A very virtual reality

It’s easy to confuse me. It doesn’t take much. I even manage to confuse myself on occasion. There have been times when I’ve told a story with such conviction that I actually believed it had happened, that I’d been there. I have had dreams, too, that I’ve recounted as fact and have been surprised to be contradicted in retelling them as such. But this week, I surpassed myself in my ability to delude.

One folder in my portfolio career involves working with a Swiss-Maltese cooperation with offices in Malta, Serbia, and Switzerland. My colleagues are spread around the world and it’s not unusual to have four or five countries at a Skype meeting. We rarely use video and mainly rely on voice or chat.

virt5Some of us are together this week for the Geneva Internet Conference and on Monday, the team began arriving from their respective four corners of the world. I was in the office when K walked in.

‘Hey – how are you? Long time no see… it’s been ages’, said I, full of enthusiasm as I’ve a lot of time for her.

‘You know we’ve never actually met, Mary’, she replied.

virtIt takes a lot to render me speechless but I was gobsmacked. Never met? Of course we have. I recognised you immediately. I know you.

The last time K was in Malta was 2009. I didn’t get there until 2010. I went back through every conference and meeting and event in the intervening four years and she was right. We’d never actually met in person.

If ever there was an argument in favour of social networking and social media and virtual get togethers, this was it. We’d been in contact so often over the Internet that she had become real – very real.

virt2The flip side though was that it scared me a little. There are days when my grip on reality is tenuous at best, a fine thread that could snap at any minute. I’m fully aware of my ability to romanticise, to fictionalise, to visualise; I don’t need any encouragement.

Later, as the conference participants began to arrive, I saw some familiar faces – Internet governance is a fairly specialised subject and there are probably 80 or so key players worldwide so lots of the faces are the same. I got chatting to one delegate who told me how great it was to see me again. I tried my damnedest to keep my pathetic attempt at a poker face in place but failed miserably. Apparently this was the third time we’d met, in person, and I would have sworn it was the first.

virt3This turned my world upside down a little. The blending of the fine line between virtual and reality was a little disconcerting. Here was one person I’d never met in person yet it felt like I had; and another whom I had met in person a number of times, but could have sworn I hadn’t.

Perhaps it has something to do with what’s called the online disinhibition effect that allows us to be more ‘real’ online… Something to think about.






Have I sold out?

I did somethinebook1g yesterday that I’ve never done in my adult life. Ever. Not once in living memory. And I’m racked with guilt today. I feel like I’ve sold my soul, gone over to the dark side, crossed a line of no return.

I left the flat for the airport without a book in my bag. Usually I take one book for every two days I’m away – and this time I didn’t take any, not one, even though I had two staring at me lovingly from the kitchen table as I left.

Last month, after years of dithering, I broke down and bought a Kindle. I blame it on the airlines and their meagre baggage allowance. If it hadn’t come down to a choice between wine and books, I’d never have crossed the line.

I love my books. I haul them with me whenever I move. I have boxes of them in the attic at home and my shelves in Budapest are double-stacked. I have converted plants stands to book stands and regularly have stacks of the blighters lining my hallway. I classify them as long-term relationships or one-night stands, the latter being those in which I’m not emotionally invested.

I love the feel of them. The smell of them. The sound of them on a quiet afternoon when I curl up on the couch and hear nothing but the turning of a page. And I like the look of them. The more books someone has in their home, the more I trust them. There’s no scientific explanation for that, but I’ve never laid claim to excessive rationality. I just like people who like books.

Ann Marlowe, writing in the Tablet in January, wouldn’t be impressed with me. She writes about accumulation, and the need to purge, to get rid of books in favour of a minimalist-style Kindle.  Space is of  the essence – but then, which would I prefer? A room with packed bookshelves or one with bare walls… both, cried she, I want it all.

Earlier this year, there was an article doing the rounds about how people retain less information when reading an ebook than a real book… and it’s all to do with turning the page.

When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.

Anyway, after a month of looking at the thing in its box, I took it out yesterday, charged it up, and downloaded some free books just to try it out. I’m half-way through the first one and I know why it’s free.

