What’s in a name?

I was in India a few years ago at a workshop … me and 49 locals and one French girl who may as well have been Indian she’d lived there that long. As an ice-breaker, we all formed a circle and the first person introduced himself. Hello, my name is Lakshminarayana. Then the next introduced herself: Hello, my name is Kajal and this is Lakshminarayana. And then the next: Hello, my name is Anand and this is Kajal and Lakshminarayana. And so it went around. I was number 35 or so in the circle and I was stumped. Had it been in Ireland, I’d have had a reasonable chance. We have simple names like Peter, Paul, and Mary. But aside from having a terribly bad name/face recollection, I couldn’t get my tongue around the names. Embarrassing. And particularly embarrassing when the last person, No. 51, introduced herself and remembered every single name in order. And she was 80 something.

Earlier still, when in Oxford studying, a number of my classmates came from China. They anglicized their names to make it easier for English-speakers to pronounce. Hi, my name is Vivien. I’m from Guangzhou still sounds odd.

And further back again, when I was at my swearing in ceremony in the USA, every Asian being conferred with US citizenship had chosen a new, American name. Xinran became Amanda. Mengyao became Matt. Qiuyeu became Connie. And it didn’t sit well with me.

Mark Twain supposedly said: Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson. The man had a sense of humour; you get the picture.

Anyway, I’d forgotten how mispronouncing people’s names irritates me until I saw a clip of a UK politician being interviewed about Vona Gábor’s recent foray to the UK. Now, of all the Hungarian names out there (and yes, I have problems with György and Gergely and as for Fruzsina…well…and that’s not even touching the family names) but even I can manage not to mangle Gábor. Don’t get me wrong – he’s not on my Christmas card list – but I was a tad upset that those on the public airwaves whose pronunciation will be copied with a religious fervour, didn’t bother to check the pronunciation of his name, or that of his party, Jobbik.

Confucius reckoned that if names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things. And he had a point. But on a more basic level, I reckon that we’re just getting lazy. We can’t be bothered making the effort, and in readily taking the easy way out, we quickly come to accept a new norm where others must change to accommodate us. That is wrong on so many levels.

Yes, it’s difficult. And yes, I regularly make a hames of people’s names here in Hungary because I simply cannot hear the different sounds, let alone repeat them. I’m tone deaf. But I refuse to anglicize them. I like to think that my efforts, no matter how pathetic, are seen as well-intentioned. But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps my Hungarian friends secretly wish that I wouldn’t try too hard. I wonder.

First published in the Budapest Times  31 January 2014

An imposing failure

The linguistically challenged person that I am, I have a mono linguist’s habit of reading everything in English, regardless of the language it is actually written in. Fine is always simply fine and never finished. Worst will always be badder than bad and never a sausage. Die will always be an invocation to pass on and never simply ‘that one’. And as for bra? It may be good in Swedish and Norwegian, but I have days when I hate it.

I see a word in a foreign language that reminds me of something and that’s it. It’s etched in my brain…permanently. The Hungarian word for certificate or award – oklevél – will always have me wondering why anyone would want to show the world their bare essentials – their okay level certificate. How embarrassing. So, when in Milan, and passing one of the hundreds of signs around the city that tell passengers that the tram they’re on will pass the d’uomo, I immediately thought ‘dome’.

What’s worse – I managed to convince myself than when I’d been in the city a number of years ago on my way to the Alps (a magical trip where time literally stood still – but that’s another story) and had taken the time to visit this must-see , it had indeed been a massive dome-shaped building. No question of it. Not a doubt in my mind.

I’d been there. I’d seen it. And if we happened to pass by it again, great. But I wasn’t going out of my way to find it. I had more interesting things to do. But as fate would have it, stumble across it we did. Imagine my surprise… not a dome in sight.

IMG_0247 (800x600)Milan Cathedral is gobsmackingly big. I can well believe that it took six centuries to complete and is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Building began in 1386 and the last gate was inaugurated in 1965. So, technically, we’re nearly the same age but that was one helluva gestation.

