When the light's on and nobody's home…

IMG_5203 (800x600)Put a bunch of Irish, American Loyalists, and Scottish Highlanders on an island and a couple of centuries later, you can have your own Heritage Village celebrating the fact that they all got on so well and lived and prospered. Who’d have thought it? Orwell Corner on PEI (Prince Edward Island) was closed for the season (nothing new there) but we shamelessly drove in anyway and had a look around. It’s all quite nicely done and had it been open, we might even have been tempted to pay to have a proper look-see. As it was, we were grateful that there was something to see at all.

We got a tad excited at the thoughts of visiting a Belfast that didn’t have black cabs and murals on the wall, but when we drove through it (twice) without realising, we reined in our expectations. PEI certainly isn’t Nova Scotia. That said, its capital Charlottetown, a city that bills itself as a walkable one, is rather sweet. We slept well, ate well, and managed to see something of the place before moving more north in search of Anne Shirley and the lovely Gilbert Blythe.

IMG_5206 (800x600)While in Charlottetown, I went to see a memorial exhibition for Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. I had a long chat with Sargent P, a short, stocky man with military bearing whose punctuated speech sounded remarkably like a machine gun in semi-auto mode. He’d been home on leave on Easter Sunday 2007 when he saw on the news that six of his mates had been blown up. He’d wanted to stay in Canada to meet their bodies and pay his respects but he had to go back. They crossed in the air. Seven years later, he was still remembering. I asked him why he’d signed up. Why the military? He said that he didn’t have what it took to be a policeman, but he had two kids. I didn’t get the connection and said as much. I got that look – one I’ve had many times before – the one that says if you don’t have kids, you won’t understand. Quite simply, he wanted his kids to be proud of him. I was struck by the honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth simplicity of his thought. Why do we make life so complicated for ourselves?

IMG_5209 (800x600)There were 190 plaques for 201 dead. And there was a bowl of poppies. Visitors could stick the poppy pins next to those they knew or would like to have known. I got a little carried away as some had so many, and others so few. The exhibition is touring Canada and has to have an impact. I was moved. Very moved. It was staged in the Confederation Center of the Arts, built to commemorate  the Canadian Confederacy. Back in 1964, every single Canadian donated 30 cents to build it – let’s think of that the next time we say we’re powerless to effect change or that tiny random acts of kindness are not worth the effort. It was built to mark the centenary of the 1 September 1864 meeting convened in Charlottetown that would lead to the Dominion of Canada coming into being in 1867. Perhaps particularly poignant, given the juxtaposing of birth and death in the city for me that day, was a large blackboard across the street enticing people to write about what they wanted to do before they died. It got me thinking.

IMG_5225 (800x600)IMG_5229 (800x600)IMG_5231 (800x600)IMG_5242 (800x600)With little to choose from in the line of what was open to be seen, we headed up towards New London, the birthplace of L.M. Montgomery, creator of the much-loved Anne of Green Gables. While PEI doesn’t have much in the way of trees and leaves and such it does have a lot of red clay and water. Spoiled for choice at which half-shut village we should stop at, we chose North Rustico because of the lobster pots and fishing boats. From there we finally got to Green Gables itself where we walked around and through the house that inspired the book. We took a few steps into the famous haunted woods and had a peak at Lovers Lane, bumping into many of our fellow ferry passengers from the day before. Did I mention that PEI is Canada’s smallest province with a population of about 140 000 in total … when everyone is home… and that it closes once the season is over.

IMG_5249 (800x600)IMG_5251 (800x600)Anyway, back to Maud herself. Although she moved away when she got married, she was brought back to PEI, the setting for 22 of her 23 books, when she died. The local cemetery makes no bones about claiming her for its own and were I buried there, I might be a tad peeved that  I didn’t get equal post-mortem billing. But then I saw her tombstone and mentally congratulated whoever had the idea of emblazoning her name over the entrance. Although internationally acclaimed as an author and loved by millions, the sole achievement mentioned on her headstone is that she was some man’s wife (a man, who apparently, suffered from what was then known as ‘ religious melancholia’,  said to be the rapturous transports of prophecy and inspiration experienced by hermit saints and prophets). I ask you! And she died first but gets second billing. Honestly.

It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin a veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.

IMG_5252 (800x600)Th town of Green Gables itself was closed – mercifully. It’s morphed into a theme town built around a book. It must be horrendous in the summer – oops – in the season – with its fast-food joints, ice-cream parlours, and crazy golf. Just up the road in New London, stands another house – the one in which Maud was born, but we didn’t venture in. We had a bridge to cross and an appointment with New Brunswick. The journey to the south of the island was slightly more colourful;  it was lovely – in places – really lovely.

IMG_5253 (800x600)But after Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, PEI just didn’t do it for me. It seemed like its get-up-and-go and got up and gone. Yes, it had its moments. And yes, I’m glad I visited. And yes, it was nice to pay my respects to Maud, but no – I’d not be in a hurry back – except perhaps to cross the Confederation Bridge again – now there’s a piece of engineering. At 8 miles (12.9 km), it’s the longest in the world crossing ice-covered water. It doesn’t even make the list of the top 15 longest bridges (much to my surprise… but then, my world trivia is nearly as bad as my geography….).  In operation since 1997, it caused some degree of uproar when the idea of a fixed, year-round link to New Brunswick was mooted. When it went to the polls, just under 60% of the islanders voted in favour and there ya have it. You can take the ferry over to the island (as we did) and ferry back, or take the bridge. Whichever way you do it, you pay CAD45 when you leave – that would certainly add to the expense of a daily commute.

