Life lessons on legs

There’s a pub at home that’s slowly sinking into the bog, evidenced by the creamy collars of pints of Guinness tilting unevenly to one side when not in the hands of punters. Known the length and breadth of the county, Roche’s is a pub in the middle of nowhere that reputedly pulls 2400 pints of Guinness a week, on an average week, and Christmas is far from average.

Roches pint (800x527)Until a couple of years ago, it was presided over by nonagenarian Maura Roche, and is a legend in its own time. When she died, it was bought by a local publican who sold his town pub and moved to the sticks. Billed as the steal of the century, it went for a song, played to the tune of cash,  in a time when only miracles would get you a mortgage.

But Mrs Roche, Mrs Roche … It was only this week that I heard her story and what a story that turned out to be.

Born in Clapham in 1915, to an Irish Republican father and a suffragette mother, Mrs Roche was one of a kind. Educated by nuns in Surrey and in Belgium, she took a BA in Languages from King’s College in London. She summered in Spain to improve her Spanish and fell in love with a Republican Spaniard whom she then rescued from a camp in France when Franco won the war. During WWII she was sent to Ireland, out of harms way, and it was there she met a publican by the name of Jack Roche.

He courted me, bringing me to the theatre, for a meal, or things like that. It was a sensible way of doing things – not like the way young  people do it today.

They bought the pub in Donadea in the 1950s and for nearly 50 years, she was a force to be reckoned with. Rumour has it that she spoke half a dozen languages fluently, travelling as often as she could alone, as Jackie didn’t like to venture far. I met her just the once. She looked like a sprightly old lady who wasn’t at all backward about coming forward and had I been smart enough back then, I might have tried to engage her in conversation. Now it’s too late.

I wonder how many elderly people are passed over because they are old, hard of hearing, perhaps not as quick on the uptake as they might once have been. But so many have stories to tell, interesting stories, stories that could teach us younger ones a thing or three, if only we took the time to ask.

I quite like the idea of adopting a granny or a granddad, if there were such a thing on the market. They’re walking life lessons. It reminds me of a story an uncle tells of a couple in his village who were married for 60 years. In every photo taken of them, they’re holding hands. An observant reporter, covering the big anniversary, commented on how lovely it was to still be in love after 60 years, to be still holding hands. Sure, they replied, in their best Clare accents, if we ever let go, we’d kill each other.

Ah the wit, the witticisms, and the wisdom  we are in danger of losing…

 

2014 Grateful 1

And so, three years of being grateful draw to a close. It was back in 2012 when the inimitable Biddy McD put me on to this grateful kick with her daily photo posts capturing her gratefulness. I thought it  a lovely way to stay mindful of all the good that happens to me rather than get bogged down in what ifs, whys, and wherefores. While I enjoy the occasional wallow in self-pity, they’ve been few and far between in the last few years and this I attribute to bring consciously grateful for the smallest, most insignificant things in life.

gratitudeIt need only be something as simple as public transport cooperating with me. And it happens seldom enough to make it notable 🙂 There’s a lovely sense of synchronicity if I venture out in Budapest and each time I get to a tram stop, a metro station, or a bus or trolley stop, they arrive, unbidden. And when it happens a few times in succession in a given day, I feel like the gods are watching over me and paying special attention. And that day becomes special.

It might be something as banal as a change in schedule that, while irritating at the time, has a domino effect and frees up the day to let better things happen. It could be a phone call, an email, a text message from someone I haven’t heard from in a while or any of the same from someone I hear from every day. I’ve had my world turned upside down by two people telling me how proud they were of me and I’ve been ever so grateful for silence.

grat2There’s nothing to overthink. No matter how bad life is, there’s always something to be grateful for. It is or isn’t raining. The postman brought or didn’t bring a letter. The alarm did or didn’t go off on time. It’s a matter of choice to be thankful.

I have some fascinating friends: one I lost this year, another continues to be there for me in his own quiet way, others open new windows for me and offer me a different perspective on the world. I get to travel as often as I can make it happen and am fortunate enough to have friends around the world who always make me welcome. I might only see them every few years, but it always feels as if the time in between could have been measured in days rather than decades.

grat3Gratitude is somewhat divisive. Stalin reckoned it was a sickness suffered by dogs. The great Dorothy Parker thought it the meanest and most snivelling attribute in the world. But, for my money, it was Chesterton who captured its essence: When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude. And yet Nietzsche also has a word of caution: There are slavish souls who carry their appreciate for favors done them so far that they strangle themselves with the rope of gratitude.

