Ending it all

I read this week that in Galway, a county on the west coast of Ireland, there were five suicides last weekend. Last year, the county had 31 deaths by suicide. This year so far it has had 22. And it’s not even June. This news left me reeling.

Curious to see how Ireland compares with Hungary, I checked the suicide rankings. (That the world collects such statistics is a clue to how messed up our society is.) Hungary is at 9 (2009 figures) – Ireland at 36 (2011 figures). This didn’t surprise me.

The caricature of the depressed Hungarian is one that runs deeps. Go back to 1933 when Rezső Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, which found world fame when it was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 and became known as the Hungarian Suicide Song. Urban legend has it that many people committed suicide while listening to it, and more still left its lyrics as their final words to the world. In 1968, 35 years after writing the song, apparently Seress himself committed suicide on his second attempt. It’s said he jumped out a window in Budapest but survived, to choke himself to death with a wire later in hospital.

Most at risk in Hungary are men in their 50s while Ireland tops the charts for teenage suicide in Europe for both boys and girls. What is wrong with the world? When does it get so bad that life is no longer worth living? That there is no hope left? That people have absolutely no one they can turn to?

In my early teens, I remember being really angry with my parents for not letting me do something or go somewhere. I went so far as to write a note and find a large bottle of aspirin. I was all set to swallow the lot but when I took out the cotton-wool filling, there were only five tables left. I didn’t want to kill myself; I wanted to punish my parents. How selfish can you get? And yet I wonder how many young people have died needlessly for the same reason – to prove a point?

There are those who think that suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness, that the victims are not the ones who have died but rather those who are left behind. But to suffer from a deep-seated depression or unhappiness that drives you to take your own life – where is the selfishness in that?

Depression is a serious issue. That feeling of apathy, of doom, of hopelessness is one that has to be experienced to be fully understood. The isolation, the futility, the frustration experienced by some who might appear to lead perfectly happy lives is difficult to empathise with unless you’ve been there.

Be it Ireland or Hungary or anywhere, it can be difficult to spot the signs, particularly as so much of our interaction is now virtual. But we can pay more attention to those who are going through radical changes like the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job or a mortgage foreclosure. We can notice when someone becomes withdrawn, or starts to bring up the subject of how to commit suicide, or speaks of wills and readying their affairs. We can listen when someone talks of feeling lonely or isolated, or expresses feelings of uselessness, failure, or loss of self-esteem. We can notice if someone seems obsessed with problems that appear to have no solutions. Above all, we can make time for people and show them that someone does care.

First published in the Budapest Times 30 May 2014

To hunt or not to hunt…

Many years ago, in another life, I won a lottery. My prize? The opportunity to shoot a moose. I borrowed a 30.06 rifle and practised. And to my surprise, I could hit the target. Moose hunting in Alaska is controlled. Herds are culled. The rules are very strict. All the meat is put to use. I had no qualms about the process or the whys and wherefores in that part of the world – it’s  way of life and many people depend on the meat to get through the winter. But when I saw my moose, I couldn’t pull the trigger. Those eyes… It was a waste of a tag and certainly earned me no favours. It was the one and only time I entered the draw.

I have nothing against subsistence hunting. I can’t say the same for hunting for glory though. The thought of saving the head to stick on a wall and wasting the rest is beyond reason. So when we visited Kamnik, outside of Skopje, I was a little surprised.

IMG_2095 (800x600)IMG_2079 (600x800)The Lakavica reserve is about 7000 hectares in total, 2500 which is fenced. Guided hunts (4/5 days) for wild boar, mouflon, deer and more are led by experts. You can then ship the meat home, have some of it cooked at the restaurant that night or leave it with them to serve to regular customers. The Hunting Lodge itself has 16 rooms, 5 suites, conference facilities, gym,  and a restaurant open to the public. The furniture suggests that everything is put to use. If you have to hunt, then don’t waste anything. But the question is – in this part of the world, do we have to hunt?Recreational hunting comes at a price that excludes the majority, making it a sport for those who have a healthy disposable income. It becomes entertainment. It’s not a fight against a marauding wild boar or a rabid wolf or an effort to stock your freezer to get through the winter – it’s a sport – and that I struggle with.