IMG_0250 (800x600)Having taken so long to build, it’s understandable that the numerous architects involved would have drawn from many different schools (ask me and the best I could come up with is Gothic). Curious, I checked it out and found this quote by John Ruskin who reckoned it steals from every style in the world: and every style spoiled. The cathedral is a mixture of Perpendicular with Flamboyant, the latter being peculiarly barbarous and angular, owing to its being engrafted, not on a pure, but a very early penetrative Gothic … The rest of the architecture among which this curious Flamboyant is set is a Perpendicular with horizontal bars across: and with the most detestable crocketing, utterly vile. Not a ray of invention in a single form… Finally the statues all over are of the worst possible common stonemasons’ yard species, and look pinned on for show. The only redeeming character about the whole being the frequent use of the sharp gable … which gives lightness, and the crowding of the spiry pinnacles into the sky.

IMG_0251 (597x800)Be that as it may, John (and we’re all entitled to our opinion), you have to admit that it’s awesome – in the truest sense of the world.  Apparently Oscar Wilde, when visiting the city in 1875,  wrote home to his mother saying: The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution.

While I’m quite fond of Mr Wilde as a rule, I can’t agree. Yes, I prefer plain crystal to that that’s heavily embellished. I like simple patterns, minimal clutter, clean lines and were this, say, a wedding cake, I’d refuse a slice even if I was starving. But as an edifice that literally dwarfs everything around it, it’s … amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever stood in the shadow of somewhere that made ants of us all.

IMG_0257 (800x600)I didn’t go in. Sure hadn’t I see it before 🙂 But if you’re in Milan and have an hour or two to spare, it’s worth dropping in. Entry is free. A lift to the view tower will set you back €12 or, if you fancy the walk, €7. Plenty of priests on hand to give last rites should they be required. It’s all coming back to me know…  the last time I DID WALK UP TO THE TOP… honestly!

A pervasive sense of style

I might have my issues with China but that said, one of my favourite places in the world to have breakfast is in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I love the hustle and bustle. The mania that passes for normalcy. The smells. The noise. Even the windows dressed with dead ducks have their appeal.

Practically every Chinatown I’ve visited has been the same – full of life and vigor: Vancouver BC, Los Angeles, London, New York. And that in itself had created a pattern in my mind, a pattern that has been broken by Chinatown in Milan.

IMG_0136 (800x600)Okay, in fairness, while San Francisco’s Chinatown has its origins in the gold rush of the 1900s and takes up about 22 blocks of the city, the one in Milan is much, much smaller and far more recent.

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the city as far back as the 1920s but it wasn’t until 1979 and onwards that they started to come in earnest. By the turn of the century, there were about 10 000 Chinese immigrants in the city – and probably more today. Located between the streets of Via Paolo Sarpi, Via Bramante, and Via Canonica, Milan’s Chinatown is one with a difference.

IMG_0154 (800x600)And what makes it different? It has style. Milanese style. The Milanese are a stylish people. Enviably so. And, apparently once the Chinese vendors figured out what makes the Milanese tick with regard to shopping preferences, they adapted accordingly. Instead of the noisy chaos, there’s a quite elegance about the place. Duck is still readily available but the window space is given up to parma hams. Chinese ‘stuff’ in all its forms and fancies is to be had, but displayed with a certain panache that San Francisco probably wouldn’t know what to do with. And while many locals moved out when the Chinese retailers first moved in, they’re slowly coming back. The area is prospering.

IMG_0142 (800x592)IMG_0158 (800x598)And yes, there are the money markets, and the tacky shops selling the usual Chinese fare but even those have some class. But there are  expensive designer shops, too – more upmarket – catering to the Milanese pocket and the Asian tourist. It has everything that your usual Chinatown has – in style. I was bemused.

IMG_0147 (574x800)What got me though, was how well the two cultures have blended and how part of the city Milan’s Chinatown is. It seems to have assimilated. Or has it? I read that Chinatown is the target of many prejudices and tension. The fear that many Italians have of China is mainly due to the fact that the very important fashion business suffers from dumping prices and copying.

And apparently moves are afoot to relocate it to another part of town… where it would be ‘less infringing’. Who knows.  If you’re in Milan, it’s definitely worth a visit.