There’s a balance to be found, and three years in, I think I’ve finally got the hang of it. Thank you for letting me practice on you.

 

Unplugged

It’s my first time online since the 23rd of December – three days. Not bad. And it wasn’t nearly as traumatic as I’d imagined it could be. Day 1 was a blurr. I was on the road meeting people for a lot of it and then there was the annual neighbour drop-in, where everyone within shouting distance of our house drops by for a few hours.

offlineThe day itself was quiet – more neighbours, lots of food, and hours of TV. For the first time ever (I am still in shock) I watched Jimmy Stewart in the original 1946 version of It’s a Wonderful Life. How I have gotten to where I am today without seeing that particular gem is beyond me. And did you know that it was a box-office flop when it was first released? Apparently it didn’t become THE Christmas movie until the 1970s. What a sweet, lovely, film – imagine someone wanting to lasso the moon for you… sigh…

Later that evening, another long threatening came to pass as I managed to stay awake to get through all of Argo. Set in a time when Jimmy Stewart’s film was becoming popular, it couldn’t be more different. Six Americans holed up in the Canadian’s ambassador’s residence in Teheran for more than 70 days in fear of their lives. The mind boggles. The hostage crisis was more than 30 years ago and yet today, the world doesn’t seem to have moved on any.

St Stephen’s Day saw more visitors, more turkey, and more telly. While there was a faint niggling in the back of my brain all the time, accompanied by the full knowledge that I have deadlines to meet early next week, I simply couldn’t bring myself to turn on my computer. And that’s progress.

And what’s more I even forgot about my phones, accidentally muting them more often than not or leaving them in a coat pocket. [My trial iPhone is driving me batty anyway, so that was no loss really.]

There’s another few days to go before 2015 ratchets up and thoughts turn to resolutions and better ways to live. I don’t have a telly in Budapest but I do have shelves of unread book and unwatched movies. I also have years of accumulated ‘stuff’ that needs to be disposed of. My plan for the coming year is twofold: to unplug a little more, i.e., to go dark at least one, if not two days a week and recapture some of my free time to put to more constructive use; and to purge, to lighten the load, to unshackle myself from attachments to things and thoughts that have outlived their purpose.

 

 

On being old

I caught the tail-end of mass in the village this morning. Of the 60 or so people in the congregation, I might have been one of three this side of 50. Afterwards, people stayed to chat, to catch up, to have a quick word and I was struck by the role of the church in villages and towns in Ireland where one in three old people live alone. It is at mass that their absence would be noticed, particularly if they’re daily communicants.

oldThere’s been a lot on the telly here about Ireland’s aging population. On Primetime the other night, Fiona Pender did a special on urban isolation. One old dear of 92, who has relatives (kids, grandkids, etc.) told of how she refuses to leave her home on Christmas Day. Her reason? Going to a house packed with life makes it all the harder for her to come back to the empty house that is hers.

Others spoke of how long the days are when no one comes to visit them. How the hours drag out. They need fewer hours sleep and those hours that they spend awake can only be filled with so much TV, so much reading. It’s the company the crave – what they want most. Someone to talk to, someone to care.

old age2We’re in danger of doing ‘old people’ an injustice. We think we know what’s best for them. Sometimes we forget they’re there. More times we can’t be bothered with their rants and raves and trips down memory lane. We don’t have the time, the patience, or the inclination. If they’re family, we might be harboring some residue of lifelong resentment. if they’re neighbours and of a curmudgeonly disposition, we might be nursing a grudge. And perhaps we are justified in doing so. But we shouldn’t forget that they’ve probably earned the right, by virtue of their years, to be the way they are.

The concept of old is relative. I have friends who are in their 80s and still playing golf. Another in his 90s who is complaining about how old everyone else is around him – old in their minds. More in their 70s who are dating again and finding a new lease of life. They’re enviable. They’re active. They have friends.

Just a thought…

 

2014 Grateful 2

When I’ve not been glued to the telly, I’ve been out and about catching up with people, some of whom I’ve known for years, and others I’ve met more recently. It’s all been good. It’s all part of coming home for the holidays.

Dublin, a city I love more and more the longer I’m away from it, is buzzing. Having lunch in Powerscourt the other day, we were serenaded by a series of carolers raising money for various charities. They ran the gamut from Jingle Bells to more operatic airs and each one just added another bit of flavour to the goodwill that was abounding.