IMG_2092 (800x600) IMG_2090 (800x600)A visit some years ago to South Africa taught me the value of culling. Of course there are two, if not three or four sides to every argument  and while you might choose to pick up your gun and head to the wilds for a week’s stress relief, in search of a trophy for your living room wall, I already know that it’s not something I could do.

But where there’s a demand, there’ll be a supplier and Kamnik seems to have a handle on it all. The added attraction is that there’s a vineyard next door producing some of the best wine in Macedonia. Definitely worth a visit.

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Ethnicity vs nationality

I’m Irish. I was born in Ireland. I might, if the occasion called for it, qualify that descriptive by stating that I’m Catholic Irish. I was born in Ireland and raised Catholic, as were my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents… Seems a simple enough logic to me: place of birth dictates nationality.

It used to drive me mad in pre-9/11 America to hear people say they were Irish when they’d been born in North Carolina or South Dakota. Irish-American I could just about handle but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why plain old American didn’t suffice.

When I first discovered the Balkans a whole other level of confusion arose. But the relatively simple statement – I was born in Croatia and I’m Serb – accompanied by a 20-minute history lesson was enough for the penny to finally drop. Ethnicity and nationality – two different things entirely.

IMG_1777 (600x800)This also cleared up the mystery around Mother Teresa, an Albanian born in Macedonia. The site of the house she was born in is marked by four brass L-shapes set into the footpath. Nothing else remains. Inside the nearby memorial house there’s a model of what her home place looked like. Born on 26 August 1910 in Uskup (now Skopje),  this tiny woman had a huge impact on the world. In 1928, as the 18-year-old Agnes Bojaxhiu, she decided to become a nun and left for Ireland to join the Loretto Sisters in Dublin. She took the name Sister Mary Teresa after St Thérèse of Lisieux (a particular favourite of mine). From Ireland she was sent to India – first to Darjeeling for her novitiate period, and then to Calcutta, where she taught at St Mary’s High School for Girls. She learned to speak both Bengali and Hindi fluently.  In January 1948, she finally got approval to leave the order and set up on her own, working as a medical missionary in the slums of Calcutta.IMG_1791 (800x600)

IMG_1788 (800x600) (2)IMG_1799 (614x800) (614x800)With little more than six months’ of medical training she went to the slums in Calcutta to fulfill her mission: to aid the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for. Two years later, in 1950, she set up a new order with just 12 members – The Missionaries of Charity. Over the course of the next 20 years, this tiny woman established ‘a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile health clinics’. No matter what your religious beliefs, that sort of drive has to be admired.  Starting out with just 12, by the time she died in 1997, ‘the Missionaries of Charity numbered over 4,000—in addition to thousands more lay volunteers—with 610 foundations in 123 countries on all seven continents’.

IMG_1800 (800x600) (2)The Memorial House of Mother Teresa opened in Skopje in January 2009. It is built on the site where the old Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church once stood – the church in which she was baptised. Designed by Vangel Božinovski, it is said to be a modern version of her original birthplace. It did nothing for me. It’s busyness contrasts sharply with the simplicity I associate with Mother Teresa and her way of life. But then again, I’m not an architect. And when I read what he had to say: It’s not only an architectural project, it’s a result of my admiration for the work of Mother Teresa as a citizen of Skopje. Here you have her non-religous life and her spiritual life mixed together. This house is not only a house, it represents the city as a whole, I wondered some more.

IMG_1796 (800x600)There’s a chapel on the top floor, which is quite unusual. The mesh of metal outside the glass reminded me so much of barbed wire that I felt as if I were in a prison of sorts. The only clear view to the outside is through the cross. Perhaps that was intentional. I don’t know.

