2014 Grateful 18

I had a meltdown last weekend. I reverted to type – completely. I turned into a 1950’s helpless woman. I exhibited every stereotypical female emotion known to man. And I did it in style. If you plotted my weekend on a graph in terms of an enjoyment factor of 1 to 10, 1 being HATED IT and 10 being LOVED IT, it would look a little like the silhouette of a toblerone bar.

On Friday,  I decided I was going to hear some Blues. A new terasz bar has opened across the road (Körlet Terasz) and it had advertised a Blues band to kick off at 8pm. I tried a few people I thought might enjoy it and come along, but all were busy doing other things. I posted it on FB, too, and a young musician friend of mine said he’d join me. As it happened, he was in the market for some live music, too.

There might have been 30 people there at 8.30 and it wasn’t looking all that promising but the drinks were cheap and cold and half-decent. The first band – a duo that goes by the name of Garda-Benkő (i.e., Garda Zsuzsa and Benkő Zsolt) – were larger than life and could/should have been playing to 300, not 30. She had an amazing voice and, according to my guitar-playing friend, he knew his way around a guitar.

FJ2Next up was the legend Fekete Jenő (I had to be told this, of course, as I’m not all that up with my Hungarian Blues). Now there’s a voice that has seen its fair share of late nights and overflowing ashtrays. Gorgeous. Accompanied by Horváth Misi on the harmonica, the pair of them made the world disappear for a while. I was having a blast, enjoying a lesson in Blues legends from my friend. My innocent ‘Who’s Robert Johnson?’ was met with a one-word admonition: Homework. Followed by a short explanation: Not a question to ask in a Blues bar.

Back home though, in my three-hour absence, my sinks had been filling up with water. I emptied them before I went to bed, and put both plugs in, intending to set the alarm for three hours in case that didn’t work. But I forgot and woke the next morning to a kitchen inches deep in water. Cue revert to type meltdown. I called the House who told me there was already a plumber in the building and that I should go find him – last know whereabouts was the cellar. Completely forgetting I had yet to get dressed, I took off barefooted around the building; I even went out on to the street. But no plumber in sight. I called again, having ratcheted up a few sobs higher on the hysteria scale. She called the plumber. I started emptying sinks and mopping floors, all the while cursing the men in my life – or rather theire absence – where were they when I needed them. Some six hours later, exhausted, wet, but with a working sink, I sat and recalibrated.

Years of hard-won independence had flown out the window. All that supposed self-sufficiency had vanished. What the world might see as a relatively successful, capable, intelligent woman who has for years provided for herself and navigated what life has thrown her way – well she went down the drain with the dishwater. And in her place was this whimpering, pitiful specimen whose one and only thought was ‘Where’s the man!’ I was not at all impressed with myself.

pasoSo, in an effort to find that independent self, I ignored all other invites that Saturday night and took myself off to a bar in Buda to hear some more music. (Truth be told, I wasn’t fit for human consumption and might well have taken the eye out of anyone who so much as looked crooked at me – I know the signs.) This time it was PASO – aka Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra – Hungary’s answer to Madness, and a favourite of my young musician friend. I stood around, danced a little, ate, drank, and took photos of others dancing in the rain. It was cathartic. I needed it. I don’t think I spoke to anyone but the bartender and that conversation was limited to a screaming rosé vice hazmeister kerem. I had a blast.

I was home before midnight again and the sinks had held – no water. A week has passed – and a busy one at that. And I’ve had time to reflect a little and see the silver lining in that otherwise water-logged cloud.

This week, I’m grateful that age is not a barrier to friendship. I’m grateful for that infectious enthusiasm that lends itself to excellent teaching (I have been doing my homework DA). I’m grateful, too, that I had my meltdown and reverted to type because that, in itself, has taught me a lot about the mental contortions to which I so often subject my reasoning. I learned a lot about myself this week –  and perhaps I’ve even made some progress with my (in)dependency issues.

…. more about the Grateful series



There was a link doing the rounds a few weeks ago with the headline: Scientists Link Selfies to Narcissism, Addiction, and Mental Illness. The article claimed that the growing trend of taking smartphone selfies is linked to mental health conditions that focus on a person’s obsession with looks.

Around the same time, another message went viral. This one claiming that the American Psychiatric Association had officially (yes, officially) classed the taking of selfies as a disorder it was calling ‘selfitis’. This, too, was a hoax.

