My child is growing up

I’ve lived a life without issue. I have no children. I’ve not watched someone grow day by day, week by week, month by month. I’ve not been present for the teething, the nappy changes, and the terrible twos. I’ve not see them start school, play sports, and pass exams. I’ve not seen the first date, the broken hearts, and the angst that comes with being a teenager. The closest I’ve come to such a metamorphosis is my little corner of the VIII kerület (district).

When I moved into the neighbourhood back in 2008, I was flying in the face of some strenuous objections. It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live. It was full of minorities. (There are just about enough Irish in Budapest to form a minor minority… hello?) It was home to drug dealers and hookers and less than savoury people. It had no decent shops. It had nothing in the way of good restaurants or wine bars. And apart from Corvin cinema, it had nothing much in the way of entertainment at all.

Now, rating powers of observation on a scale of one to ten, with one being ‘so unobservant that I didn’t notice that taxis in Budapest were turning yellow’ and ten being ‘so unobservant that I didn’t notice that the Nemzeti Hotel on Blaha is now furnished’ I’d rate myself about five. Okay, so I never noticed Corvin Plaza being built. In fact, I didn’t know it had opened till a month later when it was pointed out to me by a friend. And I live just 200 meters from its front door. But since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to what’s going on in my corner of the VIIIth.

corvinCorvin Sétány now boasts its own fab Hungarian fusion restaurant – Kompót – that has an excellent daily menu and a yellow fin tuna starter that’s to die for. It also has a great little wine and chocolate bar – Vino és Wonka – that has a chalkboard menu sporting wines from every wine region in Hungary, wines you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else. And it has a friendly fruit and veg shop that will source whatever exotic fruit or veg you can think of. It’s home to Dumaszínház – comedy central and has other restaurants, bars, and cafés to suit all tastes.  It has a gym with a 25-metre pool (or so I hear), a Norbi outlet, and just opened, (or should I say, just noticed) a Lidl. And this is on the Sétány, not in the mall itself. The area is landscaped to within an inch of its life with the best of materials and in summer is a great outdoor space with live music, and an almost Barcelonian feel to it.

Until recently, it had its own community garden but this was bulldozed a few months ago. Fences went up. The diggers came in. And I was left wondering what was afoot. Yesterday I saw the placard. Another 227 flats are being built … these, in addition to the hundreds already built in phases I and II. When will it end?

My child has grown from an unruly but lovable ragamuffin into a cosmopolitan teen with its own ideas and opinions, its own taste and style, it own flair and fashion. And I’m the one rebelling.

Of course I love it. I want for nothing. Everything is there, right on my doorstep. What’s not to like? But a little part of me wishes that it was still untamed. That it hadn’t matured so quickly. That we weren’t losing touch.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 February 2014


Let this moment linger

I’m a sucker for romance. I love stories of chance encounters, of people meeting up years after they first met. I love the thoughts of fate appearing as random chance. Movies like Sleepless in Seattle and Serendipity and  Love Actually and Mamma Mia rank on my list of all time cheer-ups. [When love feels like magic, it’s called Destiny. When Destiny has a sense of humor, it’s called Serendipity.]

I’m the same with songs. I associate songs with people, with places, with memories. And once linked, that’s it – there’s no going back. And songs can’t be reused.

The Dubliners version of the song – Grace (penned in 1985 by brothers  Frank and Seán O’Meara) has been an all time favourite of mine for years. I can’t count the number of times I badgered Joseph O’Reilly into singing it for me in Alaska. I knew that it was connected in some way with the 1916 Easter Rising but until recently had no idea of its true meaning.

Grace Gifford (the woman being sung to in the song) was quite a woman. She lived from 1888 to 1955 and was an active Republican, artist and cartoonist. She was all set to marry financé Joseph Mary Plunkett on Easter Sunday in 1916 but fate intervened. Plunkett was one of the 14 famously imprisoned and executed in May that year.