And I didn’t now that she was born in Macedonia. And I didn’t know that she began her nunning in Dublin. And to my shame, I have for all these years thought that she founded the Little Sisters of the Poor and not the Missionaries of Charity. What I did know though  was that she was plagued with doubts. [Christopher Hitchens wrote an interesting piece about her in Newsweek back in 2007 which he titled The Dogmatic Doubter.]

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1979 she gave one piece of advice: Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family. Not exactly rocket science but imagine how different the world might be were we all to do just that.

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As life-long fans of QPR bask in the aftermath of their Championship win yesterday and their team’s promotion to the Premier League, Réal Madrid fans were also celebrating their team’s UEFA Champions League win. Football is something that transcends borders, colour, religion – in fact, in and of itself it could well be seen as a religion of sorts, such is the fervour and faith displayed by its fans.

IMG_2290 (800x600)For the last two seasons, I’ve been part of a small international following of a third-division Hungarian team Létavértes. Yesterday, nine of us showed up at their final league match in Hatvan, a town that got its name by virtue of the fact that it sits 60 km from Budapest. Lightning flashed throughout the game but the threatened thunderstorm never came to pass. The slight showers weren’t enough to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm and our team’s 4-2 win made the cold worth standing.

IMG_2300 (800x600)IMG_2310 (800x600)True to form, our lads played their hearts out. They’d already technically won the league when they played last Saturday. Goal difference made them uncatchable… unless one of the other teams pulled off a miracle or three.We were ahead on goals and yellow cards – not their finest performance as sportsmen admittedly – but the other team’s coach was sent off and tempers on both sides were frayed.

The lads have been somewhat bemused by this random set of internationals showing up to cheer them on at their away games near Budapest and they’ve appreciated our support. The others in the stands have also been somewhat amused by our antics, as our lack of portable cushions and sunflower seeds (the basic accessories for football fans in Hungary) mark us as different.

The coach, Zoran Spisljak, is moving on. He’s going to Békéscsaba, a second division team with its sights set on promotion. The Big Z’s track record speaks for itself – taking Debrecen to the Champions League in 2009, stopping Ujpest being relegated and taking them to the semi-final of the Hungarian Cup in 2012, and then Létavértes (which an average age of just 19) emerging as Champions this year.

While I’ve enjoyed the Létavértes games and cheered as if I had a blood relationship with them all, my time is done. Next season, I’ll be cheering just as hard for the lads at Békéscsaba. Real football fans will no doubt break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of such a traitorous transition. And they might have a point: this apparent fickleness has made me stop and look a little closer at loyalty.

The game itself does nothing for me. I’ve said that before. But seeing the players develop, the pride they take in their game, and the enthusiasm with which they play – that’s refreshing. That I can support. I’m a great fan of the Big Z – had more managers a modicum of his insight into what it takes to motivate people and develop talent, Hungarian football would be more competitive and, if business managers took note, the world would be a better place.

Living in Hungary as an expat, it’s good to have something to support. Watching an English team play on TV doesn’t even come close to sitting on concrete steps in a town with a singularly unimaginative name and cheering the lads on as if the salvation of tomorrow depended on it. And doing so with people from so many different countries certainly adds to the experience, an experience to be grateful for and one I look forward to repeating.

So congrats to Létavértes. Pick up that cup next Sunday and be proud. Am sure we’ll be seeing some of you in Békéscsaba.

 

 

 

 

 

Here today, gone tomorrow

I’ve been giving a lot of thought this week to the transiency of life. I’ve been paying more attention than usual to what I do each day. And I’ve even expanded my limited Hungarian vocabulary to include the phrase arany életem van (my life is golden).