Christmas is a time when thoughts turn to charity – to those less fortunate than ourselves. The collectors are out in the droves, shaking buckets and making pleas. And yet, given the various exposés earlier this year of how the funds raised by various Irish big-name charities were spent, as a nation, there’s a wariness about where to give money.

choirOne of the nicest stories I’ve heard/seen so far this week is that of the High Hopes Choir who made their debut on the Late Late Show (Ireland’s longest-running TV chat show) back in October.

The choir is the brainchild of David Brophy who worked with some of Ireland’s better known charities dealing with homelessness -Dublin Simon Community, Saint Vincent De Paul, and Focus Ireland – to put together two regional choirs – one in Dublin and the other in Waterford. Choir members have one thing in common, apart from being willing to sing: they are either directly affected by homelessness or volunteer with those who are.

Brophy summed it up beautifully:

In just 8 weeks, through 20 rehearsals and over 1200 cups of tea and coffee, more than 60 people, all dealing with Ireland’s homeless crisis, reach beyond the stars.

They recorded Kodaline’s High Hopes, which was then released as a single and is now a chart topper at iTunes. Then they put on a gala concert for 400 people at Christchurch, where they were accompanied by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and with guest performances from Lisa Hannigan and Brian Kennedy.

In  a TV special that I bawled my way through, the overriding message was that this choir, and belonging to it, gave people back their voice. As homeless people, no one listens to them. But now, performing in front of many of Ireland’s musical greats, on national TV, and in Dublin’s iconic cathedral, they’ve rediscovered who they are and more importantly, what they can be. The stories were heart-wrenching and a lesson in humility.

David Brophy, a former conductor with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, fronted the TV series that provided a forum for the initiative. After the gig at Christchurch, when the participants were interviewed about how much being part of the project meant to them, their gratitude to him was overwhelming. They gave themselves credit, too. And it was a lovely balance, one that struck me as missing from my more settled world. All too often we forget to give thanks and we forget to give ourselves credit, too. Or else we overdo it to the point of  what we’d call at home ‘mé féin-ing’. We can be our own worst critics, our own worst enemies. And yet, with a little rightful humility and a dash of gratefulness, maybe we could restore some meaning to what we do. That was the lesson I learned from the High Hopes Choir – one that, this week, I’m truly grateful for.

 

The High Hopes Choir on iTunes 90 cent from each download will be split equally between Dublin Simon Community, Saint Vincent De Paul and Focus Ireland.

 

The lifetime role of expectations

I’ve been back in Ireland for about 48 hours and already I’m in trouble. I’m fighting an addiction – not the fags – haven’t had one since I left Budapest and it’s not bothering me at all. What is bothering me though is that after months of absence, I’m hooked again on the soaps.

soap3In the Australian soap, Home and Away, Marilyn’s concerns that the honeymoon period is over (even though they’ve only been married three months) mirrors similar concerns that Laurel is having in the British soap Emmerdale. Thousands of miles apart, completely different writers, and both come up with the same story line? The mind boggles. It’s business as usual on Ramsey Street, in Neighbours, as Susan and Karl are still dithering about their relationship – how many years has it been? [20 – I checked.]

soap2Coronation Street sees the annoying Gail being even more annoying than usual and in Eastenders, everything is still the same on the square. Ireland’s longest-running soap, Fair City, outstrips them all though – but I can’t keep track of who has died.

Six soaps and even though I’ve not been paying attention for months, just two days in and I’m back in the midst of it all. It’s amazing how much I identify with the characters and how easily they can irritate me. I find myself talking back to the screen, doling out advice as if they could hear me. And that says a lot more about me than I should be sharing. And it explains why I cannot have a TV in my flat.

But what of the actors who, day in and day out for years and years and years have grown old in their characters. Eileen Derbyshire, who played the irritating, gooder than good, Emily Bishop on Coronation Street, did so for 53 years. Ray Meagher has been playing Alf Stewart in Home and Away for 26 years. And Martina Stanley has been doing my head in on Fair City as Dolores  Molloy for 22 years. I wonder how sane they all can be? If you play the one character for so many years, not alone must you grow up with them, you also run the danger of growing into them.

expectation 2I’ve reinvented myself a number of times. Moving to new cities/countries where nobody knows me gave me licence to be anything I wanted to be. And it worked, because one thing was lacking – expectations. No one had any expectations of me. No one knew me. I had nothing to live up to, to measure up to. I could literally turn a page and write my own script. Of course, my expectations of myself didn’t go away or change or meld into anything beyond recognition, so the reinvented me didn’t differ too much from the previous me. I just lost some of the irritating stuff 🙂

expectationI’ve been playing myself for years now, and the drama has ebbed and flowed along with my ratings. Right now though, I’m happy enough with the storyline and am looking forward to a new me evolving next year.

