2014 Grateful 25

One of the things I struggle with most is relaxing. I find it hard to sit and do nothing. Nothing. I can sit and read. I can sit and eat. I can sit and watch TV. But to sit and do absolutely nothing is something that’s beyond me. And yet despite well-documented failures, I keep trying.

Arguably, one is always doing something even if sitting doing nothing. But what kills my intent even before I can append the -ion is that while the very thought of doing nothing is appealing, that feeling of wasting time is like the proverbial damp squid at a fireworks party.

budapest-palatinusI never made it to Palatinus last summer, the outdoor pool complex down on Margaret Island. I may have gone once the year before and perhaps twice the year before that. And this despite the best of intentions to spend each and every Friday afternoon there, if I’m in the city. Or at least one day in the week.

Today, I went. I was organised. I got there about 12.30. I met some friends who were just a tad too far a walk from the water for my liking, so I headed to my usual spot (if one can have a usual spot after four trips in as many years). I got my chair, plonked my stuff, and spent an hour nattering in the thermal pool, my sense of well-being nicely complemented by the smell of rotten eggs. Then I sat, read, looked around, wandered to all sorts of places in my mind, looked around some more (nothing beats people watching when it comes to value for money), ate, read, dozed, swam, and repeated this for about four hours.

I don’t think that I had one thought related to work, bills, or my to-do list. I didn’t think about tomorrow. I never once checked the time or my phone. Surprisingly, despite the crowds, it was amazingly quiet. It seemed like everyone was in the zone – or perhaps it was too hot to bother with much of anything.

My mates came down about 5 for a last dip and then we had a drink or two before heading home. Nearly a full eight hours – nearly a full work-day – spent doing sod all of any consequence. And man did it feel good.

This week, as the world begins its World-Cup detox, I’m grateful that I might well be getting the hang of just hanging out.




Burning money

Last night was Eleventh Night, the night before 12 July where at many places in Belfast and around Northern Ireland, hundreds of thousands of pounds went up in flames. Celebrations on 12 July mark both the 1688 revolution and the Williamite/Jacobite war of 1689-1691. It’s said the bonfires, lit the night before the day itself, are lit in memory of the fires lit on the hills of Antrim and Down to help William of Orange and his army find their way up through Belfast Lough. It was back then that Catholic King James lost his foothold in Ireland and so began more than a century of British rule.

IMG_2565 (800x600)IMG_2566 (800x600)Bonfire building starts months before. Rows of wooden pallets, each of which supposedly fetches £7 on the scrap market  line up in silence awaiting their fate. [I think this is an exaggeration as the most I could get online was $2 – but even still it’s money going up in smoke – and did you know that there are magazines dedicated to pallet recycling? Mad!]. On the night itself, fire trucks stand by to hose down the walls of houses that swelter in the heat cast by the up-to-100-foot blazes. The burning of tyres is frowned upon, the burning of effigies and Republican symbols decried. This year, an effigy of Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams hanging from a makeshift gallows atop a bonfire in Antrim’s Ballycraigy drew accusations of racial hatred. And while this was going on, a Tricolor was raised over an Orange Hall in Ballycastle with slogans sprayed on the wall, something also being treated as a hate crime. What happened to roasting marshmallows?

IMG_2561 (800x600)Apart from a trio of stabbings (shocking how inured  I have become to violence) and a few more arrests, last night was one of the quietest Eleventh nights in years. Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) assistant chief constable Will Kerr said: I am pleased that last night was one of the most peaceful in recent years and am encouraged by the responsible behaviour of the vast majority of people involved. Perhaps the tide is turning.

But then a look at what Irish Times had to say suggests that some just refuse to move on. Although promoted as a cultural event, the celebrations are dense with jingoism as well as sectarian overtones, with anti-Catholic songs and slogans being chanted in many areas during the night. Apparently earlier in the week a statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from a bonfire at Lanark Way. I can well imagine how the sight of that might stir a few embers too many.

Here’s hoping that today’s (and tonight’s) celebrations don’t mirror the clashes we saw last year  and that maybe next year, some of that pallet money might be put to better use.