IMG_4216 (800x600)I have no problem with selfies – I’ve been known to waste more than a few minutes in the privacy of my kitchen trying in vain to capture the beauty within on my smartphone. I’ve even set my camera on a timer in an attempt to rid my selfies of the tell-tale outstretched arm. And while I have had some luck, IMG_4202 (800x600) (800x600)it’s not the sort of luck I’d like to take to the racetrack. One winning photo for every 55 or so taken isn’t exactly great odds. With each dud photo I get, I find something to be critical of. It’s certainly not healthy or good for me but that doesn’t stop me IMG_4208 (800x600)indulging every six months or so when I need a new profile picture for something or other. That’s me; others with a better developed self-image don’t seem to be exposed at all.

What bothers me about selfies though, is that taking them when you’re out and about in public robs you of the moment. Instead of enjoying what you’re doing, where you are, who you’re with, you’re posing – focusing on yourself.

IMG_3853 (600x800)I was in Greece earlier this month and saw those new-fangled rod cameras for the first time. You know them? Tiny digital cameras on the end of a collapsible rod that you stretch out in front of you to take a selfie? Now, it’s hard to imagine anything competing with the Parthenon for attention, but the day I was there it had serious competition. I was standing in front of this fantastic testimony to man’s creativity and architectural genius, and instead of soaking it all in, I was distracted by seven different people posing for selfies in my immediate vicinity. They were so busy taking photos of themselves that I doubt very much if they saw anything of what was around them.

IMG_3917 (800x600)Over lunch later, I was highly amused by the antics of a couple sitting at the table below us. Both sat down and immediately she took out her phone and proceeded to take selfies (a chronic waste of a boyfriend/husband methinks). On the ferry to Aegina, I watched a dad take charge of the two kids while mum spent a good twenty minutes trying to get just the right selfie. I kid you not.

I had thought that this might have been a Greek thing, something that happens when you overdose on souvlaki and ouzo, but I was wrong. The rods have arrived in Budapest, too. Just last week, while out and about admiring the city in all its splendour (I might have my quibbles with the government, but hat’s off to Orban et al. for the facelift Budapest has received – she’s looking amazing) I saw many people so busy taking selfies that they didn’t seem to notice the glorious rebirth of the Castle Bazaar. The gleaming walls of Parlament were lost on them. And as for the night views across the Danube… wasted.

Selfies have their moments, true. But at what cost? Selfitis might not yet be a disorder, but is it already in the frame?

First published in the Budapest Times 29 August 2014


I reconnected recently with someone I met when I first came to Hungary nearly 7 years ago. We had coffee, caught up, had a great natter. They came around to see my flat. They commented, in passing, that it was quite big. It is.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. It is a lot of space for one person. I have friends who have bigger flats but they also have partners and dogs and/or kids. I have a stuffed moose. I thought about it. Later. After my friend had left. And I noticed a pattern.

I lived in San Diego in a tiny studio apartment, so small that I could literally reach the kitchen sink from my bed. I didn’t need space then, because the beach was less than one hundred metres from my front door.

I lived in a Alaska in a one-roomed log cabin that had a single bed, a rocking chair, a recliner, and a table with four chairs. I didn’t need space then, because I had an unfenced wilderness on my doorstep.

I house-shared, flat-shared, and had roommates on and off for close on 20 years and back in those days, my room was all the space I needed because the world was outside just waiting to be discovered. It hasn’t gone anywhere – it’s still there – with parts still waiting to be discovered but I have grown.

Now I live in a city. A capital city. A city with 1.6 million people. And I need space. When I was searching for this space, the various estate agents helping me were aghast at my shopping list. I wanted at least four rooms plus a kitchen (flats here are advertised with number of rooms vs the one-bedroom/two-bedroom thing I see elsewhere). They repeatedly asked why. What for? Why would I want to pay the additional common cost (monthly payment made here for upkeep based on the size of the flat) on rooms I wouldn’t be using all the time? My explanation was both simple and confusing – I just needed space.

Yes, there are days when I live in my office  and my kitchen, only passing through the living room and never venturing into the spare room. But the space is there. The freedom to move around is there. I even chose my flat because the view from the front windows doesn’t look out onto another building but on to a perpendicular street that stretches quite a distance, which in and of itself creates an illusion of space.