One good thing about my Kindle, though, is that it lies flat and I can read and eat at the same time. Which is a bad thing, too, as I should be doing one or the other if I’m serious about learning to be present. Another good thing is that it always weigebook 2hs the same. Which is a bad thing, too, as I’ve no sense of how far along I am in the book (and no, the percentage metre on the bottom just doesn’t do it for me).

So why do I feel guilty? Perhaps because I’ve been swearing for years that I’d never go there.

A man I like a lot – Stephen Fry – reckons that books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators. So I shouldn’t feel as my going over to the dark side is endangering the species.

Another man I like a lot – Douglas Adams – reckons that lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food. Fair point. Words are good (or bad) wherever they’re written.

And as for Stephen King – If you drop a book into the toilet, you can fish it out, dry it off and read that book. But if you drop your Kindle in the toilet, you’re pretty well done. Enough said, but as I can’t remember ever dropping a book down the loo, that argument doesn’t really hold water. 

I will persevere though and see how me and my new friend get along. Rome wasn’t built in a day and considering the Tablet I bought last year has only seen the light of day once, I should make a better effort to be more tech savvy. And, of course, there’s always the weight issue.






2014 Grateful 7

I lost my grip on reality for a time this week. My inner sense of balance went out of kilter and for a while I was caught between two worlds – that of the adult that I purport to be and that of the child I wish I could be again.

Sometimes it all gets too much. First world problems, all of them, but the responsibility that comes with being an adult, with being grown up, with being sensible and decisive can bring me to my knees; I want to sit down and cry until someone comes along, gives me a hug, and tells me everything will be alright, just as they did when I was a child.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing very attractive about a 40-something-year-old behaving like she was five. That child-like refusal to see the obvious, believing that if I ignore it, it will cease to exist, simply doesn’t work. The five-year-old who still lives inside me wants to believe that everything is possible, that life really is a fairy tale, and that ice cream and chocolate will provide all the nutrition I need without adding poundage. The adult me knows better.

A chorus of ‘it’s just not fair’ bounced around in my brain for most of the week, sung in the same tuneless voice I used to sing Óró sé de bheatha abhaile in school – now there’s a song I haven’t thought of in years.

The shift to this child-like state started innocuously enough when my personal trainer (how posh do I sound?) told me that he was very proud of me, proud that I was sticking with the programme and getting results. Fair enough. I’m proud of me, too. So why was that so unsettling?

I can’t remember the last time someone told me they were proud of me. It’s not really something you say to adults, is it? I know that the few occasions on which I have said this to friends and colleagues resulted in a distinctly uncomfortable feeling as I felt I might be misunderstood as patronising and they didn’t quite know quite what to do with the compliment. Hearing it myself triggered something in me that saw me revert to when I was  child and my parents or an aunt or uncle, or a teacher took pride in something I had done. I know on a rational, adult level, that I don’t need anyone’s approval to verify who I am; I know that I don’t need praising or plámásing to make me feel good about myself; and I’m fully aware of the danger of depending on other people’s validation.

And yet, when a few days later, my writing coach told me he was proud of my progress, too, I felt like my heart would burst. I was five again, opening my homework and seeing the gold star and feeling the intensity of emotion resulting from my teacher’s approbation. What was I like?

Is it a zero-sum game? With each positive emotion is there a negative one, too? With each empowering emotional high is there a corresponding disempowering low? It certainly felt like it. For no sooner had I dressed myself in the warm glow of accomplishment, the doubts set in. They didn’t in any way relate to my muscles or my essays though, but had more to do with my ability to cope. It was as if I’d become a child again and had lost that independent self-reliance that so many associate with me and never question. I became needy, a tad truculent, and more than a little dramatic. And I threw a tantrum or three.

So what, you may ask, do I find to be grateful about this week? Well, I’ve learned that no matter how old I am, I will never be too old for compliments. I’ve learned that no matter how independent and self-sufficient I might seem (even to myself) there is a part of me that needs to be looked after. And I’ve learned that we, as adults, are really just children trying to cope with the responsibility that comes with age. And occasionally, we should give the child within us permission to play. As someone more quotable than I once said – Only some of us can learn from other people’s mistakes; the rest of us have to be those other people. For these lessons, and for those who were instrumental in their teaching, I am truly grateful.




