2014 Grateful 27

I nearly didn’t recognise her. The short crop was gone, replaced by a pinned up 1940’s bob. I hadn’t seen my mate MC in way too long. Despite the best of intentions, work and lives had interfered. Schedules had clashed and best efforts to get together had come to nowt. It had been nearly two years since we’d seen each other – by far the longest time we’ve gone with out setting the world to rights in our own inimitable way.

STA_9956 (800x399)We did the train-station theatrics in Bath with minimum fuss but the right amount of understated excitement at being together again. And then we went for lunch. One hour morphed into two, three, four. The bottle of wine long-since gone, we had just one Italian spritzer (limoncello and prosecco) which turned into two and then three. Nearly a full eight hours later we had caught up on personal stuff, discussed Putin’s bout of sabre rattling, bandied around the possible consequences of China’s debt bubble busting, debated the current rise of antisemitism in Europe, wondered at the whole gay rights vs human rights, and expressed our liking for the current pope. Back home to hers and the conversation continued. That night, I marvelled, not for the first time, at the enduring power of real friendship and thanked my God for blessing me with some fabulously interesting friends.

The night before, I’d been to a reception in Bahamas House in London. The current Governor General of the Bahamas was retiring. As he spoke, he mentioned that at 84, it was time to retire. He didn’t look a day over 70. There, I caught up with old friends from the Bahamas and Jersey, met some new friends from South Africa, and again, marvelled at the diversity of opinions, perspectives, and lifestyles that the world has to offer.

The day before that, I’d been in Bern, Switzerland, and had had dinner with a mate of mine from school whom I hadn’t seen since 1983. I recognised AR immediately, partly through a recent connection on LinkedIn but mainly because she really hadn’t changed that much. We sat for a couple of hours in the shadow of the Swiss Parliament and caught up on 30 years, mostly trading experiences of where we had lived and what we’d been doing in our intervening lifetimes. We swapped news about classmates whom we’d been in contact with recently, try to put names to their collective faces, and reminisced about school days and the green uniforms that were indelibly etched on our fashion consciousness.

Earlier in the week, I’d managed to inject some life into a rather lethargic Geneva in the company of some new friends from the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Samoa (our Solomon Islands friend had gone in search of shoes). As we sat and traded stories, our fluency much enhanced by some semi-decent Swiss wine, we seemed to focus on commonalities. Shared phrases, ones that I’d assumed were quintessentially Irish, like ‘yer man/yer woman’ are alive and kicking and doing the rounds in the Cook Islands. This begs further investigation and one of these days I’m sure we’ll manage it. Traditions, habits, recipes, tales of madness and circumspection travelled to and fro across the table. As I settled into my hotel bed that night,  I marvelled at the opportunities and chance encounters thrown up by the universe that have the potential to become enduring friendships, or not, and I thanked my God for sending these people my way.

As CS Lewis is said to have said: ‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’





Taken for a ride

TripAdvisor has just published its list of the ten most expensive tourist cities in the world. I was surprised to see that Geneva didn’t rate. I’ve just been there and found it to be horrendously expensive (I nearly choked on my €20 basic chicken salad and drank every dredge of my €5 coffee).

IMG_2863 - Copy (800x600)It’s the first city I’ve been to where hotel rooms are cheaper at the weekend than mid-week; the city is a global business and policy-making hub. The UN was buzzing all week, but on Saturday, the only peacocks visible at the Palais des Nations were the feathered kind.

Had I been travelling from London, or even Ireland, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed how extortionately priced everything is, but coming from Hungary, it was a really loud cha-ching!

I was with a group from the Pacific Islands, many of whom were in Europe for the first time. Imagine my shock and quadruple it to get even a semblance of the beating their wallets were taking. They asked about living in Budapest, whether it was as expensive as Geneva, and not for the first time I found myself talking about the relatively inexpensive cost of living I enjoy. (The operative word here is ‘relatively’.)