One of life's rich experiences

Summer holidays are something most of us look forward to with eager anticipation; a couple of weeks where we get to do what we want when we want, curtailed only by the size of our bank balance or the credit available on our credit cards.

Many cities shut down for swathes of time during this time. In Ireland, the first two weeks of August used to be known as Builders’ Holidays as it was then that most construction sites hung up their tools for their summer break. Given the sad state of the construction industry today, I’m not sure this is any longer the case.

Paris clears out in August as do Milan and Rome. Even in Budapest there are far fewer people on the streets in the summer, particular at the weekends, when the city seems to decamp en masse to the shores of the Balaton. Yet only last week, our editor wrote: ‘a whopping 70% of Hungarian families did not even make a long-weekend getaway’ last year, which he says is not all that surprising considering ‘85% of the country does not make enough money to save for a rainy day’.

This bothers me – a lot. Yes, I realise that I’m privileged in getting to travel as much as I do. Some of it is work-related but I know that given the choice between new clothes and a weekend somewhere new, there’s no question which I’d choose. What others spend in bars, restaurants, and shopping malls, I prefer to spend on train fares, flights, and accommodation. And, yes, I realise that even having a choice as to how I spend my money makes me one of the new ‘rich’ – those with any income to dispose of at all.

Yet I firmly believe that holidays are important for the soul, for the mind, for the heart. And while we don’t need to go far to get away from it all, were I Queen of the World for a year, I’d try to construct a society where taking a lengthy break was mandatory, and if necessary, state subsidised. I love the fact that in Norway, employees get extra pay in June in the summer to accommodate just this (due to some convoluted system whereby payment for their five weeks of statutory leave is deducted and then tax-free holiday pay is added). And yes, I know … Norway can afford it.

In conversation with a friend recently, we found ourselves arguing about the need to travel internationally. I see it as a need, a necessary part of broadening horizons that opens the lid on new perspectives. Had I not travelled, I would never have the appreciation for Ireland that I do, or for Hungary for that matter. My friend reckons that holidaying at home can be just as insightful. We both agreed that the important thing is to take that break.

xdmBooks have been written about travelling in situXavier de Maistre’s Voyage around my Room comes to mind. He describes his 42-day journey in 1790 in exquisite detail, putting paid to the argument that ‘travel’ is a luxury requiring money: Indeed, is there anyone so wretched, so forlorn as not to have some sort of garret in which to withdraw and hide from the world? For such is all that is required for travel.

That Hungary is in such dire straits that so many families didn’t get away last year is indeed a First World problem. But as clinical psychologist Francine Lederer observes: ‘most people have better life perspective […] after a vacation’ and its impact on mental health is ‘profound’. That’s surely a good enough reason to go somewhere?

First published in the Budapest Times 11 July 2014

Sputnik and tomorrow's living room

I’ve never given much thought to the evolution of modern telecommunication save to marvel at how clever my smartphone is (and I can safely say that I am only using it to about a tenth of its full capacity). I am old enough to remember the old dial-up phones with receivers so heavy that you needed a shelf nearby on which to rest that elbow. I can still recollect the freedom that came with the advent of the cordless phone and the even greater sense of freedom I experienced when I realised that it worked outdoors, too. As for the mobile phone… I can remember the brick my mate Gerry had in Dublin back in the late 1980s – one of the first car phones – I never did think it would catch on.  Today, my phone would talk to me, if only I could find the button to press to make this happen.

IMG_2837 (800x600)At the heart of global telecommunications sits the ITU (the International Telecommunication Union), one of the oldest international organisations in Geneva. Its job is to connect all the world’s people… [to] allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.

In Geneva as part of the policy immersion phase of the Capacity Development Programme in Multilateral Diplomacy for Pacific Island States, a visit to the ITU was on our agenda. And it was fascinating.

