Top talent on Thursdays

How the various expatriates living in Budapest engage with this city is a source of constant amusement … for me. I know some who rarely venture outside established expat circles. I know others who will go to great lengths to avoid expats altogether. Me? I ebb and flow.

Some friends returned to Budapest earlier this month, having lived here for a year a while ago. Both were taken aback at how even after their 12 months of active exploration, the city as still coughing up new sights. It’s as if it is constantly morphing into something new; circumstances contrive to entice you into an area you’ve never ventured into before; and even old haunts offer up something unexpected.

I was in Jack Doyle’s last week, an Irish pub on the corner of Pilvax and Varoshaz utca. There’s a regular music session on a Thursday night where two of my favourite Hungarian men – Attila and Csaba, collectively known as The Jookers – entertain the punters and create a welcoming space for those who want to sing or play themselves. It’s one of the many times where I find myself wishing I could hold a tune for longer than two seconds.

Top talent on ThursdaysI’m familiar with the concept of open mic nights and have yet to be disappointed in a Thursday night at JD’s. When I have visitors in town, it’s on my list of places to go. But what I hadn’t fully appreciated is the wealth of talent this town has to offer. There’s no denying that the two boys are brilliant musicians in their own right and that the regulars who get up and entertain are gifted themselves. But the drop-ins, the random acts that pass through – that’s what adds spice to the evening. You never know what you’ll get to hear.

One after the other, they sang their hearts out last Thursday night. Hailing from Ireland, England, Australia, Scotland, America, France, and everywhere in between, they sang covers and their own songs, too. We had it all – from the Mountains to Mourne to La Boheme; from Tracy Chapman to Mary Black. Everything worked. My goose bumps were plumping.

If you’re at a loose end on a Thursday night, you could do worse that popping into Jack Doyle’s after 10pm. There are no guarantees though. I can’t promise that every night will be as good as last Thursday … next week might be even better.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 November 2013

Sculptures and silhouettes

I’ve a great imagination. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine myself somewhere, to transport myself to another time and place, and let my mind wander to the point that the goose bumps are followed by tears. Hey, I used to cry at Coronation Street!

IMG_8792 (800x599)Walking up to top of Mount Bental, past the sign for the quite surreally namedcoffee chop, Coffee Anan (which means coffee cloud), and a host of peculiar iron sculptures, I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotion that would surface in the next hour or so. To be honest, I was clueless. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when the Syrians attacked the Golan Heights with 1500 tanks and 1000 artillery pieces, Israel matched this might with 160 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. Syria’s aim: to reclaim the territory that had been seized in 1967. Israel’s aim: not to give an inch. Heavy casualties resulted and the valley below was christened the Valley of Tears.

IMG_8794 (800x600)My first reaction to the black metal silhouettes was one close to despair. I’d had enough of commercialism; I wanted some authenticity, not yet another show, purpose-built for tourists. But as I wandered, eavesdropping on the talks been given by various guides to visitors from the USA, Europe, and Australia, the magnitude of what had taken place, here, 1165 metres above sea level, sank in.

IMG_8815 (600x800)For nearly 20 years (1948-1967), when Syria controlled the Heights, it regularly bombarded northern Israel from this point. In 1967, when Israel came out atop the Six-Day War, it won itself this strategic vantage point from where it could closely watch Syria’s movement. It’s also of vital importance for water as the area accounts for more than a third of Israel’s total water supply. And as was repeatedly mentioned in the days I was there, long after the geopolitics have been resolved, the fight for water in the region will continue.

IMG_8800In response to the apparent mobilization of its Arab neighbours, early on the morning of June 5, Israel staged a sudden preemptive air assault and destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground; later that day, it incapacitated a great deal of the Jordanian and Syrian air power as well. Without cover from the air, the Arab armies were left vulnerable to attack, and, as a result, the Israeli victory on the ground was also overwhelming. By the time the United Nations cease-fire came into effect on June 10, Israeli units had driven Syrian forces back from the Golan Heights, taken control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and driven Jordanian forces from the West Bank. Notably, the Israelis were left in sole control of  Jerusalem. The warfare resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and brought more than one million Palestinians in the occupied territories under Israeli rule.