Expats in Hungary have a standard of living many couldn’t ever hope to have at home. The lucky ones on expat packages can live well, very well. Those with local-employment status don’t do so badly either. Even those freelancing and invoicing externally do well enough. If you know the city and know where to go, your forints can go a long way.

Yes, there are restaurants where the cost of dinner for two would pay for a flash weekend in Bucharest. There are bars where you could have a three-course meal in Skopje for the price of a cocktail. There are shops where just one outfit would set you back the equivalent of three month’s groceries. But all in all, we have little to complain about.

And yet…

At Keleti recently, arriving by train from Bratislava, I overheard a taxi driver bargaining with a couple of tourists heading for the Marriott. They thought they were getting a good deal at €20. A straight run down Rácóczi and then right? I’d have thought €5-7 would be more like it and I said as much. But they were on holiday, they said, and they had the money to spend. I was torn between a quiet admiration for the driver who got them to stump up that sort of money and a somewhat louder disgust that, regardless of how much money they were toting around and how eager they were to part with it, they were being ripped off.

When I first arrived in town, I suspected there was some sort of Hungarian language tax – if you didn’t speak it, you were a foreigner. If you were a foreigner, you had money. If you had money, you were charged more. I preferred the idea of a language tax to facing the fact that I was getting the sort of preferential treatment I could have done without. Years later, there are still transactions in which I enlist the help of Hungarian friends rather than pay the ‘special’ rate for something or other. But these days, I’m a little savvier.

I noticed in a taxi the other day that I was showing on the meter as a külföldi (a foreigner) but now if I’m taken for a ride, I know I’ve no one to blame but myself.

First published in the Budapest Times  27 June 2014

The lengths people go to

It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. I’m not. But I like to have something solid under my feet when there is so much distance between them and the ground. I had vague memories of crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on the north coast of Ireland but they were vague; so vague in fact that a second go, twenty years later, was the order of the day.

IMG_2784 (800x600)Faced with the problem of getting to Carrick-a-Rede island from the mainland, crossing a 20-m wide chasm that dropped 23 m to the sea, local fisherman came up with this rather innovative idea. And all to check their salmon nets. As I struggled to navigate the 70 or so rocky steps down to the bridge, I had visions of fit and feisty fishermen lugging their catch up home. Some days, working at a computer doesn’t seem half bad.

IMG_2770 (800x600)Back in the day, it had just one hand rail. Today, there are two. No more than eight can be on the bridge at the same time (which is comforting) yet the size of those particular eight doesn’t seem to matter (which is less than comforting). As we trekked the mile and a half or so to the bridge, I did stop occasionally to wonder whether it was worth it. But the view from the island is fantastic. You can see Rathlin Island, and on a clear day, Scotland.

IMG_2766 (800x600)The colours are gobsmackingly glorious and the remoteness of it all makes it very much worthwhile. Travel and Leisure notes it on its list of the world’s scariest bridges and I can see how some might be terrified (ahem, pH). But that fear is put on hold because it’s so beautiful.

IMG_2776 (800x600)There’s an old house down some steps that is probably a boathouse of some kind. It had me fantasizing once again about living in the wilds, far from the mania that is the twenty-first century. But given that there would be a steady trail of tourists passing overhead all day every day, peace and quiet might not be as I might expect.

If you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth making the effort. And if you have kids with you (even big kids) they’ll love it.

IMG_2750 (800x600)






No pews to take

When people lay claim to having the biggest this or the smallest that, there’s a part of me that wants proof. Usually I take a lot on faith, believing that if you go to the trouble to make the assertion, it must be true and if it isn’t, does it really matter much? But occasionally I’m disappointed.

IMG_2804 (800x600)About 20 years ago, when showing some American friends around Ireland (or rather they were showing me as they had the guidebook), we came across what was reputedly the smallest church in Ireland in the hamlet of Portbraddon in Co. Antrim – St Gobban’s. Privately owned, this 10×4 ft church (3×1.4 m) is a little gem. Portbraddon itself is gorgeous – a handful of houses and a small harbour and an even smaller beach at the end of a narrow road.