A mutual love

Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains me through temporary periods of joy. I wish I could claim those words as my own but I can’t. They are why I fell in love with WB Yeats – Irish Nobel laureate, poet, playwright, politician, and romantic. They are also why the Internet me calls herself ‘stolenchild’ after the most beautiful of all his poems, one that speaks to the Irish worry that a child’s mind might be stolen by the fairies. I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m often away with the fairies – a poetic way of saying that my grip on reality can be tenuous at times.

That my love of Yeats might be shared by half of Ireland is no surprise. That my love of Yeats might be shared by a tranche of people in Hungary, though, is quite remarkable. I came across the newly formed Hungarian Yeats Society recently, an enterprise conceived by a young student, Melinda Szűts, who was so enchanted by Yeats’s poetry, drama, and literature that she wanted to bring his work to the attention of other Hungarians. They have big plans for next year, when the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth will see events in Debrecen, Pecs, Győr, and Budapest.

Damien Brennan, President of the Yeats Society of Sligo, the mothership of the Magyar Yeats Társaság, was in Budapest last weekend to give a talk at the Irish Ambassador’s residence on the life of Yeats. Hosted by HE Kevin Dowling, the early evening soirée gathered about 40 enthusiasts in search of something more than the usual dry biography such evenings often entail. Damien didn’t disappoint. He brought the man to life, sharing with us the details of his work that for many (ok, maybe just me!) had heretofore gone unremarked.

MGyeatsI was enthralled. I didn’t know that when Yeats first laid eyes on Maud Gonne, a woman he would love for nigh on 30 years, he remembered the moment as when  ‘the troubling’ of his life began, for Maud would never love him back. In fact, she didn’t want to love him because she ‘could never love him enough’. They did get together once, in Paris, in 1908, when, as another love put it, ‘the long years of fidelity were  rewarded at last’. Yet it was not to be.

But it is more than a love of Yeats that connects Ireland and Hungary. About 1000 Irish live here, the majority in Budapest. The Irish Hungarian Business Circle, with its legendary First Fridays, a social gathering that takes place in the city’s only Irish pub – Jack Doyle’s – on the first Friday of every month, attracts not just Irish and Hungarians but a host of other nationalities, too.

The annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations see thousands take to the streets wearing the green. While Szombathely, the homeplace of Leopold Bloom’s father, celebrates Bloomsday every year, Budapest has a Belated Bloomsday coinciding with Museums’ Night, when Joycean devotees gather to celebrate the life and work of another great Irish writer. And the Leopold Bloom Award, a contemporary art award established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, is given biannually to a young Hungarian artist.

Our most recent Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, was commemorated in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences earlier this year when Irish poet Medbh McGuckian came from Belfast to read his poems. And over in Győr, Irish pilgrims visit the Basilica to admire the famous weeping Madonna painting, donated by Bishop Walsh, from Ireland, who was given refuge there in the late seventeenth century.

Author James Michener once described Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. Is it any wonder that I feel so at home here?

First published in the Budapest Times 14 November 2014

Balls and broomsticks

When I think of Cambridge, I think of earnest young brains who are preparing themselves to lead the world in their various fields and fancies. I think of high-tech, bespectacled minds whose brain power is the stuff movies are made about. I think of rowers, racquetballers, and rugby players: fit, muscly types who have broken the three-minute mile a hundred times over. The last thing I think about is Harry Potter.

Enjoying the unseasonable warmth of a 22-degree October Saturday in Cambridge a few weeks back, I was still fixating on my visit to Harvard and bemused by the fact that Cambridge is not in Boston – it is a separate city on the other side of the Charles River. With our bank-side view of the Head of the Charles Regatta, we were wandering up towards the starting line to see just how many boats were in the water when we came across a large group of 20-somethings engaged in what looked vaguely like it could be a team sport.

IMG_5701 (800x600)About half a dozen teams were taking part, judging by the different jerseys, and they all seemed to be taking their sport very seriously indeed. There were three hoops, one large one, offset by a smaller one on either side. There were a number balls that looked a little heavier than your average soccer ball. And everyone on the pitch had a stick between their legs – like, well, like a broomstick, without the brushy part.