IMG_8803 (800x584)IMG_8805 (600x800)Wandering down the steep steps into the tunnels that connected the bunkers, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the claustrophobia, the frustration, the fear that the soldiers must have felt holed up, shelling the guts out of the land below. As recently as May this year, shells were exchanged across the border and the wars of old show little sign of abating.

In the valley beneath, fruit and vegetables grow peacefully. Tourists wander through the vineyards. And life continues with a sense of what passes for normalcy. I had hoped to come away with a better sense of where my sympathies lies but the more I learn, the more confused I am becoming. And I’m increasingly wondering at the minds of those who can so clearly come down on one side or the other. Amidst the interminable shades of grey, I can see very little black and white.

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The valley of cheers

The last thing I expected to see in the Holy Land was a vineyard, which, given the fabled wedding of Cana, was somewhat silly of me. Back in 1967, when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the six-day war, I don’t for a minute imagine that growing wine was top of its reasons for doing so. But in 1976, after a failed attempt by Syria to reclaim the area during the Middle East War in 1973 (when the heavy tank action resulted in the valley being christened the Valley of Tears), the first planting took place. Now, about 1500 acres are home to 17 vineyards, 16 of which are on Golan Heights and one is in Upper Galilee. Each of the vineyards is within a 40/50  minute drive of the winery in Katzrin.

IMG_8836 (800x599)IMG_8865 (800x590)The hills and mountains in the region climb from 400 to 1200 metres and the three wine regions produce just about all the wines I’m familiar with … and more. The Golan Heights winery itself is  owned by four kibbutzim (collectives), four moshavim (cooperatives) and the Galilee and Golan Heights Vineyards, Inc. It’s here that 40% of Israeli wine exports is produced alongside 20% of the local market share. Suitable soils, high altitudes, and the right topography caught the attention of some visiting experts from California who reckoned the region was perfect for vine growing – v0lcanic soil, rich in acid, that drains well. Ancient stones unearthed show reliefs of grapes and suggest that this wasn’t exactly a new idea, just one that had perhaps lapsed over the years.

IMG_8847 (582x800)Northern Golan is home to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier and Pinot Noir (and others I didn’t recognise). Central Golan has the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (and more I’ve never come across). And Southern Golan has Muscat Canelli as well as its share of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. You can ski on Mount Hermon in the winter and an hour later, swim in the Sea of Galilee. Something for everyone.

IMG_8869 (800x600)About 300 hundred containers ranging in size from the massive 200 000 litre tanks to the much smaller 1000 litre ones hold enough wine to fill 5.8 million bottles each year. Every tank is precisely controlled to ensure that its contents do what they need to do before being aged in French oak barrels, each with a working life of no more than six years. White wines age from 6 to 8 months while the reds go from 6 to 26 months, depending on the age of the barrel. Humidifiers run constantly to keep the wood from cracking and to prevent the wine evaporating through the walls. The history of each barrel is captured on a computerised bar code and the assembly line is mind-boggling to watch.

IMG_8878 (800x578)Everyone has his job… from ensuring that the labels go on straight, to adding the inserts, to unboxing previously boxed wines for specialised branding. I could have watched it for hours. Anywhere from IMG_8886 (800x589)15 to 20% of the bottles are boxed and then later, once the orders come in, unboxed and labelled for US, German, Far Eastern, and domestic markets. A massive blue Japanese robot called Bottleman lifts the boxes onto pallets in preparation for their journey to the table. Everything runs like clockwork. It’s hard to believe such capacity, used as I am to the family wineries in Hungary where the closest thing I’ve seen to a conveyor belt is granny passing the bottle to grandad to fill it from the barrel.