IMG_2799 (800x600)IMG_2790 (600x800)The church was apparently built as a cow byre back in 1950 and is now a tourist attraction that raises a phenomenal amount of money (tens of thousands, if not more) for local charities through visitor donations.

I’ll hold up my Catholic hand and say that I’d never heard of St Gobban, but apparently back in his day (ca. sixth century) he was one of Ireland’s foremost architects. He could have been born in Malahide, Co. Dublin, in or around 560 AD or he might have been born in Cork or in Antrim – depends on what you read. No matter – that he was an architect and is now immortalised in what claims to be the smallest church in Ireland, amuses me.

But there’s another church making the same claim – the Costello Memorial Chapel in Carrick-on-Shannon. It also claims to be the second smallest church in the world. The mind boggles. But from what I can see, this one is 16×12 ft, so definitely bigger. A little research before making a claim might be in order…

No matter. I have other things to be losing sleep over. If you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth dropping by. Even if you have to search for it and an don’t have an obliging navigator – it’s worth persevering.


2014 Grateful 28

It’s been twenty years or so since I was last in Belfast – at least there long enough to have a look around. Whatever happened in the intervening period – perhaps my perspective has change – it’s a far more beautiful city than I remembered.

IMG_2500 (800x600)IMG_2505 (598x800)The night views over the Lagan are impressive. And some of the buildings have been beautifully restored. More, however, are but remnants of their former glory, in a sad state of disrepair. One wonders what might become of them. The old Crumlin Road Jail is a case in point. The Courthouse that sits across the road from it is in ruin. It would make a fine hotel or, as someone suggested, a great casino. But the stricter element in the city isn’t ready for such debauchery.

IMG_2536 (800x600)The Courthouse was designed by Charles Lanyon (who also had a hand in Queen’s University) and built for meagre monies (£16800) back in 1850. It closed in 1998 and the two-acre site was sold for £1 (and no, that’s not a typo). Plans for a 161-room hotel approved in 2007 are now on hold. Two fires in the meantime caused further structural damage and last year, talks of Belfast City Council are considering it for European Peace IV Capital Funding with which they plan to renovate the courthouse as ‘a shared history Belfast Story museum, built heritage centre and destination point for the North Belfast cultural corridor’. Who knows what will happen … or when.

Queen's University Belfast

Queen’s University Belfast

Seeing Queen’s University was a highlight. Its alumni include Nobel Laureate and poet Seamus Heaney, actors Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea, and the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. Founded in 1810, it’s one of the ten oldest university in the United Kingdom. It was chartered as Queen’s College Belfast in 1845 along with Queen’s College in Cork and in Galway to make up Queen’s University of Ireland which was set up to encourage education for Catholics and Presbyterians as a counterpart to Trinity College in Dublin (which was then Anglican). It’s an international institution with about 1400 international students from over 100 countries. Architecturally, more than 100 of its 250+ buildings are of note, the main one being the Lanyon Building, modelled on Magdalene College in Oxford (always a favourite of mine, mainly because it’s pronounced Maudlin).

Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall

IMG_2523 (800x600)Belfast City Hall is another gem, dating back to 1906. This Renaissance-style building took just eight years to build and came in at about half a million pounds. Free public tours are available (just one of many reasons to make a return trip to the city).

IMG_2534 (800x600) (2)The Orange Hall on Clifton Street has seen better days. Its cornerstone was laid in 1883 and it took two years to build. Today, it’s still used as the starting place for parades and is still being attacked. The last attempt was in May this year when a 13-year-old boy tried to petrol bomb it. I had thought, in my innocence, that the Orange Order was a purely Northern Ireland thing, but I was wrong. The Protestant fraternity has a global membership with autonomous Grand Lodges in Scotland, England, the USA, West Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Who’d have thought?