IMG_0516 (800x594)The day before he was due to be shot, Grace Gifford married Joseph Plunkett in the prison chapel at Kilmainham Gaol.

As we gather in the chapel here in old Kilmainham Jail
I think about these past few weeks, oh will they say we’ve failed ?
From our school days they have told us we must yearn for liberty.
Yet all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me.

For a man who knew he was at death’s door, what must it have felt like to get married? For a woman who knew that she’d never get to grow old with her husband, what must it have felt like to buy that wedding ring? The chorus never fails to reduce me to tears – and that was before I knew the story behind it.

Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They’ll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won’t be time to share our love so we must say goodbye.

At 28, suffering from terminal tuberculosis, Plunkett had gone to the GPO to be with his compatriots Pearse and MacDonagh. He was one of the signatories of the Irish Declaration of Independence.

Now I know it’s hard for you my love to ever understand
The love I bear for these brave men, my love for this dear land
So when Pádraig called me to his side down in the GPO
I had to leave my own sick bed, to him I had to go.

IMG_0518Plunkett’s fame as a poet lives on and perhaps his most famous poem, the one referenced in the song, is I see his blood upon the rose. The wedding ceremony was presided over by Fr Eugene McCarthy. Their witnesses were prison guards. Their congregation, twenty British soldiers with bayonets drawn. They got married. And then Grace left.

Now as the dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too
On this May morn as I walk out, my thoughts will be with you
And I’ll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know
I loved so much that I could see the blood upon the rose.

Grace was allowed back the next morning when she was given ten minutes with Plunkett to say goodbye. He was executed on 4 May 1916.

IMG_0540 (800x593)Some years later, in 1923, Grace would be back again in Kilmainham, this time as a prisoner herself. She served three months for her part in the Civil War (on the anti-Treaty side). Looking through the keyhole into her cell, the picture she painted of the Madonna and Child is still visible and makes her even more real.

Now that I know the meaning behind the song, it’s even more poignant. And it still rates.

Have a bit of respect, lads

‘Have a bit of respect, lads. We’re in a place where people have died for Ireland. We need to respect this building. This history.’

The three Spanish men – each tipping 50 – looked a little askance. I’m not sure they knew what was going on. They each had cameras and they all appeared interested but they didn’t seem to understand what it was all about. In fact, of the 45 people dutifully following our guide around Kilmainham Gaol, I’d say only a handful had a sober appreciation of what was being said.

IMG_0532 (800x599)IMG_0523 (600x800)Visiting Kilmainham Gaol has been on my list of things to do for all my adult life. Driving out of Dublin last weekend, with a couple of hours to spare, I suggested to the ever-obliging pH that spending a few hours in jail would be so much better than enjoying the great outdoors. And I could get to cross something off my bucket list. We arrived to find the next two tours booked up (they have three an hour – every 20 minutes – each one lasting about an hour). We were slotted in for the 2pm. That left an hour to kill in the museum. Which wasn’t difficult.

IMG_0536 (590x800)After cemeteries and the Holocaust, and war in general, my next fixation is jails. Prisons. Penal servitude. Until last weekend, I lived in blissful ignorance of the transition from Victorian-era prisons where all sorts of prisoners were housed together making hardened criminals out of petty thieves, to the more modern, single-cell format with the ‘all-seeing eye’ – the panopticon – which controlled all aspects of an inmate’s sensory experience. The thought that at any time that eye might open and see whatever it is you were doing – how could a body ever relax or switch off. Enough to drive a body mad.

Nineteenth-century thinking on penal reform was split when it came to the idea of separation. Some advocated silent separation for the first 12 months of a prisoner’s sentence. But as this played havoc with their minds, it was soon stopped. Kilmainham practised the silent association system whereby prisoners worked together in silence during the day and spent their nights alone in their cells.