 

IMG_8894 (600x800)IMG_8896 (600x800)IMG_8897 (600x800)The wine-tasting that followed  included instructions on everything from how to properly use a corkscrew to which wine is best to eat with ice cream. And they certainly ain’t cheap.  I was tempted by the Yarden Muscat as it has brandy added to it (that’s a combination I haven’t tried before), but invested instead in a bottle of Rosé to be broken open on some special occasion.

Interesting how this was one of my favourite spots this trip – and not a cross or a relic to be seen anywhere.

 

 

 

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Described as the Holy of Holies from which the Divine Presence never moves, the Western Wall in Jerusalem was high on my list of places to see in the city. I’d been warned by an Hungarian to take extra care when composing my letter to God as whatever I asked for would be granted. And for the days leading up the visit, this ask played on my mind.

IMG_8353 (800x591)A holy place of prayer for Jews for centuries, in December 1947, after some bloody incidents with the Arabs, they were no longer allowed to approach the Wall. When the  Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell in May 1948, it would be another 9 years before they could even look at the wall from a distance. It wasn’t until the third day of the Six-Day war (7 June 1967) that Israel’s parachutists broke through the ‘bloody gate’ which the mufti had opened and liberated the wall. Later buildings were levelled and an area cleared in front of the wall for praying. I can’t quite figure out what the rocking is about – that back and forth movement of the upper body – but add it to the singing and I finally get why it has been known for eons as the wailing wall.

IMG_8282 (800x600)Today, men and women are segregated, each having their own side of the wall at which to pray. The touch of millions of hands and foreheads has polished the stone in places and no two pieces look alike. Every crack and fissure in the wall up to human height is home to pieces of paper containing the prayers of the faithful, a living testimony to faith, hope, and belief.

IMG_8269 (800x600)Nearby, sits the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Destroyed twice by earthquakes, once in 746 and again in 1033, and damaged severely in the quakes of 1927 and 1937, the building is still as imposing as ever. Said to be the point from which Muhammad travelled to from Mecca and from whence he departed for heaven.

IMG_8357 (800x593)In the distance sits the Golden Dome, considered ‘the most contested piece of real estate’ in the world. I think though that that refers to the foundation stone it houses rather than the dome itself… but I’ve been known to be wrong. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all view it as significant – which, in my little mind, would go some way towards confirming what I’ve always believed – there is one God who goes by different names.

This week, as the memories of my trip to the Holy Land remain bright and clear, I’m grateful for my bucket list – for that innate curiosity that makes me want to pack a bag and travel. And I’m even more grateful that I have the wherewithal to do so.

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

 

The wrath of grapes

Ernest Hemingway reckoned that an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools. And indeed who amongst us who takes a drink has never chosen to tune out the drones around us by indulging in just one more or has never had a sip of Dutch courage before an important event? We talk of drowning our sorrows, of wetting a baby’s head, of toasting a new deal – and, for the most part, our social drinking is relatively harmless.

hangover 2Until, of course, you wake up wondering what on earth happened the night before. Did you actually do what you think you did? Did you actually say what you think you said? Will anyone remember? And, if you’re a public figure, this scrutiny is rarely restricted to the confines of you and your bathroom mirror. Word gets out and the things you do while under the influence make the news.

István Lovas, a Hungarian correspondent in Brussels, might well be living to regret polishing off that bottle of wine and the two kupica of pálinka that led him to write a steaming letter to the foreign correspondents in Budapest accusing them of false reporting and of painting an unfair and false picture of Hungary. His excuse … he was drunk. And yet he seemed to be fully aware of what he was doing: I have never ever been as rude in my life as I am being now in any article, or in any “official” letter addressed to anyone. A little embarrassing, I’d say.

hangoverLast week in parliament, István Pálffy, a relative newcomer, was said to have been under the influence while in attendance. And a few months ago, József Balogh, another parliamentarian, made the news when he allegedly beat up his partner after getting drunk at a wedding, apparently fracturing her skull in the process. In the throes of what must have been a massive hangover, he’s reported to have said that she’d been tripped by the family’s blind dog. Mortifying, I’d say.