 

 

Safe travels

I’m one of those travellers who has to be at the airport two hours before the scheduled departure time. Not for me the last minute panicked run to the gate, all the while praying fervently that there is still time to make the plane. I like to have time to wander, to have a coffee, to sort myself. I like to have time, period.

This morning, I was all set to take the metro/bus combination that normally gets me to the airport. I had it timed to the minute. 9.10 departure from the flat would get me to the airport at 10am for a noon flight. I can be quite anal at times, when it comes to scheduling. But at 9.07, my phone rang. It was an older friend whom I haven’t seen much of this year. She’d just gotten my Christmas card and was calling to thank me for it. Hers was one of the numbers I’d lost when someone absconded with my phone  a couple of weeks ago so when I didn’t recognise the number, I had to pick up. Curiosity will be the death of me yet. A known number, I’d simply have called back from the airport.

She’s a hard woman to stop in mid-flow, so as I chatted, I was mentally recalculating my schedule and resigning myself to shelling out for a taxi. I could have taken a later metro and still made it in plenty of time to board, but that would have upset my state of mind. I was focusing on being at the check-in desk at 10 am. On schedule. My schedule.

I have a fondness for spontaneity. I rarely, if ever, have a plan (note that in my world, a plan is not the same as a schedule). I’m quite happy, for the most part, to take life as it comes, but when it comes to public transport and scheduled arrival and departure times, I turn into an automaton and cannot be reasoned with. Logic flies out the window.

My very pleasant taxi driver dropped me at 2B minutes before 10am. The desk was open and there was just one person ahead of me in the queue. I had time for a coffee and my last cigarette (I think I’m going to quit – again – for a while). Security was a breeze – nobody in line. And when I finally boarded, after doing my rounds of the duty free, I had a row of seats to myself – as everyone did. The staff, with plenty of time on their hands and so few people to contend with, were chatty and relaxed. I spent the three hours reading, drinking cups of tea, nibbling on a cheese plate. Heaven.

We landed on time. My luggage made it. And I was met. That has to be one of life’s simplest pleasures – coming through the doors from baggage claim and seeing someone you recognise who’s as happy to see you as you are to see them. Priceless.

airpotr

The closer it gets to Christmas, the more manic airports get. If you’re travelling this week, I hope your trip is as uneventful as mine, and that everything goes according to plan – your plan.

 

2014 Grateful 3

Standing on a mate’s balcony the other night, having an illicit cigarette, I was struck by the silence in the city. It was freezing cold, biting. A few lights on in neighbouring flats showed signs of life but not a peep escaped to the outside world. Such silence in a city the size of Budapest is rare, and in its rarity all the more wonderful.

One friend told a story about meeting a chap in Hong Kong who loved Simon and Garfunkel but couldn’t quite get to grips with their song, the Sound of Silence. So much got lost in that particular translation: the poor chap didn’t get how silence, by definition noiseless, could have a sound.

I recalled the loudest silence I’d ever heard. It was in Alaska. Out on Prince William Sound. In a boat. Not another human around for miles. Just me and my skipper, the inimitable JS. It was one of those beautiful, long Alaska evenings where if you looked closely enough at the skies you could see heaven. The sound of that particular silence is forever etched in my brain and it’s the place I go in my head when I want to get away from it all.

silence 3

Another place I go is to the forest in Gödöllő. A natural fence of trees envelopes the house in a silence that is almost surreal. Double doors leading out to the balcony provide a perfect vantage point from which to watch what few leaves remaining on the trees fall quietly to the ground. There’s something godlike in this simplicity. The air is cold and still. The sky grey. The evergreens provide a lushness that is unusual this time of year. And all around there is silence. The only noise I hear is the ticking of a clock and the sound of keys clacking on the keyboard.

My programme (can’t you tell I’ve been in Hungary for a while 🙂 ) for the next couple of weeks is filling up. Lunches, dinners, drinks, parties, catching up with old friends all part of the agenda. It’ll be a busy one and short of snow descending on Ireland and bringing the nation to a standstill, all should go ahead as planned.

But before it all kicks off, I’m grateful that I get to experience some quiet, to hear the silence, to revel in its restorative powers. For that I am truly thankful.