If my front door opened out on to a forest or a beach or the naked countryside, I wouldn’t care how small a space it hid behind it. But it doesn’t. Edwin Way Teale (the Pulitzer-Prize-winning naturalist) reputedly said: Time and space – time to be alone, space to move about – these may well become the great scarcities of tomorrow. How right he was. For the estate agents, my space was a luxury; for me, it was a necessity.

Back in the seventeenth/eighteen centuries, Ireland had about 6000 stately homes – today about 600 are left. That was a different era. Today, if you drive around Ireland, taking the back roads, you’ll see one massive house after the next. During the boom, huge houses were built. Not quite stately homes, but houses with gated entrances and long avenues. I used to think that these were a chronic waste of space – who needs six bedrooms and three living rooms – but on reflection, perhaps their owners were simply marking our their space, too.

One-way ticket required

conversationMy idea of a close-to-perfect evening is people around the table engaging in conversation about something other than the weather or football or who’s been doing what to whom. I like conversation that sparks debate, broadens my horizons and gets me thinking about stuff that I might normally never give much thought to. Like assisted suicide.

This was thrown out on the table as a statistic last week – suicide tourism to Switzerland has doubled between 2008 and 2012, when 611 people aged 23 to 91 travelled there on a one-way ticket to benefit from the country’s lack of regulation on assisted suicides. And it’s still lodged in my brain as a moral dilemma with the conspiracy theorist in me screaming ‘rocky road’.

assisted suicide

Fundamentally, I think the taking of any life is wrong. Death penalty, murder, suicide – human lives are not for us to take. Yep – I believe in God and the whole what God hath given let no man take away (I’m probably misquoting here as I have a sneaking suspicion that this referred to marriage – joining together and pulling asunder, etc.). Yet, part of me is wondering about the importance of dignity in death. Just how deep does this belief of mine run?

I’ve been described as a pick’n’mix Catholic. I remind myself regularly that the Roman Catholic Church is a man-made institution and there is quite a lot about it that I don’t agree with. But I was born into it and for the most part, it suits me. My relationship with my God is one that transcends any religion and while I might operate within the framework of the RCC, that doesn’t mean I agree with everything it teaches. So yes, definitely, I’m of the pick’n’mix variety – something that many devout religious will see as a betrayal, a cop-out even,  and perhaps they have a point. But I’m wary of convictions that turn into proselytizing.

I don’t believe in abortion. I can’t think of a situation whereby I would ever avail of one but I know I don’t have the right to impose that belief on anyone else. I can’t speak for someone else’s circumstances and it’s not for me to judge or make choices for anyone other than myself. I can share my views, thoughts, beliefs, opinions; I can show by example; but I can’t make choices for others. I have vivid recollections of a movie in which a Catholic priest allows his sister to die rather than give the doctor permission to abort the child she is carrying, thus saving her life. (Strangely, I can’t remember the name of it but it had Bing Crosby, or Frank Sinatra, or Gene Hackman, or Fred Astaire playing the priest.) I was very young when I saw it and was troubled for weeks about who was right – the priest (who let his sister die rather than kill an innocent child) or the woman’s partner (who wanted her to live even if the child died) – but on some level I knew that were I the woman, I’d have wanted my child to live and I doubt I’d have forgiven anyone who decided to the contrary on my behalf.

ass suicideI’d like to think that if I had a nasty, debilitating disease like ALS, that I’d stick it out and learn the lesson I have to learn from it in this life working on the premise that God only gives us as much as we can bear – but that’s easier said than done. Were I to be so afflicted, a one-way ticket to Switzerland might prove too much of a temptation. Were a family member or a close friend to ask me to help them arrange an assisted suicide, I doubt very much that I’d refuse, even if I thought it wrong. I would see it as their choice, their decision, and again, I wouldn’t think it my place to judge. Likewise if they chose to refuse treatment in the hope of speeding up the inevitable. Their choice. I’d have to respect it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this past week. In part because of the tragic video testimonies from ALS sufferers doing the rounds in the ice-bucket challenge, and in part because I know people who have suffered and are suffering through very debilitating diseases, whose loss of quality of life is painful to see.