Is the well worn excuse of being drunk still viable? In fact, was it ever? It’s not rocket science: the best way to avoid the morning-after guilt is to know your limit and drink responsibly. Everything in moderation… now why is that such a difficult lesson to learn?

First published in the Budapest Times on 22 November 2013

Moses: whereabouts unknown

Nabi Mosa mosque is said to be a sacred place for Muslims because it is here that the prophet Moses is supposedly buried – mind you, that, like much else in the region, is subject to debate.

IMG_8226 (800x595)IMG_8215 (600x800)The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well travelled by Mediterranean Arabs on their way to Mecca. Nabi Mosa is situation at what would have been the end of the first day’s walk. Nearby Mount Nebo is where Moses was thought to be buried back then – his ‘move’ to to Mosque is thought to be a matter of invention. The current building was completed in the late 1400s and restored by the Ottoman Turks in 1820. It’s now home to a treatment centre for addicts.

IMG_8227 (800x600)To give the local Muslims something to celebrate while their Christian counterparts were celebrating Easter, the Ottomans instituted a seven-day religious festival called Nabi Mosa. Thousands of Muslims would gather in Jerusalem and make the trip to the mosque where they’d celebrate for  days before returning home. When Jordan took over the administration of the West Bank after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the festival was more or less cancelled.

IMG_8237 (800x592)IMG_8236 (800x594)In the shadows outside the mosque lies an old cemetery. The ground is rock solid and I can’t begin to imagine how anyone would dig a grave. This probably accounts for the raised grave sites. The inscriptions meant nothing to me and I can’t find any account of it anywhere so it’s difficult to tell how old it is. Graves seemed to be scattered around rather than laid out in any particular order reflecting the chaos that seems to be so innate to life in Palestine.  and in the heat of the sun, miles from anywhere, the place had a serene and saintly feel to it. We were the only ones at the monastery and I was the only one in the cemetery. For the first time in days, I felt like I was communing with something other than commercialism. And I actually took the time to pray.

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The oldest city in the world

IMG_8151 (800x599)Billed as the oldest city in the world, Jericho was one of the few places that saw little action during the two intifadas (Palestinian uprisings, 1987-1993 and 2000-2005)  As a result, the Israeli presence is notable by its absence.  Translated by the Canaanites as the Moon, in Syriac the name Jericho meant scent and odour. Today, the city is known as both The City of Palm and The Garden of God. Ruins discovered here date back 10 000 years, depending on whom you listen to.

I’m a little annoyed at myself that I didn’t find the sycamore tree which the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed to get a better look at Jesus when he entered the city. But then, that’s always a reason to go back.

IMG_8193 (800x600)IMG_8180 (800x497)We visited the city to see the Monastery of the Temptation perched on the side of the Mount of Temptation. This particular Greek Orthodox Monastery allows women in … which was a relief.

IMG_8158 (800x600)To conserve time rather than energy, we opted for the 5-minute cable car ride rather than the 30-minute hike up a steep path. The monastery is built over the cave in which Jesus is supposed to have spent his 40 days and 40 nights being tempted by the devil. The cave is tiny – with barely room to stand up inside. The hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have trooped through it have left their mark. It was mentioned as far back as 326 when Helena of Constantinople identified it as one of the holy sites she visited on her pilgrimage that year and the present monastery was built at the end of the nineteenth century.

IMG_8187 (800x600)IMG_8189 (600x800)Interestingly, it was the first holy place that actually felt any way holy. I touched the actual rock on which Jesus is supposed to have sat during his fast and wondered, not for the first time, why we are so obsessed with tangible things. Why do we need rocks and relics and statues and churches? Why isn’t it simply enough to be in the place that it all supposedly happened, to commune with spirit that’s present, to soak up the memories and take time to reflect onIMG_8196 (592x800) what has been.