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade          (c) www.balkaneu.com

As I write, I’m in Belgrade. The floods that are ravaging towns on the banks of the River Sava in Serbia have killed and maimed, and made thousands homeless. Sure, someone said that heavy rains were expected but no one thought for a minute that the rains would be heavy enough to knock their houses and change their lives forever. The average rainfall for five months fell in just two days. From one day to the next, people have gone from having everything to having nothing. They’ve salvaged what they could and are now taking refuge in centres in Belgrade, dependent totally on the good will of others.

(c) www.balkaneu.com

(c) www.balkaneu.com

An appeal on Friday by the Prime Minister for people to turn out and help fill sandbags in an attempt to hold the banks saw more than 12 000 people show up. The streets of the city ring out with music played by groups of young musicians, all collecting money to help those displaced by the deluge. Everyone is talking about what has happened and how they can help. There is a palpable awareness that this, too, could have happened to them. The nation is responding en masse and it’s gratifying to see. And yet the common refrain I hear gives voice to the hope that this solidarity, this willingness to engage, to help, will continue long after the waters subside.

(c) reuters.com

(c) reuters.com

For me it has underscored the transiency of life – and the need to appreciate what I have because tomorrow, who knows; it might all be taken from me. Arany életem van most (my life is golden now).

Earlier in the week, I finally watched Adrian Brody’s The Pianist – a harrowing tale of Jews in Warsaw during the Second World War. I watched how they foraged for food salvaging every morsel. And then I noticed how I threw away the top of my tomato. I saw how I didn’t fully empty my tub of hummus before casting it aside. The peel of my avocado still had a lot of flesh on it. Back in 1944, these remnants would have made a feast for someone. Today, in 2014, the same applies.

I buy vegetables with every intention of cooking them and then I get invited to dinner. I get fed but the vegetables go to waste. I buy meats and cheeses that I intend eating but never quite get around to. I buy spices and herbs required by a recipe for a dish I only make once – and then they expire. A semi-annual clear-out of my kitchen presses is depressing as I throw out jar after jar of condiments have have passed their use-by date. And until this week, I did all of this without thought.

Neither world hunger nor natural disasters directly impinge on my life. I can sympathise with those affected but I can’t pretend for a minute to know what either are really like. I can send money to the Red Cross to help the flood victims. I can send money to aid agencies to help those who are starving. And while money helps – as prayers do – there are lessons to be learned, too. Better appreciate what I have. Eliminate wanton waste. Share willingly.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 May 2014

7144

A chandelier made from 7144 individual Swarovski crystal beads strung on strands falling from the ceiling would be at home in a ballroom in just about any part of the world. To see it hanging through three floors of a museum though is quite something. My illicit photo certainly doesn’t do it justice.

20140509_102354_resized-1I was in the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Skopje. Signs everywhere said no cameras. There was only me and the security guard. The centre opened in March 2011, some 68 years after 7144 Jews were deported from Skopje to Treblinka by the occupying Bulgarian forces. Fewer than 100 survived.

IMG_2005 (800x600)Shepherded in the Monopol building (a tobacco factory) before deportation, conditions, while horrendous, were nothing like what was in store.

We were in a terrible mood. The youngsters tried to sing every so often, but the adults and the elderly people were in deep depression. We did not know what awaited us, but the dreadful treatment we received from the Bulgarians showed the value of the promises given us that we would only be taken to a Bulgarian work camp. Here and there youngsters whispered of the possibility of an uprising and a mass escape, but they never materialized. There was no prospect of it succeeding. The yard was surrounded by a wooden fence and behind that a barbed wire fence. At each of the four corners there was a sentry with a machine gun and other armed guards would patrol the yard. Also, the belief that the worst possible fate did not await us prevented such suicidal acts from taking place.

When I stopped to photograph the building that housed Skopje’s Jews before they were deported, the security guard was none too impressed. When we told him that it was a memorial, an important building, he said he didn’t know.