I’m no closer to a decision – and perhaps that’s best. Just as I’d like to think that I’d have been active in the underground railroad in Civil War America or Nazi Germany/Europe, I’d like think that I’d do the right thing if confronted with a personal choice. But then, what’s the right thing? If it just affects me, that’s one thing – but what of those who are left to care for me in my vegetative state – am I choosing for them, too?

It’s relatively easy to have an opinion about just about anything – it’s only when that opinion/belief is actually put to the test that we really know its value. And I pray that this particular question is one that remains unanswered.




Customer service – Greek style

A cursory check of reviews on Trip Advisor will show that customer service, or the lack thereof, is something that ranks high on every traveller’s list of priorities. Budapest, despite the many things it has going for it as a city, isn’t exactly famous for how it treats its guests. Mind you, given how obnoxious some tourists can be, I wonder where the fault really lies. Suffice to say that good customer service is still something that makes conversational headlines here in the city, testimony in and of itself to its novelty factor.

When in Athens recently I had no clue that to expect or not to expect in the line of customer service. I’m not one easily impressed in that regard so I was open to the best they had to offer. I have been known to covet an entire wait staff, imagining the wonders I might achieve were I let loose on them on them for a couple of days. I have boycotted cafés and bars and restaurants (and badmouthed them, too) if the service has been rude or non-existent. Hell hath no fury like this particular customer scorned.

IMG_3939 (800x581)Here in Budapest, Kompót ranks No. 1 for customer service in my book. And in Athens it was the Taverna on Antinoros Str. From the outset, Eleni, the young woman whose job it is to direct the passing footfall to a table, was pleasant and not at all pushy. She struck the perfect balance with a subdued yet assertive style. Score No. 1. The Taverna is the second in a row of cafés/restaurants/bars near the Divani Caravel hotel and we were intent on checking out them all before committing to one. Both of us liked our food too much to rush the choice. But having done the tour, we ended back where we started and Eleni remembered us. Score No. 2.

As we checked the menu, Maïa came and brought us water, set out the cutlery, and told us someone would be out to take our order shortly. And all with a smile. Score No. 3.

IMG_3940 (800x600)Mr Titus took our drinks order and then he and Xphɛtoɛ (Kristos) kept an eye on us all evening. The food was fantastic, the drinks cold and served to order, the service attentive without being intrusive. It was no wonder that plans to go home at midnight were completely forgotten. When Xphɛtoɛ heard it was my birthday, he planted a birthday candle in my watermelon with the comedic timing of the best that comic talent has to offer. It was a great start to my year. I’m easily pleased. We had a ball. So much so that we went back again, a second time, a couple of days later. Two out of three nights at the same place? Unheard of for me. And interestingly, we recognised some of the other diners, as well.

Some lessons to be learned from the Taverna:

  • Smiling staff who enjoy their work will infect the customers with their good humour. I defy anyone to be in a bad mood for long at the Taverna when these guys are working.
  • Good, uncomplicated food served hot is a perfect complement to local beer and wine served cold. Mix them up and you have a disaster. Get them right and you have it sussed. Simple.
  • Everyone having a watchful eye out for a customer who might just even be thinking about asking for something and then giving the nod to whomever is waiting that particular table makes for seamless service.
  • Take your cue from the customers – If they’re chatty, chat back. If they’re celebrating, pull out all the stops. And if they’re being fussy – remember  – they’re always right. Kill them with kindness and a smile.

Kudos to you all – thanks for a fabulous couple of nights, great food, excellent service, and memories that are worth sharing.

If you’re in Athens, be sure to check it out.

2014 Grateful 19

‘We learn something new every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned yesterday was wrong’ – I’m with you there, Bill Vaughan. But there’s some stuff I have learned and there’s other stuff I just know. And I often I don’t know which is which. But when I find out that the stuff I just know is wrong, that tilts my world a little for a nanosecond or three.

IMG_3851 (800x600)The Acropolis is not a building – ruined or otherwise – it’s a hill. I never knew that. And on this hill sits the Parthenon, a temple completed in 438 BC, which has variously served  as  a temple, a church, and a mosque, even a munitions depot during the Turkish Occupation of Greece. An explosion in 1687, in a fight with the Venetians, pretty much ruined it, yet in its way, it’s still rather magnificent.