I’m as guilty as anyone of taking photos and perhaps not spending more time in silent contemplation, but this monastery, like so many other places I visited, didn’t allow time for rumination. It’s like being on conveyor belt – with priests pulling you in one end and pushing you out the other. And yet perhaps because of its situation, perched as it is on the side of a mountain, this monastery felt just a little closer to heaven, to what I had expected of the Holy Land.

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The tree of life

For years, local builders had been helping themselves to the spoils of what has since been discovered to be an eighth-century desert castle. Hisham’s palace lies about 5 km north of Jericho in Palestine’s West Bank. It amuses me to think that houses built in the area prior to the excavation in the 1930s could well feature pieces of the palace.

IMG_8131 (800x599) I like old books, old furniture, old buildings and old people, but there’s something about archeology that doesn’t quite do it for me. Yes, of course I can appreciate that so much has survived the ages and I can appreciate the glimpse such finds offer us to the past. But I rarely get excited about unearthed ruins.

IMG_8129 (800x600)IMG_8132 (600x800)Hisham’s palace, while beautiful in a weird sort of way, has been firmly categorised as archeological in my mind. I wandered the grounds (which are eerily 260 metres below sea level) and saw the ancient carvings. I admired how the Rosetta stone had been put back together. And I gave due credit to the inventive signage on display. I recognised the importance of the place in terms of history and have since read that the Global Heritage Fund, in its 2010 report Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, has included it as one of twelve worldwide heritage sites most ‘on the verge’ of irreparable loss and destruction. And were that to happen, it would be a shame.

IMG_8138 (800x599)IMG_8144 (600x800)For me, though, its magic lies in its mosaics. It is here that the world famous tree of life was discovered, a mosaic depicting the mythical tree with two deer grazing peacefully on one side of it, while a third deer is attacked by a lion on the other side. Those images certainly gave me something to think about.

There are plans afoot to construct a 18-metre tall structure that will include walkways over the palace to shield the mosaics while at the same time allowing visitors to fully appreciate them. Work was supposed to start this year but I didn’t notice anything much going on.  Award-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is the man heading up what he calls an ’emotional reconstruction’. Once the rest of the mosaic floors are exposed, it’ll be on my list of places to revisit.

2013 Grateful 7

I’m not what you’d call a people person. Despite outward appearances, I find being around people all the time somewhat nerve wracking. Call it fanciful, but I can feel the energy seeping out of me and need time and space to recuperate. I dread networking events where small talk comes wrapped in hors d’oeuvres and niceties are made more palatable by the champagne.

IMG_7760 (800x600)So when I was invited to join a group of 26 Serbs, Macedonians, Kosovans, Croats, and one Dutch on a trip to the Holy Land, I was a little apprehensive. Apart from me and Roeland, everyone would speak the same language and I know how isolating that can be. Even our guide, Srdjan, was Serbian and while most spoke varying levels of English, the natural default was understandably Serbian or some variation thereof. Other than my friend Milutin, I would know nobody. This was definitely me moving out of my comfort zone but enticed by the idea of writing text to accompany his photographs, I signed up.

IMG_8095 (800x600)It didn’t help that after a day’s touring, I worked most evenings. Such are the joys of freelancing. You take the work when you can get it because you never know when it will dry up. But as a result, I missed out on some of the camaraderie. And yet I was conscious of how irritating it can be to have to translate a joke for someone after the punchline has been delivered. During the day, Roeland’s wife Olivera, a woman of immeasurable patience, translated for us… which I’m sure was a royal pain in the proverbial  for her but she was unwavering.