The idea of photographing prisoners didn’t take root until the 1860s. Until then, it was possible for repeat offenders to get away with being first time offenders, repeatedly, as no record was kept of their faces or fingerprints (introduced in the 1890s). When the jail opened first in 1796, all executions were by public hanging. [Can you imagine the conversation: What are you up to today? Oh, I hear there’s a hanging down at the jail. Thought I’d go take a look. You coming? Nah – I was there last week – you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. ] Public hanging was done away with in 1848; from then on hangings were carried out in private.

Not all hangings were carried out in the jail, though. Robert Emmet, the 1803 revolutionary, was hanged in Thomas Street that year. He hung for half an hour but his neck failed to break. He was taken down, still alive, and decapitated with a blunt butcher’s axe. His body was later stolen by his faithful and buried somewhere; his whereabouts remain unknown to this day. His speech from the dock is famous and the final paragraph often quoted:

I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world: it is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph, for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.

As no one knows where he’s buried and arguably as a United Ireland has never taken her place among the nations of the earth, he got his wish. I wonder if this is a secret passed down from father to son – and whether those in the know keep vigil lest the planners rezone the area and upon his grave another shopping centre is built.

IMG_0502 (800x600)At the height of the famine, many people deliberately fell foul of the law so that they might enjoy a roof over their heads and at least one meal a day in the jail. Cell numbers swelled to five or six and conditions were less than stellar. Records show people being jailed for a week for stealing onions. It was all a little too much to take in.

IMG_0549 (800x600)Yet it was when we came to the cells and saw familiar names like McDonagh, Pearse, Connolly, and Plunkett, that it finally began to sink home what had happened here all those years ago. Moving out to what’s known as the Stonebreaker’s Yard, we saw two single crosses, one at either end. At one, 13 of the 14 Republicans faced their firing squad of 12. Six soldiers on bended knees, six more standing behind them. All aiming at the piece of white paper placed over the prisoner’s heart.

IMG_0545 (800x589)At the other end, the cross marks the place where James Connolly, bullet ridden and nearly dead, was propped up on a chair just inside the gate. The guards had brought him there by ambulance from the hospital and inside the yard by stretcher. Unable to stand of his own accord, he was propped up on a chair to face his executioners. One wonders whether he felt relief.IMG_0551 (600x800)

Outside, drained, and just a little reflective, I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. The modern sculpture facing me underscored everything that I’d seen and heard, and made it even more meaningful. With the bullet holes visible in the blindfolded metal effigies, I wondered what they’d think of the Ireland we have today. And if asked, would they think their sacrifice was worth it?  Would they think we have achieved the inclusivity that would

‘[cherish] all the children of the national equally – oblivious of the differences – which have divided a minority from the majority in the past’.

IMG_0554 (800x599)




2014 Grateful 45

As I write, I’m multitasking. I’m sitting watching Ireland take on England in Twickenham in the 2014 Six Nations. The triple crown is at stake. We’ve already put paid to Scotland and Wales. And we’re also the only remaining unbeaten side in this year’s competition between these six rugby-playing nations: Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, and Italy and so have a shot of the grand slam.

I’m multitasking in an effort to distract myself. I’m like a hen on a hot griddle. I can’t sit still. . I’ve already cried my way through the brief retrospective of some great rugby moments in Irish history and feel for Brian O’Driscoll as he starts what will be his last game at Twickenham. I so want them to win.

The age-old rivalry between the two countries shows no signs of abating. The history of Irish rugby –  from its origins in Trinity College to its famous grand slam win of 1948, to Munster beating the All Blacks in Thomond Park – makes for interesting reading. And today, more than ever, we want our boys to win. I want them to win so that BOD will get his due.

I’m a huge fan of Brian O’Driscoll. Today he joins Australia’s George Gregan as the most capped international player in history as he gets his 139th cap. His records don’t stop at this. He’s also the highest try scorer of all time in Irish Rugby. He is the 8th-highest try scorer in rugby union history, and the highest scoring centre of all time. And he holds the Six Nations record for most tries scored and has scored the most Heineken Cup tries (30) for an Irishman. And he’s only 35. One wonders what’s left for him to do.