IMG_2855 (600x800)This fully interactive exhibition – ICT Discovery –  maps the progress of telecommunication through the years. And perhaps unusually, it encourages visitors to touch and feel and poke and press. You can pick up a tablet at the start and compete against others in the gaming area or simply wander through the 90-minute tour, engaging with each element as you move along. It’s well signposted and very detailed. The years fell away when I saw the Nokia P-30, which came out in 1989, and weighed in at a hefty 800 grams (nearly like holding a bag of sugar to your ear). Or the Amstrad PPC512 from 1988, with its 8 MHz processor,  52 kB memory, 9-inch screen (non-backlit LCD), two floppy disk drives and one hour of battery life. And in 1988 it was a marvel. PPC stands for personal portable computer, by the way… and here I am complaining about the weight of my laptop.

IMG_2848 (800x600)IMG_2850 (800x600)Seeing the evolutionary path of technology laid out in one room is really quite impressive. We tend to take so much of it for granted even if stopping occasionally to marvel would give us a healthier appreciation for just how good we have it. The replica of Sputnik 1, the first satellite in orbit around the Earth, launched back in 1957, is a sight to behold. I’d imagined it to be much bigger than its 58 centimetres. To see something of its size and realise that during the 92 days it was in orbit, it went around the Earth 1440 times… and then to realise that this happened more than 50 years ago? The mind boggles. And a quick view into the future was equally jawdropping.

IMG_2859 - Copy (800x600)Being in the company of Pacific Islanders – from Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Solomon Islands – made it even more inspiring. For them, a region that includes ca. 30 000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, only 2000 of which are inhabited, communication is vital. Eighteen countries and territories lay claim to a total of 550 000 square km of land spread over 180 million square km of ocean, comprising 36% of the Earth’s surface. With these distances in mind, good telecommunication can literally be a matter of life or death.

If you’re in Geneva, check it out. ICT Discovery, ITU, 2 rue de Varembé, Geneva  +41 22 730 6155 [email protected]​ The tour is free but reservations are required.


193 flags + 1

It wasn’t my first visit to Geneva, and I doubt it will be my last. And while it still hasn’t wormed its way into my affections, my relationship with the city has thawed. This time I got to see behind the scenes.

IMG_2863 - Copy (800x600)The Palais des Nations, with its over-sized broken-legged chair, the iconic symbol of the international campaign against landmines, is an impressive sight. The UN building, with its avenues of flags (194 in all, one for each of the member states plus the UN flag), is quite imposing. And until last month, I thought that was all there was to it. I hadn’t realised that in behind this building, and over to the left, the complex runs 600 meters in length, provides 34 conference rooms and 2800 offices and hosts 10 000 meetings a year. It sits in a 35 hectare park and is reputedly second in size only to the Palace of Versailles.

UN3 (640x480)Global policy-making has its hub in International Geneva. Human rights, humanitarian, science and technology, disarmament, development – agencies representing these agendas and more all live and work in the city, lobbying, debating, regulating, ratifying, spending countless hours in meetings trying to reach consensus on issues that affect the world.

UN6 (640x480)When I was there for meetings during the week, it was a hive of activity. Hundreds of people milled around in all sorts of traditi0nal dress, each bringing their own level of intensity to the proceedings. I was surprised a little at the varying degrees of formality and informality, at the number of personal conversations going on while speakers held the floor. I think that working in this complex structure would take time to get used to and come with its fair share of frustrations.

On Saturday, back for the official tour, it was like a ghost town. What I’d failed to notice in my mad search for the right conference room, were the myriad works of art donated by various member states. The Vatican sprang briefly to mind, but while grand in its own way, this wasn’t nearly as opulent.

UN8 (480x640)I’m not a great one for history; dates have never been my forte. Geography isn’t high on my list of accomplishments either. But even with my shameful ignorance of world affairs, I couldn’t help but be moved when I sat in the same room where the Korean Armistice was hammered out: 158 meetings spread over two years and 17 days. The same room where the Yom Kippur Peace Conference took place. The same room where the grounds for the exchange of Iran/Iraq prisoners of war were formed. The walls and ceiling of the Council Chamber are decorated with gold and sepia murals by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert. The murals, which track the progress of mankind through health, technology, freedom and peace, were presented by the Spanish government to the League of Nations in 1936. If rooms could talk, this one would have something to say for itself.

un4 (480x640)UN2 (480x640)Walking the corridors of power, I couldn’t help but reflect the reach of the United Nations. Despite its problems, it remains the best of what we have available to promote peace and prosperity for all. Yet what we may be guilty of forgetting at times is that at the heart its effectiveness is the need for cooperation between nations. The UN, in and of itself, can’t make any one country do anything. Suzanne Nossel’s 2005 post makes for interesting reading, if one were in doubt about the need for such an organisation, even if the figures are a tad outdated.