IMG_5695 (800x600)Yep – they were playing quidditch. Does JK Rowling realise what she’s done? Her fictional sport has been lifted from the pages of her Harry Potter books and brought to life. More than 300 mixed-gender teams in over 20 countries around the world play this Contact sport – and that’s Contact with a capital C. They had a world championship earlier this year, in Canada, with seven countries competing. The USA took the gold; Australia, the silver, and Canada, the bronze. Mexico, Belgium, the UK, and France have to wait till next time to feature.

And it has rules!

A unique mix of elements from rugby, dodgeball, and tag, teams of seven  play with brooms between their legs at all times. Each team can have a maximum of four players who identify with the same gender, excluding the seeker. Note the word ‘gender’. This is important. It is not necessarily the same as ‘sex’.

Three chasers score goals worth 10 points each with a volleyball called the quaffle. They advance the ball down the field by running with it, passing it to teammates, or kicking it. Each team has a keeper who defends the goal hoops. Two beaters use dodgeballs called bludgers to disrupt the flow of the game by “knocking out” other players. Any player hit by a bludger is out of play until they touch their own goals. Each team also has a seeker who tries to catch the snitch. The snitch is a ball attached to the waistband of the snitch runner, a neutral athlete in a yellow uniform who uses any means to avoid capture. The snitch is worth 30 points and its capture ends the game. If the score is tied after the snitch catch, the game proceeds into overtime.

One hundred metres up the river, my jaw was still hanging open as I wondered, not for the first time, at the rather sheltered life I lead. Every day, it would seem, unearths something even weirder than what went before it. Quidditch anyone?






Adding the extra to ordinary

You might pass Szentpétery Vera on the street in Gödöllő without registering her. If you didn’t know better, you might think her just another ordinary woman. But as Harvard professor Joseph Badaracco said: ‘within everyday ordinary people, if you look closely, you can find some extraordinary things’. And Szentpétery Vera is extraordinary.

A gombaszakértő (mushroom expert), she is the go-to woman in the region if you forage for mushrooms and need advice. With more than 3000 varieties of mushrooms growing locally, of which just 500 are edible, there’s a fair degree of responsibility that comes with such expertise. One wrong call could mean certain death.

IMG_5737 (600x800)

We took her our haul some weeks ago. I watched in awe as she picked up each mushroom, examined it, and then put it in one of three piles: edible, inedible, and poisonous. Inedible covers the full gamut from simply not tasting nice to inducing severe vomiting or kidney damage – eating them won’t kill you, but you might wish you were dead.

We visited again last weekend. This time I got to ask about her life.

An only child, she learned what she knows from her father. He’d been in Horthy’s airforce, and even though he’d left to marry her mother and never saw action, the association made it impossible for him to find a job in the 1950s. She told us of how, back then, a serviceman with rank was expected to marry a woman of substance. The onus was on the woman to prove that she had means. As her mother couldn’t prove what she didn’t have, their only recourse was for her father to leave the airforce. This discrimination would continue into the 1970s and apply to her as well – an ‘x’ed’ child (her name had an x beside it on the school register), a child of someone who had been judged to be an enemy of the state, she never did get a major role in a school play. To a nine-year-old, that’s cruel. To a young adult refused a place in university because of that same x, it was life-changing. To me, in 2014, it is extraordinary.

They lived quite close to the forest where mushrooms were in plentiful supply. Her father bought himself a book about mushrooms and later, in the 1970s, both of them took a year-long course in the Great Market Hall in Budapest, run by the Tudományos Ismeretterjesztő Társulat (Society for the Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge). Graduating with full marks, they were now certified to advise on mushrooms.

Up until ten years ago, each market in Hungary that sold mushrooms was obligated to have a mushroom expert on hand. What distinguishes Szentpétery Vera from a number of her peers is that she doesn’t just separate – she teaches. She talks about each mushroom as if it were a friend – she gives its name, advises on how to cook it, or recounts the pain it can induce in some individuals while leaving others unaffected. Her passion is obvious; her willingness to share her knowledge is remarkable.