The group is solid – they’ve been travelling together since 2002 and all have a scouting background. I met Milutin through scouts, too, and although we had that in common at least, no one knew me from Adam. And no one judged. If I wandered off from the group, no one batted an eyelid. If I chose to sit apart with my book, no one took offence. If I sat at a table on my own for dinner, no one commented. That’s what I love about the Balkans – this lack of judgment, this acceptance of life for what it is, of people for who they are.

IMG_8680 (800x600)The trip itself was exhausting. Breakfast at 6.30 most mornings, on the bus by 7.30 and then away for the day, stopping here, there, and yonder. Srdjan had mapped out a packed itinerary and included enough free time to wander cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with the occasional choice thrown in for good measure: an hour at the beach or yet another church or monastery. Despite the full agenda, the early mornings, and the late nights, the good spirits never waned. Rakija is to the Balkans what air is to the rest of the world. To see a bottle of this spirit make its way down the bus before 8 in the morning and then reappear at various times during the day was nothing short of amazing. Who drinks that early? And yet it was never overdone – just a sip every so often to keep the bugs at bay. In the evenings, in Tiberius, I joined a few of the lads on the wall outside the hotel where we sat around before dinner having a beer, Milutin translating for me so that I didn’t miss out on what was being said. And it was there that I came appreciate, once again, that sense of humour that sets them apart as a nation – as self-deprecating as the Irish, and as deadpan in their delivery, their readiness to release their inner child is enviable. The laughter was constant and came from the heart.

IMG_8232 (800x701)I’ve long since enjoyed a love affair with the Balkans. Three of my favourite men in the world are Serbian. As a people, they rate highest on my scale of nation favourites. There’s something about their attitude to life, their ability to enjoy the moment, their constant good humour, and their readiness to engage in informed discussions on just about anything that makes them unique. Everyone has a story – one that involves resilience, humility, and an insight into what’s important in life (family and friends) that leave most other nations standing still in their wake.

IMG_7750 (800x600)Age does not limit them. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. They might have respectable day jobs with multinationals or international organisations, jobs that are demanding in so many ways, yet they wear this responsibility lightly, recognising that while it is important, work is not the be all and end all of life. Friends and family come first and foremost.

I fell into conversation with one of the older lads who told me of a trip he’d made to London when he was 17. At immigration, he was asked if he had enough money to keep himself for two months. Standing tall, he replied: I am visiting a Serbian family; I have no need for money. I’ve witnessed this hospitality on more than one occasion and it still warms the cockles of my heart.

What can I say? In a week that saw a host of illusions being shattered, I am grateful that at least one conviction has remained intact. I’m still deeply in love with the Balkans and its peoples.

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

Fifty shades of … brown

It took a while for me to put my finger on what I was missing most – and then it finally dawned on me. Colour. The Judean Desert is practically devoid of colour. Jerusalem is built from the same brick – every building made from the same type of stone. Even old monasteries like St George of Koziba, which is located somewhere off the side of the road on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, are of the same cast (and yes,  the road you see also features in the tale of the good Samaritan).

IMG_8063 (800x600)Built as it into the side of a mountain, it reminded me, somewhat bizarrely, of Popeye’s village in Malta. I think perhaps the heat was getting to me. Anyway, back in 614, the Persians passed through, killing the 14 monks who lived there. The Crusaders had a brief relationship with the place in the 1100s but it wasn’t until 1901 that  a Greek monk finished the restoration. And it was here, apparently that St Joachim wept when an angel told him that Mary had conceived.

IMG_8067 (600x800)The place is spectacular. Simply amazing. It wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to envision Elijah in a cave nearby being fed by the ravens – which apparently is what drew the monks here in the first place. Accessible by foot, it’s open to visitors, who amongst many other things, can have a peak at the remains of the 14 massacred monks. We contented ourselves with a view across the gorge of the Wadi Qelt, lost in the majesty of it all. I think it’s one of those places better appreciated from afar (and I, for one, was glad we didn’t make 2 hour trek to the front door).

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