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2014 Grateful 49

Those of you who grew up in Ireland might remember the nuns telling you to eat all your lunch because there were millions of black babies in Africa who were starving. Personally, I never got the connection. Why would they care whether or not I ate all my lunch. Hunger in another world so far removed from my own didn’t concern the inner workings of this six-year-old’s mind. Yes, I dutifully went without sweets during Lent and collected money that went to Trócaire, who in turn were supposed to alleviate the hunger in Africa. I don’t get that connection either. [I have vague memories of TV personality Bunny Carr doing a runner with some money donated to Górta (Irish aid organisation). Late last year, Irish charity, the CRC, made the headlines when it confirmed that money donated by the public was being used to top up salaries of well-paid staff. It’s hard to know where your charity dime is going these days.]

But back to hunger. Between 1845 and 1852 a million people died from hunger in Ireland and a million more emigrated to escape a similar fate. We call it an gorta mór (the great hunger). I came across a number of memorials to the famine earlier this year – the old famine road in Mayo was one. Another is the memorial near the foot of Croagh Patrick in Murrisk, Co. Mayo.

IMG_9518 (800x599)IMG_9515 (800x597)This depiction by Irish sculptor John Behan is a graphic illustration of the coffin ships that sailed from Ireland, weighed down with the hopes of those seeking a better future. I hadn’t realised that the first coffin ships sailed for Quebec, Canada, where at one stage 40 vessels containing 14,000 Irish immigrants waited in a line extending two miles down the St. Lawrence.

IMG_9861 (600x800)In Mullingar, I spotted a sign for a famine graveyard and had to double back to check it out. I’m not sure what I was expecting. A field, perhaps, with lots of simple crosses? A mass grave with a huge monument? I was half-right… on both counts. I’ve tried searching the Internet for more information but to no avail. What little I know about it was gleaned from the rather innocuous memorial stone that was erected at the entrance.

IMG_9863 (800x589)IMG_9867 (584x800)It was a little surreal to stand in a field with one large tree and one small, plain, wooden cross knowing that the remains of hundreds, if not thousands, lay beneath the sod. Country hedges separated the mass grave from nearby houses and in a flight of fancy, I found myself wondering what it would be like to wake up every morning, open my curtains and look out onto this field. For many of us, the famine has become some abstract event that we are not allowed to forget. Memorials exist in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, all places that felt the effect of an gorta mór.

IMG_9864 (570x800)Have I ever been hungry? Yes. Have I ever known hunger? No. And when I see the chronic amount of food wasted each and every day, I am reminded of the millions who die daily because they have to do without. Will my eating all my dinner save a life in Africa? I doubt it. But I don’t have to go to Africa to find hungry people. There are plenty of them in Budapest. The Hare Krishnas alone feed over a 1000 every day in the city. I read somewhere recently about an initiative in Ireland that links restaurants and supermarkets with homeless shelters. All soon to be expired food and food left at the end of the day that won’t be sold the next are donated free of charge to feed the hungry. That’s an idea worth replicating.

This week, as I feel fuller than usual thanks to Italian hospitality, I’m grateful that I’ve never experienced hunger or known what it is to want for food. And I’m even more grateful for an abiding awareness of how fortunate that makes me.

The words of Buzz Aldrin come to mind… If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger. And with them, the words of St Augustine: Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.




An interesting engagement

There nothing like the onset of an election to unleash myriad perspectives from people who till now have never expressed an opinion on politics, one way or another. It seems as if, suddenly, everyone has an opinion that they’re more than willing to share. And I’m fascinated.

Daily, I hear people I know and respect argue in favour of politicians I have little time for, or indeed argue against the only one that I have any time for at all. I remind myself that the world would indeed be a boring place if we all shared the same opinion, so rather than challenge their views, I’m relishing the fact that they have opinions they’re willing to share with me in the first place. For democracy to work, people have to engage. I wasn’t born in Hungary and my command of the language is basic at best. So for me to understand the vagaries of Hungarian politics, I need to hear it all: I need people to talk to me and tell me what they think.

electionPolitics, like most things, is about perspective. We interpret the actions of a particular government or party or individual politician based on what we think is right or wrong, good or bad, smart or stupid. If we have a vested interest in, say, higher education, anyone who does what we’d like them to do in this area is likely to win our vote, regardless of what they might do for another sector of the community in which we have no interest at all. If we think we’re paying too much tax, then our vote will most likely go to whoever promises to lower it. Political parties and their politicians play to this. They recognise human nature for what it is. We are conditioned, in this part of the world anyway, to think of ourselves, to put our own interests, and those of our families, first and foremost.