UN7 (640x480)I was particularly taken by the ceiling in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room. At a cost of €20 million, this sculpture,  again donated by the Spanish government, is magical. Artist Miquel Barceló sprayed many layers of coloured paint (100 tons in all) across the ceiling of 1500 square metres to create stalactites.  At the unveiling on 18 November  2008, Barceló revealed his main sources of inspiration: a cave and the sea.

The cave is a metaphor for the agora, the first meeting place of humans, the big African tree under which to
sit to talk, and the only possible future: dialogue, human rights.

If you’re in Geneva, do yourself a favour and book a tour of the UN. At €10, it’s worth every penny.





2014 Grateful 26

‘If we don’t push the homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them.’ This quotation, attributed to the Mayor of Budapest’s VIII district, Máté Kocsis (the district in which I live), is the basis for an art installation in Budapest by Finnish artist, Jani Leinonen.

HK4HK5For three weeks, Leinonen’s fake fast food restaurant – Hunger King – has highlighted the government’s treatment of the homeless in the capital. It gave out burger boxes to homeless people, filled with 3400 forints (€11, £7, $15) which amounts to the daily minimum wage. Those who had money got to use the red carpet and buy pieces of art. Quite a heady juxtaposition of the poverty and wealth that divides Budapest and many cities around the world.

HK3HK2The menu was cleverly designed to showcase the differences in what the government offers to rich and poor. It’s nothing I didn’t know already, but seeing it portrayed as a fast-food menu struck home. It made it all the more real. What exactly that’s indicative of, I’m not quite sure – perhaps a reality that only becomes real when transmitted in advertising slogans and 140-character tweets? I hope not.

The specials board gave pause for thought. Leinonen writes that the Hungarian economy is worse today that it was in socialist times with 12% of the population living below the poverty line. More than 1 million cannot afford to heat their homes, and in winter, the number of cold-related deaths is 10 times higher than in other developed countries. What does this say about those of us living here, about the government elect?

HK1He talks of parasites, or more particularly of those who label the homeless as parasites who feed off the system. And he points out that a really successful parasite is one that feeds off the host without the host knowing. The host doesn’t even know that the parasite is there. Take a walk down practically any street in the country’s capital  and you’ll see evidence of homelessness, be it mattresses in doorways or  inert shoeless bodies sleeping in an underpass or on a park bench. The homeless are far from being parasites.

hk6On another wall, Leinonen has taken signs written by homeless people and framed them. I was reminded of one I’d seen in London last week – Parents murdered by ninjas; need money for karate lessons – but these I couldn’t see the humour in, most likely because the humour wasn’t there. I can’t in my wildest dreams begin to imagine what life would be like without a key to my front door.

This week, finally back in Budapest after a lengthy absence, I’m grateful that I have a bed to sleep in each night. I’m grateful that I have a home here in the VIIIth, and not only here, but in many homes around the world in which I’m always welcome. I’m grateful, too, for artists like Jani Leinonen, who force us to look at reality and question the part we play in it.

Introducing the Grateful series




I’ll never let go, Jack

Going to Belfast and not visiting the Titanic museum is a little like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal. Or so I was told. Always curious about what these types of installations can offer (and I believe that millions upon millions went into the building of what lays claim to being the largest Titanic museum in the world), we paid to go see. (Trivia: The foundations needed 4200 cubic metres of concrete which were delivered by 700 concrete lorries in 24 hours – bet anyone who witnessed that convoy will remember it for a while.)

IMG_2614 (800x600)Set up as a series of interconnected interactive exhibitions, the first looked at Belfast at the beginning of the twentieth century. I had no idea that it was such a booming town back then  – it seems like every possible industry had a home there, from tobacco to rope-making, from ship-building to printing.