My knowledge of the rules of rugby is scant. I’ve only just noticed that they’ve changed the calls again and that scrums are now crouching, binding, and setting. I miss the whole engaging thing. I can’t keep up with the rules but this certainly doesn’t take from my enjoyment of the sport, given that when watching I spend a lot of time with my head in my hands or my eyes squeezed shut. It’s half-time and the Irish lads are no doubt in the dressing room getting a bollicking from captain Paul O’Connell as they face the second half three points down to England. We’re struggling. But as the inimitable George Hook has just said – no match is won at half-time. There is time.

But back to BOD. I wonder at our need for heroes. I wonder at our need for role models, for mentors, for people to inspire is to keep going. Ralph Waldo Emerson reckoned that the youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he admires.  I quite like this take and wonder what I see in BOD that’s a projection of my own soul. It’s certainly not purity. When England went for their second penalty and I prayed that they’d miss (hardly a Christian thing to do) – and it bounced off the post – prayer answered.

Felix Alder, founder of the Ethical Movement, reckons the hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see by. And BOD’s success has certainly done that for Ireland. He’s not alone. He’s been in good company but he has that certain something that makes him unique. A mulish obstinacy some say – and yes, that I can certainly identify with.

The sage of Potato Hill, American essayist Edgar Watson Howe, said: A boy doesn’t have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn’t like pie when he sees there isn’t enough to go around. I can relate to this – it’s not all about drama and being centre stage. And I reckon that BOD does far more for the country than we see or will ever know. It’s that quiet self-effacement that makes him so appealing.

So no matter the result – and there’s about 10 minutes to go – this week I’m grateful for heroes of the calibre of Brian O’Driscoll. For the pride they engender and the hope they inspire. The world would be a much duller place without them.




A change of fortune

To go from relative obscurity to international fame in a matter of days could be a dream or a nightmare, depending on which angle you look at it from. Personally – I’d prefer the obscurity. But for Győr resident László Andraschek, news of his good fortune was picked up the Guardian and subsequently newspapers in places as far flung as Taipei and Zambia. His win, relatively modest by many lottery standards – HUF 630 million (€2 million) – is certainly news – but international news?

lottoWhat makes Andraschek different is that prior to purchasing his winning ticket, he was, in fact, homeless. He actually won the lottery last September but it’s only now coming to light. Andraschek attracted international attention when he made a significant donation to a homeless shelter in Hungary. It was that good deed rather than the win itself that made the news, coinciding as it does with a series of protests worldwide against the new law that allows local authorities do what they need to do to protect ‘public order, security, health and cultural values’.

In Budapest, the measures taken include banning ‘habitual living’ in public places. These include underneath bridges, subways, parks and playgrounds, and much of the tourist trail in the city centre. The city of Debrecen has followed suit banning its homeless from the city and from the neighbouring Nagyerd forest. Violations of the law result in fines, community service, and possible imprisonment.    Hungarian embassies and consulates in Paris, New York, Vienna, Lisbon, Dublin, Brussels, Essen, and Istanbul have witnessed demonstrations from their windows in recent weeks. And more are planned.

lotto2Buying the ticket was a last-minute decision apparently, a spur of the moment thing that certainly paid off. He has bought flats for his three kids, paid off his debt and that of his relatives, donated to the shelter, and is now setting up a foundation to support addicts and victims of domestic violence. He also plans to travel to Italy. He says he hasn’t changed as a person and that he will invest cautiously. I hope so.