American columnist Franklin Pierce Adams had it right all those years ago when he proclaimed that elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody.

ubuntuI read a Facebook post recently about an anthropologist in Africa who set a basket of fruit some distance from a group of kids. He told them that whoever reached the basket first could have all the fruit. Instead of making a mad dash for it, the kids held hands and ran together. They all arrived at the same time and shared the fruit. When he asked why, they replied: How could any one of us be happy eating the fruit if everyone else was sad? In Africa, this is known as ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language…It is to say. ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…

I wonder what the government would look like if we proved FPA’s claim to be false and instead voted with ubuntu in mind.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 January 2014

Forty shades of green

I’m sick. Homesick. I’ve been travelling for what seems like a couple of lifetimes, ever since I first headed Stateside back in 1990. Since then, I’ve lived for a total of three years in Ireland. Three out of the last twenty-four years. Doesn’t seem like much and one would think that by now, I’d have started to call somewhere else home.

IMG_9573 (800x591)Author John Ed Pearce reckons that home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to. I never particularly wanted to leave Ireland. It was just one of those things. I’d applied for a US Green Card in the first ever visa lottery – mainly, I think, because everyone else was doing it. I never expected to win one and never gave much thought to what I’d do if I did. But I did. And I was given 28 days to uproot and take up residence in the U.S.of A. So I went. Not because I particularly wanted to live in America, but because I didn’t like my job. And far away hills are always greener.

IMG_9783 (800x586)German author and poet Christian Morganstern said that home is not where you live, but where they understand you. Were I to use his measure, I’d have multiple homes. I have a peculiar way of making people understand. Recently, after an interview I gave here in Budapest, a friend suggested (half in earnest) that she coach me. I was giving away too much. I was too open, too free with my stories. And yet although many might think that in four seasons of presiding over the Gift of the Gab, there’s nothing left to tell, a new story is born every week. And anyway, being Irish, I’m a great lover of poetic license and who knows what’s true and what isn’t. But back to understanding. I’m truly blessed that everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve met people who have taken the time to ‘get’ me; people who were curious enough to explore the inner workings of my mind (albeit with varying degrees of success) and admittedly, some still find consolation in that they’ve just about managed to understand the madness in me.

IMG_9781 (800x597)One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passersby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way. Perhaps Van Gogh had a point, but again, I’ve been very lucky that people have sat by me and had a conversation. Random meetings and happenstance have resulted in life-long friendships with people my own age … and younger … and older.  Perhaps the secret is to open my home to whomever, whenever. I’ve a fondness for entertaining and an appreciation that homes are happier places if they have that lived-in feel, even if there’s only one full-time resident. And when my fire is lighting, almost anyone is welcome. How long they get to stay though is another matter 🙂

IMG_9856 (800x599)Charles Dickens reckoned that home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answer to, in the strongest conjuration. I was fortunate this last trip to see parts of Ireland I’d not seen before. Magical parts. Parts that couldn’t be bettered by the wave of a thousand wands. Driving the back roads and scenic routes, we came across remnants of times gone by, some spots so remote that it seemed as if we were the only living souls for miles around. When I look at the photos, I’m reminded of Johnny Cash and his 1961 song 40 shades of green and perhaps, for the first time in a long, long time, I get the emotion behind it.

IMG_9555 (800x600)A few hundred years ago, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote that every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. Perhaps that’s where I’m at. A journey that started off by accident and through a series of random happenings along the road it has brought me to Budapest. And yet, despite the fact that I’ve been gone for close to a quarter of a century, give or take a few years, I still talk of going home. Home home. To Ireland. And again, I’m lucky. I can go pretty much as often as I please … I know not many have that luxury.

IMG_9560 (800x600)Nineteenth century author Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote something that really resonates and perhaps best explains the umbilical attachment I have to Ireland and her people. Home is a place not only of strong affections, but of entire unreserved; it’s life’s undress rehearsal, its backroom, its dressing room, from which we go forth to more careful and guarded intercourse, leaving behind…cast-off and everyday clothing. I may never again live in Ireland full time. That said, I could move home next month. Therein lies the beauty of life – the great unknown. This evening though, I’m in an odd mood. I’m in a strange place. I’m something I haven’t been in a long time. I’m homesick.