IMG_3876 (800x600)Another lesser known temple, the Erechteion, with its famous Porch of the Caryatids, is even more interesting. I thought I was looking at the real thing in these six maidens, but they’re replicas. Apparently, back in 1801, a certain Lord Elgin took one home to his mansion in Scotland. It was later sold to the British Museum. Legend has it that at night, the other five could be heard crying for their lost sister. The same Lord Elgin then tried to remove a second one – but ended up smashing it (it was later reconstructed). In the mid-1970s, the temple was somewhat restored and in 1979 the five ladies were moved to the Acropolis Museum, where they’re currently undergoing major cleaning. They were replaced by replicas (and very good ones at that… I wonder how many people notice that they’re not the real thing). While at the museum, one of them – a footless lady – was matched with a sandalled foot found in the rubble – reunited and in one piece again.

IMG_3836 (800x600)IMG_3839 (800x600)The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a renovated amphitheatre, is very impressive. The juxtaposing of old and new creates a magic that is mesmerising.  Home to the Athens Festival each year, world greats such as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Plácido Domingo, the Bolshoi Ballet, Diana Ross, Liza Minelli… have performed on its stage. I’ve added yet another item to my bucket list and am debating about whom I’d like to see at the Odeon. Imelda May – definitely Imelda May.

IMG_3893 (800x600)The Temple of Athena Nike is another one with a story behind it. The first of the temples on the Acropolis, it was completely dismantled in the seventeenth century when its stone was used to build a Turkish wall around the hill.  In or about 1836, an anastylosis (my word for the day – an archaeological term for a reconstruction technique whereby a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible) helped rebuild the temple from the parts remaining.

IMG_3858 (800x600)Many years ago, when I was visiting the Colosseum in Rome, I was with an architect friend who patiently explained the various pillars and columns to me. Needless to say, with the limited amount of space in my brain, that information has long since been replaced by something far more important, like the price of first class postage in South Africa. But I didn’t need to know what I was looking at to appreciate the majesty of it all. The detail, the hidden men (can you see the chap reclining underneath the roof?), the artistry – and with the tools available back then? It’s almost impossible to comprehend.

IMG_3863 (800x600)IMG_3846 (800x600)The views from the Acropolis are magnificent. To see the entire city of Athens laid out before you is quite impressive. Mind you, it was difficult to find any comfort in it, as thousands of people jostled for a vantage point. The place was teeming. More than 10 000 visit each day, apparently, making for a less than comfortable experience. Although I was one of those tourists, I couldn’t help but wish everyone else had stayed at home. One long moving line passed in through the pillars and another passed out, reminiscent of a human conveyor belt, with staff on site urging everyone to keep moving and not to stop.

IMG_3841 (800x600)Was it worth it? Definitely. Despite the heat, the crowds, and my lack of interest in old temples generally, it was impressive. Very impressive. I’m grateful that someone, somewhere along the way, didn’t decide to bulldoze it to make way for high-priced condominiums or luxury villas. I’ve often wondered what makes people revere some ruins and erase others. To conservationists and the preservationists everywhere, a massive thank you for doing your bit to keep the past intact.

IMG_3898 (800x600) (2)






Athenian attitude

I have a long list of places I’d like to see before I pass from this mortal soil. The order changes occasionally, with new ones being added to the list on a regular basis. That’s only to be expected. The older I get, the more I learn; the more I learn, the more I want to see. For some reason, though, neither Greece nor Athens have ever appeared on that list. The whole Greek island thing passed me by after I had my first (and last) sun holiday in Spain back in 1984. Athens for me has always been epitomised by the Acropolis and the Agora – and I’m not much of a one for seriously old ruins.

But if you decide to check with your astrologist to see where your soul would be best positioned on your birthday so that the next six months would go well, and he says Athens, Greece, then you go. So I went. And I learned.

IMG_3786 (800x600)IMG_3897 (800x283)IMG_3782 (800x600)IMG_3927 (800x600)The juxtaposition of old and new in the city of Athens is both confusing and comforting. Wandering though the city centre was like walking through any main European city centre, with many of the usual international chains firmly ensconced on the high street.  The parliament is positively plain, when compared the Hungarian one. And the changing of the guard wasn’t quite as impressive as Buckingham Palace. But stop! This is where I realised that I was tired and in need of a major attitude adjustment. When I start comparing cities, I stop seeing what’s there for what it is. It’s a bad habit, one that I usually have under control. It only surfaces when I’m overworked and my brain loses what little capacity it has to see things without tagging them comparatively for convenience. So I set out to consciously notice.