 

Wrapping the intangible

There’s something in the air that smells remarkably like goodwill mixed with the heady fumes of mulled wine and grog. I’ve noticed a subtle change in the general level of niceness floating around as people jostle good-naturedly through the Christmas markets without complaint. I’d nearly go so far as to say that we’re all a little bit better disposed towards our fellow man.

christ2

It’s a time for reminiscing, remembering those who have gone before us and others who won’t make it home this year. A Hungarian friend recently told me a story that both saddened me and restored my faith in love and life.

christ3She has a friend in his early nineties who survived the concentration camps of WWII. He returned to Budapest after the war to find strangers living in his house. His family were dead. He had nothing, no one. He spent some time in the States before eventually moving back to Hungary. Today, he’s in hospital, where he has been for a month now; when he does get out it will be to a sanatorium. He’s fortunate that, as a Holocaust survivor, he has the support of a Jewish foundation that ensures he has a nurse visit him twice daily. Without her visits, and those of my friend, it is doubtful that he would have survived his time in hospital where things are bleak at best; food is left on bedside lockers untouched if the patient hasn’t the wherewithal to feed themselves, or hasn’t a friend or relative to do it for them.

His wife of 48 years would be there if she could, but she can’t. She is at home, bedridden, in a full-leg cast, with a broken knee. She is in her sixties, far younger than him. They have no family. This is the longest they have been apart. When they married, she was just 19. People thought her mad – he’d soon be old and then where would she be? She said that if she had ten good years with the man she loved, it would be worth it. They’ve had much more.

They communicate by phone, separated as they are by circumstance and their respective disabilities. They miss each other terribly. They are the light of each others life and want nothing more than to be together. And they’re not.

In the coming weeks, our skies and roads will be full of people travelling home for the holidays – some because they want to, others because of familial duty and obligation. Families will be reunited. Grandchildren will be hugged for the first time. Lovers, separated by economic necessity, will cram a month of living into a few days. Children will split their time between divorced and separated parents. Many will spend the holidays in hospital or at home alone. The fortunate amongst us – those with friends and family we can be with – are in danger of taking it all for granted, forgetting to count our blessings and give thanks, instead losing ourselves in the commercial mania that is Christmas.

We will be scavenging christthe shops and markets in an effort to fulfill other people’s expectations of want. I’m no exception. But as is my wont at this time of year, I am revisiting the list made by novelist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) when asked for suggestions as to what to give for Christmas:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Now if only I could figure out how I might wrap them …

Wherever you are this Christmas, my wish for you is that you are at peace with yourself. Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 December 2014

Old traditions die hard

I got a bit of a shock yesterday from which I’m only now recovering. I received a Christmas card, in the post, from Ireland. I did the usual and spent some time trying to see if I could recognise the writing, something that’s getting harder and harder to do as so few people actually use a pen to write any more. Then I checked the postmark but it wasn’t very helpful. And then finally I saw the stamp.

christmas-card-infographic

It cost one whole euro to send a Christmas card from Ireland to Hungary! €1. I was in shock. When did the price of postage get that high? Is it because so few people are using it that the costs have to be increased, spread as they are over a narrower base?

I’m not one for e-cards. I far prefer a real paper card, one that’s preferably made from recycled paper and supports some worthy charity or cause. I’m a great believer in cause-related marketing and I was genuinely excited when I found a shop  around the corner selling Hungarian UNICEF cards. I bought all they had.

ccBut €1 for postage!!! Then I thought back to last week, when I sent my REST OF WORLD Christmas mailing (i.e., everywhere but Europe) from Hungary. I rooted out the receipt and saw that I’d spent nearly 15 000 forints (nearly €50 / $60) mailing cards and packages and that the price of a stamp here is equivalent to about €1.80! I’d never noticed. Probably something to do with all the zeros.

When I go on holidays, I buy postcards and send to about 15 people scattered around the world. And I can distinctly remember coming out of a few post offices marvelling the cost of postage, but for some reason it is always associated with holiday spending in my mind and so never gives me any great cause for concern.

But the price of postage for Christmas cards? That’s different. I get few enough personal letters in the mail any more. It’s all window-envelope stuff – bills, flyers, junk. So I really look forward to my Christmas cards. The thoughts that people might stop sending them because of the prohibitive cost of postage has made me a tad nervous.

We’ve been sending Christmas cards since 1843, when Henry Cole and John Horsely got together and designed and sold the first ones for a shilling each. It’s a tradition that might be slowly dying out as more and more people choose to send electronic greetings. But it’s simply not the same. I’ll be one of those hanging in till the bitter end though, no matter the cost. Old traditions die hard indeed.