IMG_2609 (800x600)The Europa hotel, which turned 40 back in 2011, is said to be the most bombed hotel in the Europe (or the world, depending on what you read) having been hit 28 (or 33 or 5, again depending on what you read) different times during the Troubles. But it never closed it’s doors. [James Leavey has an interesting post full of anecdotes about the hotel on the FORCES International site.] Its next-door neighbour, the Opera House, was hit three times. Its curtain first went up in December 1895 and it’s still going up today. I’d like to have been there the night General Dwight Eisenhower  and Field Marshall Montgomery were in the audience in 1945.

Assembly Buildings

Assembly Buildings

Perhaps one of the most imposing buildings in the city, though, is the Assembly Building, which opened in 1905. Looking for all the world like a baronial castle in Scotland, it has its own 40-metre-high clock town with a bell that peals 12 times. For years the headquarters and General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, it went ‘commercial’ in 1992 and is now a major conference centre.

As I write this week from the shadow of the United Nations in Geneva,  I’m grateful that Ireland as an island can still surprise and amaze me. While Belfast, like many cities, has it murky side, its trendy side, and its commercial quarter, it still has some of the most jawdroppingly gorgeous buildings I’ve seen. It’s a city with heart, tenacity, and style. And one I’ll be back to see again.


Black cabs and talking walls

‘It was over there that the first policeman was shot at the start of the Troubles, in 1969. He was protestant, shot by protestants. He was 29, married with a one-year-old child. He was my uncle.’

Any doubts that we might have chosen the wrong Black Cab to ride around in went out the window. Our man had been in the business for years – all his adult life – and he’d seen the right side of 50. His family had a fleet of cabs and each week, for nine weeks on say, a Tuesday, their cabs were hijacked and returned after 20 minutes. Then one day, in the tenth week, someone somewhere was shot. Nothing like making use of local resources for a little clandestine shadowing.

There are official Black Taxi tours and then there are the taxis (that may or may not be black) who will take you on a tour if you ask them. Not every driver will do it but a lot will. We got lucky on our second ask. I didn’t think to ask his religion but on reflection am glad he was protestant. These tours (90 mins, £30) are very individual, as each driver will have his particular history and his particular experience of what went on and is still going on.

Back in the day, if asked what his religion was, he’d say that taxi drivers didn’t have a religion. As kids, they’d ask each other to spell WHITE in an effort to see who was Catholic (we say ‘haych’ for H… he said ‘aitch’).

IMG_2539 (800x400)

Broken Irish is better than clever English

It was strange to see places I’d been hearing about for years in the news. Queen’s College, Crumlin Road Jail, the Shankhill. But for me, the murals were what had to be seen. Sometimes walls do tell stories. A website devoted to murals in the city has catalogued 218 murals in three categories: Loyalist/Unionist, Republican/Nationalist, and social/cultural. There is also a university archive.

IMG_2555 (800x712)IMG_2567 (800x590) (800x590)With the oldest dating back to 1908, for most of that century, murals were a Loyalist thing. Most involve symbolic imagery and to my mind they’re not nearly as evocative as the Republican ones, which favour a more ‘person-centred’ style. And far from being a thing of the past, the murallers (is that even a word?) are still on the go. One, on the Shankhill Road, could be seen as a brave attempt to undermine  Sinn Féin’s role in the peace process.

IMG_2551 (800x600)IMG_2592 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_2593 (800x600) (2)Republican murals came into their own after the 1981 hunger strikes. The rather beatific face of Bobby Sands (the IRA commander who led the hunger strike in the Maze Prison) smiles down from many walls. Far less militaristic than their Loyalist counterparts, these seems less threatening somehow, but then, that could be down to the glasses through which I was looking.

IMG_2591 (800x600)IMG_2549 (547x800)Gardens of remembrance can be found all over the place, on both sides of the divide. Wall plaques with names and dates of birth inscribed list the fates of many and the fortunes of few. It doesn’t matter which side you were on – both are equally represented. While I don’t claim to have a complete understanding of what happened during the Troubles (and wonder if anyone really does fully understand), the power of the words had an effect. To read about murder and then see the names, to read about atrocities and see that they had died in hospital from injuries sustained was all quite harrowing. I envied those in the other cabs who knew little and cared less; I envied them their multilingual wows and awesomes as they made their way through which what might have seemed like a large open-air urban art gallery. For me, it was a little too close to home to be comfortable.