IMG_3935 (800x600)First off, in Athens store security guards wear bullet-proof vests. That’s something I’ve not seen before. It has to be out of necessity as wearing steel plates in temperatures that regularly hit the high thirties can’t be fun. In the city, both the centre and the suburbs, police trucks park in squares and at intersections, each of which is a mobile riot unit. There’s a heavy police presence, particularly around major international hotels. I’m still not sure if this provided some degree of comfort or just made me a little more insecure. I had thought that the riots of 2010-2012 were pretty much over, but apparently not. When we counted the ninth truck to pass in as many minutes, we asked a waitress what was going on. She shrugged, smiled, and said ‘It’s Athens’.

IMG_3806 (800x600)IMG_3802 (800x600)IMG_3900 (800x600)IMG_3796 (600x800)I was soon distracted though by the many gorgeous churches around the city. It would seem that no expense was spared. All are beautiful; some are jawdroppingly so. And the number of priests and nuns walking purposefully through the streets led me to believe that religion is pretty strong in the city, a religion lived rather than one simply talked about. I will admit to being quite fascinated by the black-robed bearded priests and the look they all have in common, worn almost like a badge of office. I’d quite like to have chat with one of them.  For every grand place of worship, there is a small, simple church that is equally holy. It would be worth walking the city with a man (or woman) of the cloth, just to get their perspective. (Note to self.)

I lit my fair share of candles, said my prayers, and went in search of the old town (or I would have done had I known there was one).

IMG_3904 (800x600)IMG_3908 (800x600)On our way back from the Acropolis, we ended up in a maze of narrow, paved streets which seemed centuries removed from the bland modernity of the city centre. Graffiti takes no prisoners in this town; just about every wall has some sort of acknowledgement that someone saw it in passing and left their mark. The vast majority is urban scrawl, but the occasional gem slips through. Along these narrow streets, cafés and restaurants ply their trade, offering up plates of fish, meat, and rich desserts. The wine was cold, the beer was local, and the service friendly yet unobtrusive. This part of Athens I could grow to like … a lot. Time took on new meaning and three hours passed in a flash.

IMG_3913 (800x600)IMG_3918 (800x600)The layers of walls tell centuries of stories. That no attempt has been made to fix them up only adds to their charm. With few others walking the narrow streets, I quite fancied that I was strolling through a giant book, turning a page as I went around each corner. Yes, there were still some hopeful vendors here and there, but it was nothing like the warren of stalls down at the flea market (which incidentally, is nothing like any other flea market I’ve ever seen – instead of the makeshift stalls and blankets on the ground, this is street after street of shops selling everything a tourist might want). I spent some time in a spice shop and one of these fine days might even try my hand at making souvlaki.

IMG_3921 (800x600)IMG_3920 (600x800)The Agora was on my rather short list of places (3) to see in Athens. The remnants of this ancient market place are quite spectacular. I was slightly amused at the sign at the gate urging me not to take any indecent or defamatory photographs… I spent a good five minutes wondering what exactly had prompted this precaution. The removal of stones I can see. Permission to use a tripod is arguably needed. But indecent photos? The mind boggles. Am sure the spirits of the ancient debaters who used to come to air their views at the Agora are having a field-day trying to figure that one out.

Was it worth a few days? Definitely. Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I go back? I could be tempted.


Monkeys, by any other name, are still monkeys

Could I have two tickets for tonight’s concert, please?
It’s sold out.
No tickets?
Yes, there are tickets. But it’s sold out.
So, can I get two tickets?
Yes, but you will have to stand.
That’s no problem.
Can I go in now to see the zoo?
No. You’re standing. You can’t go in until the concert starts. Only those with seats can go in early.

IMG_4158 (800x600)I had come to Budapest Zoo to see Budapest Bar in concert. The website said that with your ticket you could enter at 7 pm, check out the animals, and then see the gig. But only if you got a seated ticket, apparently. If you were standing, then you couldn’t go in. This made no sense. If I was wandering around looking at the animals, I wouldn’t be sitting in a seat? But hey… I was tired. I’d had a bad day. And I really wanted to see Budapest Bar.

So I bought the tickets and then killed an hour in the local IBIS bar. Not the most fascinating place I’ve ever had a drink in, but the wine was wet and came in a glass and I’d had a bad day. I said that already, didn’t I?