And that’s what frightens me most. That we’ll forget. That we’ll forget that 11 million died in the holocaust, 6 million of them Jews. Places like the Monopol building should be recognised. And remembered. On 21 June 1944, all Jews in Budapest were required to move into one of 2000 special houses – the yellow star houses. This year, on 21 June, people will stand in vigil outside each of these houses – to be sure that we don’t forget.

 

 

Yes in my back yard

There’s a tradition in Skopje that is dying out. There are probably lots of these, but this particular one speaks to the stomach. For the last 30 years, Vase (pronounced Vassy) has had a restaurant in his back yard. There are about half a dozen tables and some inside, too. There’s no menu. No choice. You get whatever it is he has decided to cook that day. He’s not listed in any tour guide. He doesn’t have an online presence. And the only way to find him is to know someone who knows someone who knows someone. I know someone.

IMG_2047 (800x600)One of very few Macedonians in an Albanian part of town, Vase reigns supreme. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he trades jibes with this guests, most of whom seem to be quite familiar with this attitude – and some seem to be in better favour than others. You can tell by who gets the last of this season’s kajmak cheese. We were honoured. When one young girl asked for French fries, he told her that she needed a prescription. The only choice you have is to eat or not to eat.

IMG_2044 (800x382)Vase buys all his veg localIMG_2045 (800x600)ly and specialises in what’s in season. It’s been a while since I had an onion that was really, well, oniony. The beets and radishes, the pickled cabbage, the fried courgettes, and grilled peppers – all to die for. As for the kajmak…. well… I IMG_2046 (800x600)was in heaven.

And then the meat came – randomly. Chicken, pork, and sausage, and liver that was probably the best I’ve had in years. The wine was unpretentious and local, too. There was no pressure to go anywhere, no pressure to do anything buIMG_2048 (600x800)t eat and enjoy. I had my doubts that we would do it justice and, truth be told, wasn’t looking forward to Vase’s reaction if we didn’t clear our plates. But I needn’t have worried.

There are only two such places left in Skopje. Vase’s kids are not interested in carrying on the family business. It will die with him. Not because someone else couldn’t do the job or cook the food or serve it up, but because he is the restaurant. People come to see him – to talk to him – to eat whatever it is he’s cooked that day. You never know who might be at the table beside you. It’s classless and it’s fun. And he runs it his way. When the food runs out, he closes up. If you don’t like it, you leave. And if Vase doesn’t like the look of you, you won’t get a table. For him, it’s not a business. It’s a vocation, a way of life. So best find someone in the know.

 

 

 

 

Gained in translation

Just four days in Skopje taught me the value of suspending disbelief and just going with the flow. After a while, nothing seems too fantastical. Within two hours I’d stopped asking how old anything was because it was all new. The carousel on the river bank opposite the yet-to-be-opened Museum of Archaeology didn’t seem out-of-place. But I have to admit a little incredulity when I saw the boats.

Skopje doesn’t have a riverboat history. The Vadar is not Old Miss. It’s not the Danube. It doesn’t have cruise ships or steamers. And yet someone, with a great imagination, thought up the idea of having boat restaurants.

IMG_1862 (800x600)Built to look like brothels (my opinion: I’m doubt that was the intention but it was the first thing that came to mind) they actually look like old wooden ships. But like everything else in Skopje, looks can be deceiving. Strip away the veneer and you find a massive metal structure, built atop foundations on a makeshift island of gravel which looks for all the world like an old battleship. An illusion shattered.

IMG_2062 (800x600) But when you strip away the metal, you get a steel frame, just like any old building. Is this really how ships are built? When  I Googled, I found an article in Macedonian and it would seem that the name of the company responsible translates to Dim Phalanx. How appropriate. Something lost (or gained) in translation.

IMG_2054 (800x600)Some who are concerned reckoned that the boats, built to look like galleons, would add a new dimension to a city that is gaining a reputation as a new Disneyland. They’re thinking Pirates of the Caribbean. And I feel their pain. Somethings are better left imagined.

