula, being about 100 feet high, but is now much dwarfed by the proximity of the extensive buildings of the Asylum. The entrance door is situated, as in the ancient round towers, at such a height from the ground that it can be reached only by a ladder. 

An interesting memorial, it certainly beats your average gravestone. Nice one, Mrs Evans.

Looking across at Lambay Island, I was struck, as I always am, by the force of the sea, particularly given the week that was in it and the number of maritime accidents that had been reported. There was a soulfulness about the place that made me wonder some more. Of course, it might well have been the contemplative mood that I was in, but indulge me in my flight of fancy.

I did some more digging and discovered that back in 1854, on 19 January, the John Tayleur left Liverpool bound for Melbourne. Insufficiently manned with a crew that had only ten real seamen, the others being Chinese who for the most part didn’t speak enough English to understand the captain’s orders, the voyage was doomed from the start. Incapable of carrying out orders to shorten sail in the face of a storm, the crew’s incompetence saw the ship end up just off the Irish coast. The ship struck Lambay Island. Of the 579 on board, 297 drowned in the sea. Of the 250 women and children that had set sail, only three survived. The majority of the emigrants were Irish who had embarked in Liverpool full of hope and anticipation for a future some would never see.

20131011_174940 (800x600) Watching our shadows stretch before us, I was reminded of the transience of time and the impermanence of life as we  know it. And again, I reminded myself that life is far too short to be wasted on regrets. As the sun began to set and its autumnal heat began to wane, we turned for home. Full of resolve to seize the day and replete with faith that all would be provided, tomorrow suddenly took on new meaning. The sea can do that to me.


2013 Grateful 12

It’s been a while since I’ve been the youngest on a night out. And it’s been even longer since I’ve looked admiringly at the antics of a sextegenarian wearing a pretend snakeskin suit, fussin’ with his hair like a model on a windswept beach. But it all came together on Saturday night in Vicar Street when, for the first time in 27 years, the collective known as the Boomtown Rats played a live gig under the direction of Sir Bob Geldof.

classicratshitsTruth be told, while I’m a huge fan of Sir Bob (and still remember a crazy phone conversation I had with him in 2002), my familiarity with the Rats’ music is limited. Very limited. I’d gone to hear the three songs that I know I could sing along to, but my reticence on the other numbers was obliterated by the gangs of men who were so obviously on a mission to recapture their youth. I’m all for a little gyration, but lads, when you’re jumping up and down like maniacs, clutching  pints of porter, tuck the shirts in so the bellies don’t flop out. Thank God for stage lights.

Bouncing bellies aside, the gig was brilliant. Everyone was on top form. The fellah behind me had appointed himself as Bob’s personal cheerleader and my night was punctured by roars of ‘c’mon ya boy ya’, all of which I’m sure the man heard as, instead of fading, he went from strength to strength.

rats-new-photo6I’d forgotten how political their songs are and when Bob made reference to how relevant some of them still are today, he got me searching for more.

I don’t like Mondays was written about Brenda Spencer, a 16-year-old San Diego high school student. On Monday, 29 January 1979, she killed two adults and injured nine kids when she opened fire with a rifle on the primary school across the road from her house.  After a seven-hour standoff, she gave herself up.  When asked why she did it, she said: ‘I just started shooting, that’s it. I just did it for the fun of it. I just don’t like Mondays. I just did it because it’s a way to cheer the day up. Nobody likes Mondays.’ That was 1979 – and kids are still shooting each randomly for reasons as inane as Brenda’s. The message according to Sir Bob? Sometimes searching for a reason is futile … there simply isn’t one.

Mary of the Fourth Form is another favourite – but then I have a thing for songs about Marys. It deals with a teacher’s sexual attraction to a pubescent girl – a timeless story that never seems to wane.

Rat trap – the first No. 1 of the New Wave genre in the UK charts which nudged John Travolta and Olivia Newton John and Summer Nights from the top spot – was written by Bob in 1973 when he was working in an abattoir.  The futility he sings of is just as evident today.

Perhaps the most relevant of all though is the hit Someone’s looking at you. A stark reminder that the recent NSA/PRISM affair isn’t a new phenomenon: There’s a spy in the sky / There’s a noise on the wire

Another timeless classic Lookin’ after No. 1  was billed as a ‘paean to rugged individualism’ and interestingly, particularly given Geldof’s later work with Live Aid, the line ‘Don’t give me charity’ is probably more a reflection of his view of the Church and its teaching than on any miserliness on his part. On a number of occasions throughout the night, Bob aired his political views and it was refreshing to see that he’s still as ornery as ever.

Lookin’ good, Sir Bob, you’re lookin’ good.

In a week that was loaded with memories of times past, reconnecting with old friends has played an important part in rediscovering the old ‘me’. I’m grateful that circumstances have contrived to reopen closed doors and even more grateful for those who’ve chosen to walk through them.

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



Meet Kati and Gina

Safetywise, Budapest ranks 36/100 on the Numbeo Quality of Life Index 2013; on my personal index of cities in which I’ve lived, it’s the safest. I’ve never felt threatened or afraid. I know the parts of town I shouldn’t venture into alone or after dark. And I will happily leave a place after five minutes if it simply doesn’t ‘feel’ right.

I’m savvy enough to keep my bag close to hand, although I’m often stopped by random strangers on the tram or metro and advised to close it. But so far I’ve been lucky. An old family friend once told me that I had guardian angels working 24/7 in shifts; by the law of averages, given my penchant for wandering city streets, venturing off the beaten track, I’ve gotten away relatively unscathed. His theory was that while predators can smell fear, my particular brand of naivety is odourless.  Perhaps bad things don’t happen to me because I don’t expect them to. (How naïve is that I wonder?)

Last week, I was shocked out of my complacency and may well have to revise my safety rating for Budapest. There’s a new bar/club open on Andrassy where a friend of a friend got more than she expected. On sipping her drink, she found herself unable to move or speak.  She was on her own, helpless. Two guys approached, took the money from her wallet, and were physically removing her from the premises when another friend spotted what was happening and thankfully intervened.

Kati and GinaHer drink had been spiked, most likely with a Ketamine nicknamed Kati. (Ketamines are usually found in animal tranquilisers apparently.) From what I gather, Kati and her friend Gina, first appeared on the Budapest scene a couple of years ago; popular party drugs, they’re also used to render victims immobile.

This sort of stuff goes on all over the world and rationally I know that there is no earthly reason why Budapest should be an exception. But emotionally, in my naivety, I had thought that it was. Amidst the sound of shattering illusions, I’m hearing the faint whisper of a tannoy mimicking airport announcements around the world, heralding the future: Please do not leave your drink unattended. Unattended drinks will be removed by security.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 October 2013