She retired three years ago from her position as resident mushroom advisor and piac felügyelő (market supervisor) at the market in Gödöllő but is still sharing her passion with those who seek her advice. At the height of the season (which typically runs from late March to November, rain permitting) she might see 30 people each weekend and six or so during the week.

So what makes Szentpétery Vera extraordinary? Her daily decisions can mean the difference between an enjoyable culinary experience, writhing pain, or certain death, and yet she wears this responsibility with a quiet assuredness. She is passionate in her love of mushrooms. But above all, she cares enough to want to share this passion, and her knowledge, with others.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 October 2014

2014 Grateful 8

When your world is actually a series of interconnected smaller worlds, sometimes mixing them up doesn’t go so well. I have lots of worlds of varying sizes, populated by different people. And I usually keep them quite separate. I don’t think it’s a conscious choice. It’s not that I find it stressful, it’s just that I don’t ever think of blurring boundaries. Lately, though, I’ve been doing a lot of mixing and it’s taught me stuff about myself that I didn’t know, or didn’t admit to knowing.

IMG_8756 (588x800)Last night was a case in point. I was the only one at the table who knew everyone else there. Sitting with me were friends I’ve known for 25 years and more and others I’ve known for 12 months and fewer. Some I see quite regularly; others maybe once or twice a year. The age span between the youngest and the oldest was about 20 years. We came from three different countries and all work at very different things. And I hadn’t given any of this much thought when I was issuing invitations.

Usually, when I’m in these sorts of situations, I tend to orchestrate, to conduct the conversation, to make sure that everyone is involved and engaged. A little like a workshop. But perhaps because I’ve had more practice than usual at it lately, or maybe because I didn’t have the energy, or perhaps because I’m finally growing up a little, I gave up. Yes, I did it for a little while, but then I stopped. I figured that everyone there was adult enough to find their own way, their common denominator, and they didn’t need me to guide them.

What was interesting though, was a comment made by a more recent friend about needing ‘Mary Murphy on steroids’  for something or other. This was greeted by those who have known me for much longer by pure, unadulterated, shock. The thoughts of me on steroids was simply too much.

As I sat back and watched the conversation unfold, it dawned on me that while many people know different facets of me (and because of what I do, I know a lot of people), few have a clear picture of the whole shebang. Including me.

Just when I think I have a handle on why I do what I’m doing, I do something that makes me question what I’ve done. It’s like I’m constantly changing and the person people meet now bears little if any resemblance to the me that they might have met 25 years ago. But something at the core remains unchanged.

This week has been mad – a series of late nights and early mornings has taken its toll. But at the end of it, I’ve learned from friends, old and new, that life is about trust – trusting yourself to make the right decisions given what information you have to hand, trusting others to accept you for who you are even if they don’t fully understand, and trusting the universe to bring you all together. For this lesson, I’m truly grateful.



Give us our Sunday bread

If I had a bottle of wine for every good idea I’ve had or heard in a pub, I’d need a pretty big cellar. There is something innately Irish about setting the world to rights over a few drinks. Creativity flows, innovation is at its best, and a sense of altruism pervades. And, it would seem, that the same thing happens in Hungary, with Hungarians.

I was introduced to Máté a couple of weeks ago down on Klauzál tér, in a little pub called Kisüzem (small business). It was Sunday, about 1pm. Inside, volunteers were putting food parcels together. Outside, in the park across the road, scores of people hung around waiting for the 2pm distribution. Each Sunday, about 200 to 250 of the city’s needy ‒ some homeless, some not ‒ are fed hot, restaurant-quality food, prepared by volunteer chefs from restaurants in the area.

At the heart of Budapest’s night life, about 40 or so collection jars for the project – Heti betevő (a rather clever modification of the idea of ‘daily bread’) – can be found in bars up and down Kazinczy and in the surrounding VIIth district. All money collected buys the much-needed ingredients, and much more food is donated.

(C) Kinga Sonnevend / Heti Betevő

(C) Kinga Sonnevend / Heti Betevő

It all started last Christmas, over a few drinks. Máté and some friends were in the pub one night, talking about how much money they spent on partying and enjoying themselves while next to them others were going hungry. One of them, a chef, said that he could cook some hot dinners if others would organise distribution. Instead of being logged as a nice thought, one that would languish with all the other good ideas inspired by palinka and beer, this one took hold. Just one week later, they were in business. It took just seven days to make it happen.