IMG_2621Then it was on to the shipyard. I can’t say that I was overly interested in how the ship was built, but even my disinterest waned as we to took a  rollercoaster ride through the bowels of the ship and watched audio visual displays of men at work. The sound effects left little to the imagination; it was as if we were there as it was being built. Quite amazing.

IMG_2623 (800x600)IMG_2628In the launch gallery, scenes from 31 May 1911 were brought to life. Here I learned that although the ship was launched, it still had to be fitted out. And this took some time. In yet another gallery we saw models of the various cabins. But cooler still was the  360-degree computer-generated tour around the ship. It’s amazing where modern technology can take you.

IMG_2631Perhaps the most evocative of all is the gallery that portrays the sinking of the great ship. A heady combination of Morse code SOS message, audio accounts by survivors, and images of the sinking takes it toll. Another thing I hadn’t realised was that more than 700 people survived. You can search the passenger and crew lists to find out if any relatives were on board – all a little eerie.

IMG_2620 (800x600)Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the entire exhibition (given that I’m not the least bit technically minded) was the gallery exploring popular culture inspired by the Titanic. The contrast between fantastic wealth and relative poverty, the abundance of heroes and villains, the sense of romance, all lend themselves to using it as a background for the favoured story of the day. That said, I’ve never seen the movie – or indeed any of the movies – made about the Titanic. And curiously, even after seeing this exhibition, I have no desire to remedy this.

In the last gallery, visitors get to stand on a glass floor and look down on the wreck as she is today, some 12 000 feet below the Atlantic. Again, I didn’t realise that the ship sank in two halves, and these are quite a distance from each other. As we watched the ocean moving beneath our feet, we heard audio of divers exploring the wrecks. Quite a sensation.

At £15.50 a pop for adults, it’s a little pricey, but given that you could happily spend three hours there, it’s worth it. Admittedly I found the amount of information rather overwhelming, but if you’re technically minded, a history buff, or interested in anything maritime, then it’s all there for you.

There are Titanic museums aplenty, from Pigeon Forge, TN, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, each in its own way contributing to keeping the memory alive. Belfast though, might be the one to beat.





Falling on deaf ears

Having just spent a king’s ransom on navigating my way around London and its hinterland, I now appreciate Budapest Transport Company, or BKK, even more. Always a fan of Budapest’s public transport system, this admiration has grown ten-fold in the aftermath of packed Tubes, standing-room-only trains and stations that seem to haemorrhage people on a regular basis.

nkk2Another much underrated joy of travelling with BKK is that my limited  Hungarian, for the most part, prevents me from understanding the conversations happening between my fellow travellers (if indeed anyone deigns
to talk at all). On the more popular tourist routes I might have to suffer through
someone else’s observations on life, but for the most part it’s all rather banal.

Not so in London.

On one train I sat opposite four young ladies of university age who were returning from a weekend in Oxford. One was better looking than the next. Each was carefully made up, nails manicured, hair coiffed. Despite their lady-like appearances which would suggest that certain subjects not be discussed in a public forum, I was treated to a thirty-minute discourse on the benefits of licking a man (yes, licking) versus snogging (kissing) him. Apparently, a lick involves less commitment, and as there are only so many men one can snog on a given night without getting a reputation for oneself, it’s best to lick. I had lots of questions I could have asked but didn’t want to show just how behind the times I am.

On another train, two friends were analysing a third friend’s relationship in her absence. She’d been with her boyfriend for all of six months and was very much in love. So much in love, in fact, that they could fully understand why she hadn’t broken up with him after he’d told her he’d had sex with three other women… on the one night. Well, really, six months is far too soon to expect exclusivity.

On yet another train, two young lads were discussing their weekend and the
party they’d been to. One had started  off drinking double gins and tonic, which at £9 a go were quite expensive, so he’d only had 12. When the second had tried to order a round of 36 shots (at £6 each), the bartender had refused so he’d had to order six lots of six instead. Neither of them remembered getting home. I’d have loved to know what they did for a living.

tubeOn the Tube, two recent graduates were comparing college notes. One had studied accounting, the other politics and philosophy. Both had gotten a 2.1
(about 62%) without having attended one lecture in their first year. First-year
university is, by all accounts, a waste of academic time. As they went on to discuss their career plans, the future philosophic politician wished he could go
back and tell his 15-year-old self not to get his ears and nose pierced. The blessings of hindsight.