IMG_2570 (800x600) (2)The Loyalist mural on Hopewell Crescent marks the riots of 12-17 August 1969, one of the bloodiest in the 30 years that would follow and be known as The Troubles. Many things happened that summer that would affect what went on.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) published its report criticising the NI government, accusing it of police brutality and religious discrimination against Catholics. It noted that South Africa was citing what was going on in the North to  ‘justify their own policies of discrimination’.  And it was around this time, too, that the ICJ added Northern Ireland to the list of states/jurisdictions ‘where the protection of human rights [was] inadequately assured’. 1969 was to set the tone for years to come. The first policeman shot, Victor Arbuckle, himself a protestant (and my cabbie’s uncle) was shot by the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force in October 1969. The last, a Catholic, Stephen Carroll, was ambushed by the Catholic Continuity IRA in March 2009.  So much for the Protestant/Catholic divide. Thirty years of violence are spoken of by these murals. Yes, in some places, walls do talk.



Bagged, bugged, and boggled

beer matsI thought I was losing my sense of reason. I thought it was because I’ve lived in the one place for so long. I thought I’d bought into blind acceptance and had literally signed my questioning self over to the bureaucrats.

Hungary loves its paperwork. It’s very fond of its forms. It collects signatures like tegestologists collect beer mats or tyrosemiophiles collect cheese labels.

Years ago, when I knew no better, I went to get a pay-as-you-go mobile for my visitors. I had to sign a contract, prove where I lived, and hand over my passport. When I asked why all this was needed, it was explained to me that lots of people who inhabit the criminal world use throw-away phones to do their deals, so this added security was actually for my own good. Apparently, by producing that ID, by proving where I live, and by signing that contract, the powers-that-be would be able to trace me should my phone ever be used to contact a cartel in Columbia or dial up some dope. I was peeved at the implications but I signed.

A supplier once wanted to refund me money when I mistakenly paid a company bill twice. They sent it via the postman. I was out when he called so I had to go in person to the post office to collect it. I brought my passport, my company stamp, registration card, driver’s licence, proof of address, proof of directorship, latest blood results… but it wasn’t enough. There was one piece of paper that I didn’t have that the post office needed to refund me money. I haven’t double-paid anything since.

I find myself volunteering details of what I’ve had for breakfast, if I’m asked, so used am I to giving up personal information to nameless faces. But the other day, I actually stopped and asked why. Why do you need my name and address?

postI was in the post office earlier this week (I love that place). I wanted to post two letters. I didn’t need an afá szamla (invoice). Usually I just get a receipt and go. But I also bought two of their rather lovely Hungarian-motif gift bags. And because I bought something other than a stamp or a scratch card, the lady needed to give me a personalised receipt. I said again I didn’t need an afá szamla. She said it didn’t matter. I was buying something other than a stamp or a scratch card (what part of this did I not understand?) so she needed my name and address. I asked why? And I got that ‘just because’ look. And I folded. I gave it up. I wasn’t brave enough to walk away.

The much underrated comedian Mitch Hedberg came to mind. (King of the one-line non-sequiturs; when he died way before his time the world lost a very funny man.) ‘I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut… I don’t need a receipt for the doughnut. I give you money and you give me the doughnut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I can’t imagine a scenario that I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut. To some skeptical friend, ‘Don’t even act like I didn’t get that doughnut, I’ve got the documentation right here… It’s in my file at home. …Under “D”.’

Now that I’m on record as having purchased two Hungarian-motif gift bags, I wonder what will come of it? Will my recklessness come back to haunt me? Next time I’ll just go to the papír iroda (stationery office) – they don’t ask questions.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 June 2014

99 barriers

Last year, I saw a  famous wall – one I’d never heard of before, one I knew nothing about. But that was in Palestine. Last week, I saw another famous wall – one I’d never heard of before, one I knew nothing about. But it was in Northern Ireland. Shame on me.