I Googled ‘lottery win ruins lives’ and was a little taken aback at the number of stories it coughed up. It seems for that for many, the overnight change in fortune goes to their head. Binging on designer clothes, fancy cars, and a lifestyle that would mirror that of a B-list celebrity, things start to go wrong very quickly. Perhaps they should have listened to the wise words of Somerset Maugham: Money is like a sixth sense – and you can’t make use of the other five without it.

lotto1I’d be lying if I said I’ve never daydreamed about winning the lottery. Who I’d tell (no one). How I’d spend it (anonymously). Where I’d go (everywhere). A fortune-teller told me once that I was destined to be rich (I thought she was referring to monetary wealth rather than that which comes in the guise of good friends, health, and happiness) – and part of me is still holding out hope. I wonder how much my life would change. How much I would change. I’d like to think that like Andraschek, I, too, could say that the money had little effect other than to give me to means to do good. But I’d have to win it first to see.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 February 2014.

Domestic cosiness and blood-curdling horror

Until very recently, Camilla Läckberg played no part in my world. I didn’t know her from Eve. And, had I been pushed to guess where she’s from based on her name alone, Sweden would have been the last place to come to mind.

Billed as ‘the hottest female writer in Sweden’ by the Independent, regaled by the Guardian as an ‘expert at mixing scenes of domestic cosiness with blood-curdling horror’, endorsed by The Times as ‘a top-class Scandinavian writer’ she certainly comes highly recommended. Curiosity got the better of me.

One of the lovely thing about having friends who read is that nine times out of ten they read authors I’ve never heard of. Over with the lovely BC last week, I had a flip through her bookshelf and came across five of Läckberg’s novels (starting with No. 2 in the series). I decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

preacherAbout a third of the way in to The Preacher I was ready to give up. The translation was doing my head in. The clumsy English was so far from what we’d say in everyday life that I has having a hard time concentrating on the plot and the characters. Three books later, I’ve gotten over it. I’ve learned to ignore the style and focus on the content. So much gets lost in translation and if I was interested enough, I’d learn Swedish.

Läckberg is a fan of alternating the past and present. Each of the books I’ve read so far flips back and forth and this, too, took some getting used to. Her protagonists are a couple. Policeman Patrik Hedstrom, second in command at the local cop shop in Tanumshede near Fjällbacka on the west coast of Sweden, Läckberg’s home town, is a smart lad. His crime-writer wife Erika Falck is quite something. They make a likeable, readable couple. As the novels progress, the pair increasingly get equal billing. Erika’s sister Anna has hooked up with Erika’s ex-boyfriend Dan and when Erika wants rid of Patrik she sends him for walks with his ex-wife. All very progressive. As for Bertril – Patrik’s bumbling idiot of a Chief – even he’s growing on me. One of a novelist’s biggest challenges is making their characters human, making them real. Läckberg has mastered this.

If you read enough crime novels, you can pretty much see where any book is going. Läckberg’s are no exception, though in fairness, it takes longer than usual. What I like most about them, though, is the backdrop: the accounts of everyday life in Sweden, its social problems, its history.

I’ve long since used crime novels in place of guide books, figuring that if a novelist does their work properly, I’ll learn more about a city or town or area from a novel than I would from a dry account of where to go and what to do. And I’d highly recommend Läckberg’s novels for anyone with a yen to visit Sweden.

hidden childI’m currently leafing my way through The Hidden Child and am thoroughly enjoying the insights offered into Sweden’s politics during the Second World War. I’d no idea that it was of such help to Norway or need that the anti-immigrant front is as far-reaching as it is. I’d somehow thought Sweden to be beyond that. Couple that with how Patrik (on paternity leave to free up Erika to write her latest book) is coping (as a representative male) with the daily routine of child-minding, and you have a very interesting book on many fronts. If you’ve a mind for mystery, then you could do worse than check the good lady out.




And what if I had met him? What then?

You say Bellagio and I say Las Vegas. Try again. You say Bellagio and I say casino. But no matter how many times we try, I never get to where you’re going. George Clooney.