Each time I checked to see how other passengers were reacting. And each
time they were all, without exception, plugged into a different world. Suddenly
the whole iPod phenomenon started to make sense.

These overheard snippets of conversation are hardly indicative of the declining
morals of the greater London public. In and  of themselves, they’re unlikely to be a barometer of the waning standards of general conversation. And when taken in the grand scheme of things, they did little more than prompt me to offer a silent prayer of thanks that in Budapest I’m spared such inanities. Yes, similar conversations might well take place but I have the advantage of not speaking the language.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 July 2014

So how big was he, really?

I’m a fan of tall tales, stories that require a huge leap of faith were one to take them literally. I like legends of all kinds, prefaced with the ubiquitous ‘it is said…’, attributable to no one but the speaker’s imagination. Were I to believe the chap that showed us around the Giant’s Causeway a couple of weeks ago, its maker, Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn McCool) was 54 foot tall, in his bare feet.

IMG_2669 (600x800)For years and years he lived on the Antrim Coast with his wife Oonagh (his first wife, Sadhbh had been turned into a deer after giving birth to their son Óisín – fair play though, he did look for her for seven years before giving up on her). All was well until he discovered that another giant of a man lived across the water in Scotland. The two got into a slagging match and the bould Fionn lost his temper. He grabbed up a sod of earth and flung it across at his nemesis, Benandonner. It fell short and is now known as the Isle of Man. Interestingly, if you get out your map, you’ll see that the shape of the Isle fits neatly into Lough Neagh.

IMG_2674 (800x600)Not to be bested, Fionn  challenged yer man to a fight but rather that get his feet wet, he built the causeway – a series of massive stepping stones – to bridge the gap between Ireland and Scotland. But it turns out that Benandonner was even bigger than Fionn, big enough to make my Irish hero turn and run home to his missus. He was in such a hurry that he lost his boot, which over the years has turned into stone and sits today in Port Noffer. To lend weight to this story, the shoe scientists were called in (or so our guide swears). Given that you can apparently predict the height of a person by their shoe size, 54 feet is quite accurate.

IMG_2696 (800x600)Benandonner set off in pursuit but when he arrived at Fionn’s all he met was Oonagh and her baby. The fast-thinking wife had hidden her husband in plain view, dressing him up as a baby, sticking him in a cradle, and asking the visiting giant to be quiet lest he wake the child. Benandonner’s imagination ran riot when he began to think of the size of a man who could sire a 54-foot baby. He didn’t stay for tea. On his way home, he ripped out the stepping stones, just in case Fionn had second thoughts.

IMG_2695 (600x800)I’d heard a variation on this theme used to explain why the Romans never invaded Ireland. Apparently they got as close as the west coast and when they saw the women collecting seaweed, they figured that if Irish men were half as tough as their women looked, they’d be best left alone.

Whatever your taste in stories, however limited or unlimited your imagination, there’s something magical about the Giant’s Causeway. The hexagonal-shaped rocks (about 40 000 all told) sit neatly together as if painstakingly placed by an avid jigsaw enthusiast. It’s quite amazing. The first time I visited 20 years ago, I was disappointed. I had expected everything to be … well… bigger, as would befit a 54-foot giant. This time, I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps because we took the tour rather than tried to make sense of it all on our own.

IMG_2671 (800x600) IMG_2676 (800x600)As you walk towards the water, you can see what looks like a massive stone organ pipes in the distance. These pillars look like they’re some sort of giant stalactites but up close, they too are interconnected. I’m sure there is some sound geological explanation for these rock formations, but quite frankly, I wasn’t all that interested. I much preferred the legends that went with them.

There’s  a wishing seat tucked in among the stones on one of the peaks. It’s said that a South American football team came here to play some international competition. They each took a turn on the chair and wished for a win. And they won. They came back again four years later, wished again, and won again. I didn’t need an invitation. The key to it, I was told, is to wiggle your bum to shine the stone as you close your eyes and wish for your whatevers. I’ll keep you posted.

IMG_2706 (800x600)