Those of you paying attention will remember that Budapest Bar was the band that impressed me most at Sziget. A gypsy band with six musicians who play the cymbol, keyboards, violin, double bass, drums, and accordion, they attract a who’s who of Hungarian contemporary singers. The craic they had on stage had the audience in stitches and us mono linguists wishing for the billionth time that we had the Hungarian to get the humour.

IMG_4153 (800x600)And the joy that is Budapest Bar is that they open up a completely new world of new voices. I now have a major girl crush on Németh Juci. And a major boy crush on Frenk. Together, their rendition of Wild Rose was mindblowing.

My second favourite song of the evening was Frenk – again – with the Alabama Song… this was the one that converted me to Budapest Bar in Sziget.

And in third place was a version of Purple Rain that was, to my mind, better than any one I have ever heard, including the original. Frenk and a girl called Sandi… who in her own right was bloody amazing, too. The talent… the talent…

Fourth place (after this I gave up ranking) went to Rutkai Bori for Mr Alkohol. But you need to see her in action to appreciate the animation. As the inimitable MLB said: I’d wrap her up and take her home.

They played everything from the Pulp Fiction opening number to David Bowie’s Everything will be alright tonight. It was undoubtedly the best 1900 huf (€6/$8) I have ever spent on live music.

These lads love their stuff. The singers, all of them, are animated, acting as well as singing. The audience of about 800 souls chilling out (literally) in the low twenties open air at the zoo on a Thursday night in Budapest were with them all the way. Sure what else would you be doing?

Next door, in Gundel  (perhaps the most expensive restaurant in the city) patrons sitting on the terrace had a great vantage point and a free gig. But it would be hard to begrudge them, seeing as some entrées on that particular menu go for 40000 huf (about €125 or $175).

The booze wasn’t cheap cheap… but the setting more than made up for it. It was a gorgeous evening. Great music, good wine, scintillating company. What more could a body ask for?

Well, I’d have liked to have seen the monkeys!

PS They’re playing a gig in the synagogue on Sept 3. If you’re in town, it’s well worth trying to get tickets.





No longer a virgin

Each year, come July/August, I go through the same routine. I check the line-up for this years Sziget music festival and see how few names I recognise. Then I have the same debate with myself: to go or not to go. And each year, despite the best of intentions to let this be the year that I get out of my box and break down those comfortable walls, I never follow through. I find an excuse and I chicken out.

The seven-day Sziget music festival has been running since 1993 and now features more than 1000 live performances over the course of the week. This year, Thursday sold out with Lily Allen on the main stage. 85 000 day tickets were sold that day and all festival goers were contained on Óbudai-sziget, a 266-acre island on the Danube.

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In my defence, I am musically clueless. It’s as if the music world stopped turning for me in the 1980s. I detest crowds with a passion, unless I’m neatly corralled in my allocated space where you can’t stomp on me, elbow me, or spill your pint on top of me (strangely though, I have no problem with crowds at a racetrack…mmm…). I can’t abide being marked up, paying over the odds just because I’m one of  a captive audience with no choice other than to pay or go without. But this year, I actually went. Just for one day. But I went.


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It was muddy and the mud stank like the wet fur of a million dogs. This was the second-last day and those who were camping for the week were looking a little like they’d been dragged through a ditch backwards. As a newbie, I let fly with my fair share of oohs and aghs. I was  impressed. It’s like a little city with post offices, pharmacies, shops, a consular office, bars, and restaurants. All that was missing was a church.  There were UK police and police from Germany, the Netherlands  and other countries in uniform and on hand to help. Signs showed meeting points for Australians, Dutch, Nordic, Indians and more. You could buy a festival phone to keep track of your mates and everything was paid for using a festival card that you topped up as you needed at one of the many banks around the place. You could even get married there, have an HIV test, or check your mental health. There was an Irish stage, a world stage, and various other tents and stages that featured specific types of music. I could have stayed all night at the circus pitch – remarkable stuff.


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Prices seemed quite standardised and certainly more expensive than the usual Hungarian fare but for the many international heads (I heard that over 70% of attendees come from abroad), it is still cheap. Hidden amongst it all is a pub that operates on the island year round. It accepts the festival card but has its own prices (about half of what you’d pay elsewhere)  – a good place to know. People were walking around with small pails of cocktails. Wine bottles were being emptied into plastic containers. Beer was being sold by the vatload and yet there were surprisingly few obvious drunks and those who were a little the worse for wear were in great form.