They have a ticketing system. They figure out how many meals they can make up and then issue a corresponding number of tickets at noon. The food is distributed two hours later. The group self-organises. There’s no trouble, no pushing and shoving, no getting out of line. For many, their lives have an institutional feel – they’re used to obeying rules, queuing up, waiting. Each person in line had a story. Their journey to Klauzál tér wasn’t one they chose. Life and circumstances dictated. A mother with seven children, two with Down’s syndrome. An elderly couple finding it difficult to survive on their meagre pensions. A youngish man with a vacant stare that looked into another world. A quiet dignity pervaded.

Volunteers serve those in need and some of the volunteers are also on the receiving side. That ownership is important for everyone. What is also important is that the food is good – high quality. We’re not talking leftovers and stuff that has reached its sell-by date; we’re talking restaurant-quality meals prepared with the freshest of ingredients by the finest of chefs. About 30 volunteers have been involved from the start. Another hundred or so drop by every now and then to help out. I saw some faces I might have recognised had I been more up on who’s who in this town. It was good to see those with plenty taking time to help those with not nearly enough. It was heartening to see that people are engaged, that people care.

There are other such initiatives in town. The Budapest Bike Maffia distributes foods on wheels. Food not Bombs distributes food on Saturdays over on Boráros tér in the IXth district. They all cooperate on fundraising activities and learn from each other’s experiences. If other districts need the same, the lads at Heti betevő are happy to help replicate. Their system works. To donate, check their FB page http://bit.ly/perselyek

First published in the Budapest Times 7 November 2014

Brains, butts, and boats

People wonder why so many smart people come out of Harvard. It’s not rocket science, says Edward de Bono, it’s because so many smart people go in! Duh. I have a thing for old and famous universities, one I’d perhaps never admit to in public. I’m strangely cowed by alpha-intellect and have been known to sit quietly over lunch with PhD’d acquaintances, too uncertain to open my mouth and contribute anything to the conversation, all the while wishing silently that they might start to talk about something normal, like the state of democracy in Hungary or Coronation Street. I don’t know why this is. I’m far from stupid and yet when I hear the words ‘he went to Yale’ or ‘she went to Harvard’, I seem to lose the power of speech or anything that approaches intelligent conversation.

IMG_5589 (800x600)IMG_5601 (597x800)I’d been to Harvard before – many years ago  – when I was in Cambridge for some meeting or other and I was duly impressed. I went again a few weeks ago and decided that I could spend an entire day, all 24 hours of it, in the Harvard bookstore. I was in heaven. I had forgotten that the campus is accessed by a number of gates, each one bearing the load of someone else’s wisdom. We found the gate that said: ENTER NOW TO GROW IN WISDOM.  We did and I, for one, am none the wiser – perhaps you have to enter repeatedly, unlike Johnston Gate which is closed most of the year. And for good reason – the Crimsons are a superstitious lot apparently because they believe that students should only pass through it twice – when they first arrive as Freshmen and when they graduate. Any other time and it’s bad luck. If it were down to being superstitious, I’d definitely be accepted.

And then there are tIMG_5599 (2572x1918)he lectures and the talks, each designed to make you think. Had I the money to do it all without the weighty responsibility of student loans, I might consider it, presupposing of course that they’d have me anyway. But IMG_5607 (2592x1944)something has been lost in the years since I was first there. The romantic notions I have of shaping the world over a few beers in a smokey student bar, when idealism  hasn’t yet turn to cynicism and hope is still winning its eternal fight with reality, are gone. Today, Harvard is a tobacco-free zone. Now, I’m not for a minute saying that all intelligent people smoke cigarettes or whacky baccy – but there is a certain O’Toolish charm about the gangly, corduroyed, loafered collegiate that I find particularly endearing (and yes, I know I’m nouning (?) that adjective; I mentioned that I wasn’t stupid, didn’t I 🙂 ).