But enough… I need to pack. Italy is calling.

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Not just any old field

When you learn something new every day, life takes on new meaning. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. It doesn’t have to be life-changing. It just has be new. Mind you, my ‘I never knew that’ is usually followed quickly by ‘why didn’t I know that’, especially when it’s about someone I know or somewhere I’ve been.

IMG_9579 (800x600)I’ve just discovered that we have three fjords in Ireland. I’m surprised because I didn’t think we had any. I’m a fan of fjords and when I heard this little snippet, I was immediately back in Oslo. But Oslofjord (which technically, apparently, isn’t a fjord at all) is nothing like the one in Killary Harbour in the west of Ireland [and, if you’re curious, the other two are Carlingford Lough and Lough Swilly].

I’d heard of Killary Harbour because of the dolphins. It’s here in late spring and early summer that they follow the migration path of the salmon and I believe it’s a sight to behold [seeing a dolphin in Ireland is on my bucket list]. The fjord runs for about 16 km and came into being about 20 000 years ago.

IMG_9582 (800x600)IMG_9577 (800x600)On the side of the road as you travel in from Westport stands a monument, which was erected by AFRI and unveiled by Karen Gearon, one of the Dunnes Stores Strikers, back in 1994 . Ten years earlier, in 1984, Karen along with 10 other members of the Irish Distributive & Administrative Union, followed an instruction from their union not to handle goods from South Africa in protest of the apartheid regime. The strike lasted three months shy of three years and resulted in Ireland being the first country to ban goods from South Africa in 1987.

It seemed like an odd place to put such a monument, but that was before I realised I was standing on the old famine road that runs along the southern shore. It was here, in 1849, that tens of thousands of hungry farmers slaved to earn just a penny a day. We wondered aloud why, with our abundance of fish, did so many people starve when the potatoes failed: apparently, in this area anyway, it was not because there was no fish; it was because the people had no nets.

The fjord forms a natural boundary between the counties of Galway and Mayo and perched on its side is the village of Leenane or Leenaun. It’s a place that many pass through and stop for a pint in the very pub where the Bull McCabe would come for his pint of porter. The Field, starring Richard Harris as the Bull, is a legend in its own right. I saw Neil Tóibín play the Bull on stage at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin a few lifetimes ago and I can still hear him bellow: Are these the same outsiders….

IMG_9589 (800x600)There was something a tad surreal about sitting in the corner by the fire, looking down the length of the bar all the while expecting the Bull McCabe to barge in through the door. The walls are covered in black and white stills from the movies and, 24 years later, it’s still as real as ever.

But Leenane has a second fame hanging from its name. One of my favourite playwrights, Martin McDonagh, used it as the setting for his trilogy, the most famous of which is no doubt  The Beauty Queen of Leenanethe other two being A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. I saw a Hungarian production of the latter here in Budapest last year, Vaknyugat – in Hungarian with English surtitles- and any fears I might have had about it not surviving a translation were put to bed. McDonagh is gifted and Alföldi Róbert as the priest was mesmerizing.

So, far from being a place so blighted by rancor, ignorance, and spite that, as the local priest complains, God Himself seems to have no jurisdiction, this village and the 1850 or so acres that surround it, is populated by no more than 200 people. And yet, through the ministries of playwrights JB Keane and Martin McDonagh, it will be on the map for years to come. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by.

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2014 Grateful 50

I did something last night that I rarely do. In fact, I could add up all the times I did it last year on one finger. But for some strange reason (perhaps I’m still feeling the effects of the recent full moon) I decided to put my face on before I went out.

My relationship with make-up is quite cosmetic. I usually only wear it when I’m not in a good place; when my confidence is at a low ebb and I need to put a wall, however thin, between me and the world. Or when I’m venturing out of my comfort zone and need to play a role. Trying to make it look as if I’m not wearing any at all is key. I hate looking ‘made up’ and, being innately lazy, I am fascinated by other people’s dedication to it all. [According to Helena Rubenstein: There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.]