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The place is dotted with interesting art installations and there is plenty to see and do. Were I to do it over, I’d go in the morning and wander around before the crowds got too much. Then I’d sit for a while near the circus, spend some time at the world stage, and perhaps hand-pick a band or two that I really wanted to see.

First band on the main stage that even was an Indie band from the UK – the Bombay Bicycle Club. Needless to say I’d never heard of them but they were good. I could listen to them. At 7.30 IMG_4090 (800x600)Madness appeared and I was back in the kitchen in Northbrook in the mi-1980s with Messrs Jackson and Dowdall doing their take on Suggs et al. in the kitchen. Great stuff. They sang all the classics to which I even knew then words. I never fail to surprise myself.

Crowdsurfing was all the go and I watched a little agestruck as people were bodily passed across the crowd, mentally calculating that there wasn’t enough wine in the world to make me trust in the hands of strangers.  Towards the end,  Our House and Baggy Pants roused the younger ones, as if turning on a collective memory switch. It became just a tad hairy, as they barrelled through the crowd to the front, regardless of what or who was in the way. By this stage, I’d had enough. There’s a limit to the amount of discomfort I can handle. Prodigy were next up – the main act that night. I listened long enough to realise that I am not and will never be a fan. I just didn’t get them. So I went in search of good music – Budapest Bar. 

And from there to the World Stage for some reggae. By this time, I was running on empty. Completely knackered. Twelve hours was as much as I could handle. I was pretty impressed that I’d lasted that long and more impressed with the set-up. And while I love the idea, I can’t for the life of me imagine a whole week of it. Next year, I’ll be in Africa, so the internal debate can be postponed. In 2016? Who knows.

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2014 Grateful 20

I  heard during the week that an old friend of mine had reached his expiration date (his words). The doctors had given him three years at the start of 2014 and this turned into eight months. He truly was one of God’s finest contributions to my world and one of the loveliest men I have had the good fortune to know. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to spend a few days with him last year, having only been in written contact since 2002. And he still hadn’t lost any of his charm or his magic. He had a way of looking at life that defied the odds; his emails were poetic and insightful and never failed  to give me a new perspective, no matter the subject. I will miss him terribly.

This news came on the back of Robin Williams’s death, when the world poured out its affection, its sense of loss, and is shock at his untimely passing. It was moving to see how much he touched the hearts of so many millions of people and yet I wonder if he fully understood the effect he had on the world. And if he had, would that have helped? Part of me felt that this adulation came a little too late – as is often the case in life. We only miss those we love when they’re gone; and it’s only when we can no longer talk to them that we think of all the things we wish we’d said.

My friend was given three years. He was polishing his bucket list, narrowing down the places he really wanted to visit. Top of that list was a return trip to Alaska, a place forever etched in his memory. He also wanted to see Croatia and come to visit me in Budapest. And New Zealand was on there, too. He thought he had time. He didn’t.

We truly never know how long we have; or indeed how long those around us have. We consciously put off until tomorrow things we don’t want to do today, knowing, on some level, that tomorrow might never come. We go to bed fighting. We wake up bitter and alone. We spend too much time castigating others, bemoaning our lot in life, instead of telling them we care and being thankful for small mercies.

Life has a way of waking us up – it’s called ‘the deaths of others’. If at no other time, and even if only for an hour, or a day, or a week, we resolve to be more present, to be more grateful, to be more honest with ourselves and with others, then perhaps these people have not died in vain. Better still, though, is that we carry that lesson with us and constantly strive to make the most of the time we have on Earth, to tell those closest to us how we feel about them and not take for granted that they will be divinely inspired and simply ‘know’. Instead of putting off until tomorrow, or next week, whatever it is we want to say or do, we should do it today. Because, in many cases, today is all we have.

This week, I’m grateful that RB was part of my life. I’m grateful for everything thing he taught me. I’m grateful that ours was an engaging two-way correspondence that defied both time and distance. And although I’ll miss the cards and letters and emails and parcels, although I’ll miss knowing that he won’t be reading every blog I write – I will always have the memories. And  I am so grateful that I took the time to make some more. You’re a legend Mr B. Thank you.