IMG_5603 (2592x1944)When the great fathers decided that they could no longer leave the country’s future in the hands of the churches and founded the University back in the 1600s, I wonder if they could have envisaged the PRIMAL SCREAM that would be a mainstay of student life in the twenty-first century.

At the end of every semester, as the clock strikes midnight on the first day of finals, Harvard students strip down to their birthday suits and run laps around Harvard Yard, screaming as loud as they can to relieve that pre-exam tension.

The mind boggles. But hey, whatever floats your boat.

IMG_5635 (2592x1944)And speaking of boats, our weekend in Boston coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles Regatta. The world’s largest annual two-day regatta, it attracts about 11 000 competitors and 400 000 spectators. It was impressive to see the seniors in action – amazingly fit people who were within an oar’s ripple of inspiring me to do more exercise. I’ve always quite fancied rowing and once tried it in the gym. Mind you, the only way I could keep the rhythm was to incant the Hare Krishna chant and then pull in time. I wonder how that would look on my application form…

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Tea parties and hookers

I’ve been to Boston a few times but I must have spent most of that time hanging out in pubs as I have little recollection of doing anything touristy. One of my oldest mates, one of those who knows me inside and out, and accepts me and my myriad foibles and still loves me anyway has lived there for years and it’s where I gravitate to when I’m in need of a massive hug – he’s a massive guy.

IMG_5556 (600x800)Perhaps because I had the lovely GZs  with me, he felt the need to point out the touristy things we could do – and so we took ourselves off to the Boston Tea Party living history museum. I love amateur dramatics. I love a bit of acting. And when that acting is combined with historical fact, I’m in heaven.

We got the full story in just under two hours and, had we so desired, we could have thrown some tea into the harbour. My history is nearly as bad as my geography so I learned a lot – and felt the stirring of what could only be called pride in the sisters when I heard of the part women played in the shenanigans. IMG_5559 (800x225)Typically the ones who decided what was bought for the house and from whom, the women of the day made their presence felt through their purse strings. Impressive. It was the birth of the ‘no taxation without representation’ movement and its legacy is still felt today. The mystery that has surrounded Paul Revere and his midnight ride was unveiled and for a while I was back in the 1700s, living it all.

IMG_5574 (800x598)IMG_5573 (800x600)We were staying in the North End (where Mr Revere was born), where the price of a one-bedroom flat brought me out in a cold sweat. To have to pay $3000  a month in rent, what would I have to earn? We took a drive up Beacon Hill and saw the secret service agents outside John Carey’s house. The golden dome of the State Capitol was curious but not nearly as curious as the sign on the gate for the general hooker entrance. This made the case for my min-cap theory (use as few initial caps as possible) – had it read General Hooker entrance, I might have cottoned on to the fact that General Hooker was a person and not a classification of ladies of the night. And Joseph Hooker was indeed a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

The queues at the local Starbucks on Sunday were out the door – $50, $60 spent on coffees and croissants. Not a bad life, if you can afford it. And yes, I ignored my self-imposed boycott of the chain because I so desperately wanted a decent cup of coffee. Who’d have though such a thing was so hard to find in North America?

IMG_5513 (800x556)IMG_5518 (800x600)IMG_5526 (800x600)The Boston skyline is compact. The financial district is walkable, as is the city itself. The Big Dig, so prominent the last few times I’ve been there, had finally been dug and the parks that came in its wake are beautiful. The city is made for walking. The harbour is lovely with its restaurants peopled with style icons that for me are so American. It was like being in a sitcom. I’ve slept in beds that are older than the city and yet had to admire how it preserves its youthful age and simply builds around it.

We passed St Stephen’s, the last remaining church in Boston built by Charles Bulfinch. I’ve made a note that I need to go back when it’s open. We passed underneath the archway of the Boston Harbour Hotel and wondered fleetingly how much damage a night there would do to our wallets. I would love, just for a week, to have so much money that such things didn’t bother me. I would love, just for a week, to see what life might be like for those who call it their home. And yes, people do live in that hotel. Amazing.

I had forgotten how much I like the city, and yet I wonder how much of my liking of it has to do with the fact that it’s where MR calls home. Were I to live in America again, I could think of worse places to live. Mind you, I’d only be able to afford a shoebox.