IMG_2575 (800x600)At the end of last year, there were 99 barriers dividing nationalist and loyalist communities in Belfast. They take various shapes and sizes: 35 are metal fencing; 23 are a mix of solid wall and metal above; 14 involve fencing and vegetation; 12 are where roads are closed to vehicles and allow pedestrian access only; 8 are wall walls; and 7 are roads with gates that are closed at times. Some like the one pictured above (Cupar Way) are now famous. Built it 1969, this 4.5 m concrete wall is topped by 3 m of metal sheeting and 6 m of mesh fence and runs for about 800 m. It separates loyalist Shankhill Road from the nationalist Springfield area. The walls started to go up in the late 1960s when the Troubles kicked off. This, in a weird, unpalatable way, is understandable. In separating the Catholic and Protestant factions, they offered something in the way of security. But more have gone up since the 1994 Good Friday Agreement and some are still being added to today, despite talks of bringing them down. Since 2008, three new ones have gone up, two more have been fortified, and three have come down. And yes, people are keeping track.

IMG_2572 (800x600) (2)The majority are owned by the Department of Justice (58). Some are owned by the NI Housing Executive (18). Some are even thought to be privately owned (6) with three belonging to the Department for Regional Development. Six go unclaimed and other organisations own one or two.  When I read this, I was surprised. I’d never before given much thought to who owns these types of barriers, or thought of them in terms of maintenance.

Though many of the walls now have gates that open during the day, I can see where ‘going the long way around’ takes on a whole new meaning in the city. Mind you, given what the walls separate, perhaps no one really wants to get to the other side in a hurry. The Observer ran a piece in 2012 that is worth a read.

IMG_2581 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_2580 (800x600)IMG_2583 (800x600)Names like Dali Lama and Bill Clinton feature, too, alongside their various words of wisdom. People are encouraged to add their messages and some of the Black Cabs carry markers in case you’re not packing your own. Yet even here the message is mixed. And perhaps this same mixed message exists when it comes to discussions about whether or not these walls should come down. When you live with what’s known locally as a Belfast conservatory, the thoughts of leaving your backyard open to whatever every might be flung over from the other side would probably be enough to vote to keep them in place.

IMG_2587 (800x483) (800x483)At the bottom of the Falls Road, there’s another wall – an International Peace Wall. This series of murals speaks to conflicts in other parts of the world and at home, too. It was here, that just last month, a newly painted mural depicting Gerry Adams as a ‘peacemaker, a leader, and a visionary’ was paint bombed and subsequently  replaced by one ‘supporting a campaign for an independent review into the killing of 11 civilians by the Parachute Regiment in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971’.

IMG_2596 (800x584)It’s said that at one stage in Belfast there were more Israeli and Palestinian flags flying than there were Union Jacks and Tricolors (read nothing into the parallel order here as I’m undecided as to which side would support which, but given the welcome I received in Palestine, I’d harbor a guess at it being right). It seems that divides across the world gravitate towards each other in some sort of global solidarity.

IMG_2598 (800x600)The more I saw, the more I wondered whether people living locally actually see these walls any more? Or is their attention focused on them by the band of black cabs that pull up alongside disgorging camera-toting tourists eager to digitalise what for many might well be seen as a type of romanticised violence. As one of the aforementioned CTTs, I opted to stay in the cab and listen to what my cabbie had to say (more on that later).

IMG_2602 (800x593) (2)I’m often chastened but never surprised by how little I know. Or perhaps I did know at one stage but have chosen to forget. Yet as our cabbie explained the murals, I felt a tad ashamed of my ignorance. Particularly as Michael Stone has been in the news lately, too. His one-man attack on an IRA funeral killing four and leaving 50 others injured made the world news in 1988 as it was captured live on video. He was released as part of the Good Friday agreement in 2000, but a second attempt on the lives of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in 2006 sent him back inside.

IMG_2600 (800x600)There is so much about Northern Ireland that I don’t understand. So much history that I think had to be lived through to be really understood. Although things might have gotten better in recent years, the divide is still there, still visible. And while some might hold out hope that terrorism might be replaced by tourism,  I wonder.