I had a good look at my fellow tram travellers and every woman, without exception, had a face on. Some were bolder than others, more stylish, more out there, but every woman I saw, regardless of age, was masked up. Collectively, I was looking at eight hours of effort – one working day.

The US FDA defines cosmetics as something ‘intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance without affecting the body’s structure or functions’ and of those, promoting attractiveness is probably the main reason people would give. We’ve been using make-up for years – it’s been traced back as far as Ancient Greece and Egypt and it’s been in and of fashion ever since. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria declared it vulgar and improper and the only people who should wear it, according to her good self, were actors. But it came into its own in the early twentieth century and has been enjoying huge popularity ever since. And its much more convenient. No more using burnt matches to darken eyebrows, or berries to stain lips, or urine to get rid of  freckles or arsenic to get that sought-after pale look. Now it all comes in tube, safe and tested. [Wasn’t it Yves Saint-Laurent who said: The most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion. But cosmetics are easier to buy…]

But back to last night…me with my face on. A number of people commented on how well I was looking, asking what I’d done to my hair. No one noticed the make-up. Mission accomplished. But then earlier in the week when I was at GOTG sans face, I received similar compliments and inquiries about my hair. This would suggest that the make-up did little for me and that extra effort was wasted… if indeed I was wearing in the first place in an attempt to look better and garner more compliments (which wasn’t the case…).

Objectively I can say that yes, I did look better than usual. But in actuality, could I be bothered doing it every day? I don’t think so. As I spent a precious five minutes cleaning off the residue, I had a flashback to Mulranny beach in the west of Ireland. In my mind’s eye, I could see its stones, in their various shapes, sizes, colours, and textures – each one lovely in its own right. And I got to thinking about nature and naturalness and how beautiful it can be. And I realised that I’m fortunate enough to have inherited my mother’s good skin and that really, there’s no need to mess with it. And for that, I’m truly grateful.

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Value added

It used to be cash or cheque. Then it moved to cash or card. Now the payment lingo has moved up a notch to with invoice or without. I doubt there’s a country in the world (except maybe Switzerland) where the invoice question doesn’t rear its head when it comes to making a purchase. Okay, I’m not talking supermarket stuff; I’m talking services.

You get someone in to paint your house and you pay cash. You get someone to fix your car. Ditto. You go to a flea market or an antique fair and buy some furniture. Same applies. You don’t worry about whether or not they’re paying taxes. That’s their business, not yours. And if you’re one of those strange beings who actually prefer to do things above board, asking for an invoice in some situations can make you look a little deranged. I know. I’ve had the look…the look that is usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and a snort of derision. Well, of course you can have an invoice… if you really want one.

And the cogwheels turn. Why would anyone want to willingly pay the tax due (in Hungary, the valued added tax, familiar to all as áfa, is a whopping 27%), if it’s possible to get can get away with not paying it? The world is rife with tax evaders. Take out the bad boys (and girls), the ones for whom greed is the bottom line and lining their pockets at the expense of the nation is their end goal, and then ask why people choose to evade their taxes.

Because they’re ridiculously high? Because the money paid in taxes doesn’t go where it should go? Because people simply can’t afford to pay the full whack? Because it’s difficult, if impossible, to turn any sort of meaningful profit if you do it all by the book?

I’m not a taxation specialist. I lay no claim to understanding the economics of it all. But it would seem to me that if VAT and the accompanying taxes are so high, then a country should have a great infrastructure, a grade A healthcare system, and an education system that is world class. But sadly this is rarely the case. Is it a mission impossible? Winston Churchill might have been right in his contention that ‘for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle’.

And if high taxes are putting people off paying them, why not lower the taxes so that everyone who should be paying pays. And if someone wants to do it all by the book, then why penalise them for their efforts?

Yes…you’ve guessed. I’ve noticed the new BKV charges.

The price of a monthly travel pass has been reduced to 9500 huf (~€31 / $42). Great news, I thought. What’s to complain about? But if you want an invoice…then you get to pay 10,500 huf (€35/$47).  The mind boggles.

valueaddedFirst published in the Budapest Times 17 January 2014

A woman to be reckoned with

You don’t know Granuaile? You can’t be serious. You have to know Granuaile. Everyone knows Granuaile. She was one of the fiercest women Ireland’s ever known.