IMG_0019 (800x600)Until I ventured out onto Lake Como, I didn’t know that Bellagio was an Italian village, home to the stars. I didn’t know that it was known as the Pearl of Lake Como and billed by many as the most photogenic village in all of Europe. And I didn’t know that it’s where George Clooney has a villa. I knew it was somewhere on Lake Como but not here.

Always up for a trip across water, whatever that water might be, I didn’t take much persuading to take the ferry and go see for myself. Not that I’d any idea what I’d say were I to run into him.

IMG_9986 (800x598)One of the first things to notice – after I’d double checked the date to be sure I’d not stepped back into another world (Bellagio off-season is strangely reminiscent of the Marie Celeste, were she not a ship, but a village) – is a rather thought-provoking statue at the harbour entrance. I spent quite a while looking at it, trying to figure out what I was seeing and eventually settled on togetherness, having cast aside despair, solace, and grief. I prefer to think of them meeting up after a long absence than readying themselves for an imminent departure.

IMG_0043 (585x800)The village is a maze of narrow climbing streets and at times the only thought that kept me climbing was the remote change that I might bump into himself at the top. We had the place practically to ourselves. And it was gorgeous.

The few shops that were opened sold the famous Como silk (never too early to start Christmas shopping). There was very little tat on display and indeed the windows of those that only opened at weekends were stylish and full of locally made ware. Note to self – next time visit on a weekend.

IMG_0036 (800x600)We passed the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni with its Michelin starred restaurant and a guest list that would rival the Academy Awards. I wonder was it here that Wilde so famously said: Let me be surrounded by luxuries. I can do without the necessities. This, by the way, is not to be confused with another villa of the same name (minus the GH appendage)  further up the hill, now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation where people ‘identify impact-oriented solutions to critical global problems’ – in between cocktails no doubt (the cynic in me will out). Seems like Bellagio has something for everyone.

IMG_0007 (600x800)IMG_0008 (800x600)It certainly has its fair share of churches that come with their own sense of simplicity. I’d been impressed with the churches in Milan, but here, out on the lake, in this little village, time definitely seemed to be standing still. In the church of San Giancomo, I was mesmerized by the frescoes, the pillars, and the polished pews.

IMG_0006 (800x599)IMG_0016 (800x586)Rambling our way through the warren of streets, we ended up on a road that led to the water. A dead end, lined with villa after villa, one more impressive than the next. The lake was turbulent. Waves (can you have waves on a lake?) splashed over the harbour wall as the boats in the sheltered waters seem to sigh audibly with relief. I could have sat there for hours. Travelling off-season certainly has its rewards.

We arrived at lunch time and finding an open restaurant mid-week, off-season was quite a challenge. But find one we did. Lunch of fresh fish and salad with a nice selection of wine was laid back and casual. In true Italian style, nothing was rushed. No evidence of frenzy. Everything taken in the moment, as it was. Not for the first time I mentally congratulated the nation on giving birth to the slow food movement and myself for avoiding the hordes of tourists that descend on the village in season.

IMG_9997 (586x800)IMG_0041 (800x600)I was highly amused at the embellished inscription on a building overlooking the harbour and have my doubts about work conquering anything in the village of Bellagio. Especially not in late January. I never did get to see George. But then again, had we run into each other, what would I have said? Howaya?  How’s she cuttin’? All well? I wonder at the excitement celebrity sightings engender in some folk and give thanks that I’m strangely unmoved by it all. As Yeats would say – being Irish I have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains me through temporary periods of joy.

IMG_0046 (800x600)We had boated over and decided to bus back to Como. It was on the bus that I had my suspicions confirmed. We had indeed stepped back in time. I hadn’t been imagining it. And had I been able to stop the clock, I might well have been tempted. Bellagio is a must see if you’re in the region. But try to go there off season. And for God’s sake, don’t all go together or it will be as bad as mid-July.