 

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Voltaire reckoned that originality is nothing but judicious imitation. I wondered a little at that when I looked up to see something rather odd in the distance. A roof that stood out amongst the roofs of Skopje. Closer investigation revealed something that would be at home in Gaudí’s Barcelona but with an address on Luj Paster Str in Skopje.

IMG_1801 (800x600)IMG_1809 (800x600)The architect, who is known in Skopje simply as Roger, seems a tad eccentric. He has a fondness for vintage cars and likes a little bling – at least in his decor. Apparently he inherited the family home and he lives in the top floor flat while his sister lives underneath. An outside lift gets him home. A inscription above the door asserts his creative rights and claims responsibility and ownership for all the work involved. Quite amazing.

IMG_2101 (800x600)Then I heard that he also had a restaurant outside the city and that, of course, had to be seen as well. It stands in a field by the side of the road, its isolation adding to its oddness. The security guard was kind enough to show us around. And though the outside should well have prepared me for what lay inside, it didn’t. Mad garish colours, Swaroksvi crystals, intricate wrought iron, black and white marble all meshed together in a riot of something that brought a whole new meaning to the word fantastic.

IMG_2105 (800x582)IMG_2113 (800x600)IMG_2114 (800x600)The top table was set up for a wedding. A massive chandelier with individual crystals set the cash register in my mind into overdrive. Everywhere I looked shapes and colours and forms vied for attention. I wavered between hating it and loving it. I started to wonder what type of people got married here – those who were flash to the point of being ostentatious? Perhaps brides who belonged in a Disney movie? Or those who favoured the Catalan artists Gaudí and Dalí? I wasn’t quite sure.

IMG_2112 (800x600)IMG_2138 (600x800)The outside is just as curious. Statues pops their heads out of the hedgerow at measured intervals. The walls are set with mosaic portraits of famous musicians, presumably those for whom Roger has a fondness. It’s all quite strange, quite peculiar, and in an odd way, quite refreshing. In a world where sameness has become the norm, where mass production and globalisation ensure that our high street shops are the faithfully reproduced no matter what city in Europe we’re in,  where conformity is the password to survival, I’m grateful that there are people like Roger who insist on leaving their individual mark on the world. I’m grateful that some people still dare to be different, regardless of what Joe Public has to say. And that confident in their own likes and taste, they stay true to who they are.

English poet, Dame Edith Sitwell, put it so: ‘Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of an uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.’

Here’s to you, Roger. ви благодариме.

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Facelifts and tradition

Although Skopje’s lords and masters continue to give the city a facelift, not everyone is happy with the result. Progress takes many shapes and forms and what might seem like a huge step forward to some, is an equally huge step backward for others.

My bitch with progress is that all too often it comes at the expense of tradition. In our haste to move forward, we cast aside things that no longer fit our new world. This isn’t always a good thing. Ways of life die out. Traditions that have been in families for centuries languish without heirs. Crafts die when the last craftsman takes a final breath. That makes me sad. Our shortsighted craving for immediate gratification in terms of bigger, better, faster is delusional.

IMG_1849 (800x600) (800x600)One tiny – and for many a very inconsequential – example of this is Cičko Stoicko, a fast-food joint that has been operating in Skopje since 1953. Cičko means uncle and this particular uncle was shot dead, by mistake, about ten years ago but the family has carried on grilling for the city. Yet this business that has been going strong for more than half a century has about two months left to run. Not because business is bad, or patrons are deserting it in favour of the city’s trendier restaurants. No. It’s only fault is that it stands in front of a building that is being treated to a brand new facade. Mostly like Baroque.

IMG_1822 (800x600)The Enem building to the right  is getting a facelift, one which probably make it l0ok more like its neighb0uring arch. I don’t need much excuse to go back to Skopje – I was quite taken with the place. But if I did need one, to see the ‘after’ to this ‘before’ would be it 🙂