Real where it counts

I like my lists. I have lists of  books I want to read. Lists of places I want to visit. Lists of things I want to do before I die. For years now I’ve had a list of singers I wanted to hear live before they died: Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, BB King – all ticked off. The one I was missing, until last week, was Dolly Parton.

I can’t say the Odyssey in Belfast would be my place of choice to see a live act again, but there’s always a first time. It was a tightly controlled fully seated concert and if anyone stood up to dance, they were immediately asked to sit down. I’m not quite sure that Dolly knew what to make of it. I know I didn’t.

IMG_2482 (800x599)IMG_2497The woman looked amazing. As she said herself – she looks totally artificial, but she’s real where it counts. She’s on record as saying: ‘If I see something
sagging, bagging and dragging, I’m going to nip it, tuck it, and suck it!’ The woman is a testament to the powers of cosmetic surgery. She explained how she idealised the town ‘tramp’ when she was a kid and always wanted to look glamourous. Tipping around in her high heels with nails long enough to reach the remotest itch, she was all that, and more. And, man, does she like to talk.

We were treated to all sorts of anecdotes about her life, about her daddy and her mama, about her granddad and her husband (48 years married this year but as she tours so much, they’ve only been together for 3!). She told us about being raised as a Holy Roller and about the importance of being proud of our religion, whatever that might be. She thumped the bible so much that as we were leaving, I overheard someone commenting that she felt as if she’d just been to church. But that’s Dolly. I hadn’t realised that she’d recorded a gospel version of Jon Bon Jovi’s Lay your hands on me.

IMG_2489 (800x674) She played the harmonica, the guitar, the fiddle, the tin whistle, a washboard, a banjo, the piano, and even a mini-saxophone which she’d customised with rhinestones. ‘Twas all bling. Her nine-piece band (including one male backing singer) were dressed in black; the only piece of colour on the stage was Dolly. She was definitely the star of the show.

The one-liners kept me as amused as her singing kept me enthralled.  I particularly liked: I’m a little too good to be real bad, and a little too bad to be real good. While it was Islands in the stream and 9-5 that got the crowd finally to their feet en masse in defiance of the security bods, for me, it was her Little Sparrow that made it all worthwhile. Fair play, Dolly. You’re one in a million.

IMG_2807 (600x800)


2014 Grateful 29

I had lunch yesterday with  a Hare Krishna friend of mine and was once again enthralled by the sense of peace he radiates. Whatever I might or might not think of the doctrine of Krishna Consciousness, I thoroughly enjoy our conversations and always end up leaving with more than I came with. He gives me food for thought – a sort of spiritual take-way.

The old conundrum of the existing of God and evil came up. He told me this story, which he rightly thought was incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, but even without Einstein, it’s still an interesting one.

Does evil exist? The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he did!” “God created everything? The professor asked.

“Yes sir”, the student replied.

The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil”. The student became quiet before such an answer. The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.

Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”

“Of course”, replied the professor.

The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”

“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?” The students snickered at the young man’s question.

The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”

The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?”

The professor responded, “Of course it does.”

The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”

Finally the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?”

Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The professor sat down.

There are numerous variations on the same theme. All no doubt fictional. But who cares. Am sure that many of you could dissect this particular one from a scientific standpoint. Yet no matter what religion you are, or whether your God is the Universe itself, or doesn’t exist at all, it could simply be that evil is the absence of good.
hkWhat strikes me most about my HK friend is that he doesn’t feel the need to convert or convince. He simply states his beliefs and owns them. I can’t help but think how much better the world might be were everyone so calm and peaceful in putting their point of view across. And unlike others I know with equally firm convictions, he doesn’t argue or feel the need to justify and defend his faith. It simply is what it is.
Today, as I unpack to repack, I’m grateful that I made the time to see him. I’m grateful for his unconditional friendship and for the different perspectives he offers. For our wealth is found not in our bank balances, but in the friendships we have that challenge our thinking and keep us engaged.