2014 Grateful 46

Srđan Valjarević

Srđan Valjarević

I’ve been quite open about my Balkan love affair. I’ve made no secret of the fact that three of the most gorgeous men I know all happen to be Serbian. Not necessarily gorgeous gorgeous in the Clooney sense of the word, but lovely lads – gems, all of them. There’s a fourth I could add to my list but I’m loathe to do it as he’s fictional – created  by the pen of Srđan Valjarević. Yet I suspect  (and hope) that he might be somewhat autobiographical as both the character and the author spent time by in Bellagio by Lake Como on a Rockefeller fellowship. The book my hero narrates is titled Lake Como and has been translated from the Serbian Komo. It’s up there on my list of all time favourites so when in Milan recently and offered the chance to visit the real Lake Como, I didn’t need to be asked twice.

IMG_9965 (800x588)Just 50 miles north of Milan, Lake Como, Europe’s deepest lake, came into being as the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated and melted. It’s featured in movies like Casino Royale, Star Wars, Oceans Twelve, A Monthly by the Lake, What a Beautiful Day, and The Shadow of Suspicion.  It’s so popular as a location that you can do a Hollywood-style tour of the villas that have been captured on celluloid. Once I realised that George wasn’t home, I lost interest.

IMG_9964 (800x583)I don’t think I’ve ever seen towns ‘nestling’ before.. or even registered the fact that I’ve never had the opportunity to use that word till now. But nestle they do… in the shadows of the Alps, all around the lake’s peculiar y-shaped perimeter (think inverted wishbone) that runs for about 170km. Multicoloured houses pitched almost on top of  each other come right out to the edge of the water. Sailing across the lake, they look like miniature villages, toy towns reminiscent of the pastelled vision that is Burano, one of the Venetian islands.

IMG_9977 (800x598)Schoolkids flock to the lake in droves, guided by geography teachers eager to show them where European and African continental plates collide. Apparently the great plates meet in the Alps and the peculiar geographic formation is something to behold – if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

The town of Como was home to Alessandro Volta (no prizes for guessing what he’s famous for). This man, born on 18 February back in 1745,  who didn’t speak until he was nearly four, was all but written off as ‘slow’. Yet he turned out to be a genius. Something to think of next time you change a battery.

With its medieval walls and imposing churches, Como is a jewel of a town. We were only there for a few hours but it was enough for me to know that I’ll be back. There’s so much I didn’t get to see or do.

IMG_0113 (800x600)IMG_9939 (800x600)Whether it’s the relative empty marbled expanse of the Basilica di San Fedele which dates back to the 11oos or the plus interior of the Cathedral (Duomo) itself, there’s a church to suit every taste. The skyline is dotted with steeples and spires and numerous church bells provide an unforgettable soundtrack to a movie that plays year-round. Como is the epitome of quaint, with its narrow streets and piazzas, its fur-coated gentlewomen and its designer-clad youth.  People watching  rarely gets this good, particularly when the sun is shining and the coffee is hot.

Interior of the Duomo

Interior of the Duomo

I had to be dragged away. Had there been a Como equivalent to Rome’s Trevi  Fountain, I’d have tossed a piggybank of coins to make sure I return. And next time, I’ll be better prepared. Maybe if I start saving now, I might be able to afford a room – with a view – in the Palace Hotel.

This week, as I search in vain for my copy of Lake Como (did you borrow it?), I’m grateful for the random happenings in my life that simmer, half-forgotten and then come to the boil as if that had been the intention all along. A job in London back in 2003 started a lasting friendship with my Milanese mate. An invite to spend Easter in Subotica in 2010 got me hooked on  Srđan Valjarević. Both of them together took me to Lake Como in 2014. Who needs plans eh?

IMG_9923 (800x582)

Looking both ways

keyAs I put the key in the door to my apartment building last evening, I found myself doing something I’ve never done before in Budapest. I looked up and down the street to make sure there was no one coming. A man was walking in my direction so I stopped, pulled out my phone and pretended to make a call. When he passed, and the coast was clear, I unlocked the door to the building and entered.