I don’t often feel stupid but this was one of those times I wish I’d paid more attention in school. Just who, exactly, was Granuaile?

I was in Mayo. On the coast. So odds were that she had something to do with the sea. If she was fierce, she was hardly a housewife, a nanny, or a governess. Adding sea to fierce, I got pirate! And the penny dropped. Granuaile aka Gráinne Mhaol aka Grace O’Malley.

IMG_9598 (598x800)Granuaile had inherited her father’s shipping business, her mother’s land, and everything her first husband, Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh, had had to his name when he died. A rich woman, indeed, and one who knew her own mind. She married a second time, this time choosing Risdeárd an Iariann Bourke, owner of an ironworks and castle at Burrishoole (which, with its sheltered harbours, was ideal for someone with a piracy bent). ‘Twas the castle and the land (and not the man) that the bould Granuaile was said to have had her eye on. And it would take a strong man to derail her once she’d set her mind to something.

They married under Brehon Law – which conveniently allowed you to marry ‘for one year certain’. And, when the year the was up, she took the castle and ditched yer man. While she was in the castle, she apparently called out the window to him: Richard Bourke, I dismiss you. In Irish, of course. Brings a whole new meaning to the term quickie divorce, doesn’t it…and this was back in the sixteenth century.

Her biographer, Anne Chambers, says that accusations of promiscuity were typically levelled at any woman who stepped outside the social norms … and Granuaile was no exception. She’s said to have had at least one son out of wedlock but then rumours are rumours. (Mind you, it seems that half of Mayo claims her as an ancestor, so perhaps there is something to it.)

Like any woman out of the ordinary, she attracted her own set of legends. Who knows if any are true, but they certainly make for good reading. My favourite is one that supposedly happened in 1576, when Granuaile paid a visit to Howth Castle, where she found the castle gates closed. She was told that the family were at dinner and couldn’t see her. A little put out, when she accidentally happened upon the Earl’s grandson, she abducted him (as you would back in the day if you were a tad upset!) and only released him when the Earl himself promised to keep the castle gates open to all unexpected visitors and to always set an extra place at the dinner table. The Earl gave her a ring as a sign of this agreement and the ring is still in the family – and they still set that extra place at every meal. Even today.  Not a woman to be dismissed lightly apparently.

Amongst her many exploits, perhaps the most notable (from a societal point of view) was her visit with Queen Elizabeth I. Granuaile’s two sons and her half-brother had been captured by the English so she decided to go straight to the top to secure their release. Legend has it that the Queen sent her something akin to a questionnaire to fill out before the audience (these 18 Articles of Interrogatory, along with her answers, are preserved in the English State Papers today and are now on my list of things to be read). Word has it that Granuaile decked herself out in all her finery for the big meet at Greenwich Palace. But fine cloth never maketh the man (or woman). She refused to bow before the Queen as she didn’t recognise her as the Queen of Ireland.  Oh to have been a speck of dust on the curtains when these two strong women met.  As Granuaile spoke no English and the Queen no Irish, the pair had their conversation in Latin.  They each made promises that they then promptly broke (a woman’s prerogative and all that…), but by all accounts the lads were released – the Queen went back to ruling Ireland and Granuaile went back to supporting the rebels.

Another tale I heard while I was in the west (why am I pronouncing that as ‘wesht’ in my head?) was of a fire aboard one of Granuaile’s ships. Apparently she stripped to her waist and used her clothes to kill the fire and when the crew stopped to stare at the mighty bare-breasted spectacle before them, well… enough said. I can just imagine the stream of abuse she gave them. Granuaile must have made many a grown man tremble.

In fairness, I did know the name Grace O’Malley… it was the Granuaile (prounounced Granawale) that threw me. But now that we’re on closer acquaintance, Granuaile is on my list of dead people I’d invite to dinner. And for some odd reason, I have it in my head that I’d like to sit her next to Johnny Cash.

A statue of her stands in the grounds of Westport House. It’s a lovely spot to pop into, if you’re in the neighbourhood and have a few hours to spare to wander into the past. The house itself was built by Maud Bourke, who was Granuaile’s great-granddaughter, and her husband  Colonel John Browne. Open to the public since 1960, more than 4 million visitors have crossed its threshhold, and next time, I’ll be amongst them…

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