No, I’ve not been reading too many crime novels. I’m not suffering from an acute dose of paranoia. I don’t believe that anyone has reason to follow me. But something has changed. Something intangible.

tom mugAn English friend of mine was recently attacked in the hallway of his building. He was followed inside as he opened the front door. The mugger got away with the princely sum of 500 forints, a driver’s licence and a registration card. Not exactly a haul worth bragging about. I was sharing this story with another friend who told me of a young woman who was on her way home one night. As she entered the key code to her building, a chap in a hoodie pushed her inside, shoved her up against the wall, and started to grope her. The kicking and flailing triggered the light sensors and he legged it. Yet another friend told of a girl who was held at knife point outside her flat in the middle of the day and relieved of her wallet.

Now, three swallows don’t make a spring and three incidents, all involving foreigners in the city in the last couple of weeks, don’t amount to a crime spree. But they have gotten me thinking and asking questions. I’ve been doing a survey of sorts – asking friends, foreign and Hungarian alike, whether they feel as safe in Budapest as they did, say, five years ago. And the overwhelming response has been…no. Admittedly, they say, there are cities that are far more dangerous – Prague was mentioned, as was Dublin, and Johannesburg. But while no one can quite put their finger on why, there seems to be a growing sense of disquiet – nothing tangible – just a feeling.

Thank God nothing untoward has happened to me in the last few years. I’ve no complaints about safety or security. Yet I am a lot more conscious of my surroundings these days. I no longer wander around in a Stendhal-type daze marvelling at the beauty of what’s around me. Yes, I still appreciate it, but I’ve learned to multitask – I can marvel and be alert at the same time.

bbcA quick search of the Internet shows that crime is on the rise in Budapest and has been for a number of years. A general search for answers to the question – How safe is Budapest? – yields everything from affirmations that it’s the safest place in the world to stern advice not to venture out of your hotel room. Everyone has a story, an opinion.  But wherever you are, whatever you think, there’s no denying that it pays to be alert.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2014

Upscale street markets

I have a fondness for other people’s junk. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning than wandering a flea market, picking up and putting down bits and pieces of other people’s lives. Budapest has its fair share of markets and, in fact, most cities have regular market days – perhaps a sign that we’re becoming more thrifty?

I associate markets with bargains. Good deals. Stuff I wouldn’t see elsewhere. Old stuff that has character. I loathe the Chinese and Turkish tat that encroaches on the traditional fare, preferring plain old junk to new junk any day.

IMG_0119 (800x600)IMG_0122 (600x800)I missed out on Milan’s famous flea market: the Fiera di Senigallia and have made a note to book a return trip that include a last Sunday of any month, to catch the 400 or so antique dealers displaying their wares at the Antiquariato sul Naviglio Grande. This canalside market takes up 2 km of city streets and attracts more than 100 000 people each time. But we did stumble across the Via Fauchet which didn’t have much in the line of old stuff (if you don’t count the elderly ladies elbowing their way through the cashmere cardis) but the prices made my eyes water.

IMG_0127 (800x600)IMG_0124 (800x600)I took my life in my hands to get close to the leather bags on offer. Display samples in an array of colours in real leather. I could feel the adrenaline as I started to mentally check people off my Christmas list and visualise the space available in my suitcase. But then I saw the label – Made in China. Written in Italian mind you, but made in China nonetheless. I’m still refusing to buy anything made in China except when I can’t avoid it (It’s hard to find a laptop or a phone that wasn’t made there.) It was hard – and as I found myself trying to justify the bargain, I walked away. It’s a slippery slope.

Milan is famous for its fashion and if you had an ounce of style and the fortitude to battle with the masses, you’d easily fill your wardrobe with classic items at half of what they’d cost in a bricks-and-mortar market.

IMG_0129 (800x600)