IMG_5260 (800x600)Margaret, you were right. PEI does close for the season. But to be honest, dear, as we were already en route, ’twas a little late to be telling us.  Were I to go back, I’d be sure to get tickets to the Anne of Green Gables musical in Charlottetown. I’d definitely have scallops wrapped in bacon at the Gahan House again. And this time I’d try to get a tour of a few lighthouses. That’s now what I want to be when I grow up – a lighthouse keeper.

IMG_5175 (800x600)



Closed for the season

Time is a wonderfully malleable thing. We think that have just 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute – and while we do, how we use that time can make it stretch interminably or just fly by. Nova Scotians manage to stretch time beyond endurance. They never seem to be in a hurry and yet find a multitude of ways to cut corners, reallocating time they might spend (read: waste) doing one thing to doing another.

IMG_5088 (800x600)The drive to Baddeck could have been done by road, but we were reliably informed that by driving 7 km out of our way (anti-intuitively), we could catch a ferry that would take 25 minutes off our total trip. So we did. And it worked. We  didn’t even have to brake before rolling onto the ferry – perfect timing – and barely had time to cut the engine before it was time to roll off again.

IMG_5098 (800x600)Baddeck is a lovely little town on the edge of the Bras d’Or lake (try as I might, my tongue refuses to budge from a Brass Door pronunciation). Known by the Mi’kmaq Indians as Petoo’bok – a long dish of salt water, the French preferred the more arty Bras d’Or – arm of gold. At first we thought it was as series of lakes but no – apparently it’s Canada’s largest inland sea – of sorts. It’s both saltwater and freshwater (as in both species live in it) with five rivers and two ocean channels feeding into it. UNESCO has named it a biosphere reserve (a new one on me – apparently a place where people live in harmony with nature; I have to wonder whether it was the people or the nature that won the appellation).

IMG_5099 (800x600) (2)IMG_5096 (600x800)Apart from being known for its yacht club and the start and finish of the Cabot Trail, Baddeck was also the summer home of Alexander Graham Bell – and it makes the most of it. We resisted the urge to visit the interactive Bell museum, and instead spent the time debating whether he or Marconi could lawfully claim the telephone as their own. But we debated over coffee in full view of the lighthouse with the sun reflecting on the water – as good a place as any to have a friendly bargy in the early hours of  Thursday morning.

We were heading to Prince Edward Island via Pictou, the birthplace of Nova Scotia. On a search for a particular type of jam (an unsolicited bring-back) I asked in one shop and came up empty. But the woman of the house directed us to the waterfront, telling us to take a left by the boat. mmm… a harbour with one boat? If only I’d studied my North American history…

IMG_5131 (800x600)IMG_5122 (800x600)It was here, in Pictou, back in 1773 that 200 Highland Scots disembarked from the good ship Hector and went about making the town their home. So successful were they that others followed in their wake and pretty soon this wave of migration gave rise to the birth of New Scotland. A replica of the ship is docked in the harbour today and it’s generally assumed that if you visit Pictou, that’s why you’re here. But, needless to say, if you visit in October, the museum and the heritage site will have closed for the season – like most of the town.

IMG_5130 (800x600)Perhaps it was the Scots that set the tone for firsts in this town – they’re not exactly short on temerity – but it was here, too, that Canada’s first and only black battalion was born. The boys fought in WWI, forming their own segregated unit when they’d been turned away time and time again from recruitment centres. Although based in Pictou, they included men from Ontario, too, and the  Honorable Captain William Andrew White – the only Black Commissioned Officer in the British Army in WWI. Not bad for a small town.
IMG_5123 (600x800)While the Pictou Academy was the first school in Nova Scotia that any student could attend, regardless of their religion, men were also put in the pillory for three hours for kissing their wives on a Sunday. One has to wonder at religion and its motives. The old post office is apparently the only building in the world (the world, imagine) with a window in its chimney. And before it got the name it has today, the town was at various stages known as Coleraine, Alexandria, Donegal, Teignmouth, Southhampton, Wamsley, New Edinburgh and New Paisley. That in itself tells a story.
IMG_5140 (800x600)What I liked best about it though was the display of black-and-white photos on the walls of a side street detailing its history. From these, like the one above, where a bunch of lads with nothing better to do bought a bag of hats and decorated them with lilac, it’s clear that Pictou is a community in the truest sense – one that hasn’t time for pretentiousness as it’s too busy being itself. That said, I think I’d go stir crazy had I to live there. Lovely to visit, but…
IMG_5146 (800x600) (2)From there we headed to Caribou to catch the ferry to P.E.I. (aka Prince Edward Island, home of the spuds) at Wood Island. It was time to leave Nova Scotia and venture into Canada’s smallest province. As we sailed out of the harbour, the gulls lined up to watch. An amazing send-off, almost like a guard of honour, that did Cape Breton proud. The journey would take 90 minutes and although parked in line for nearly 45 minutes before departure, we were one of the last to board. Of course, we’d forgotten it was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and the world and her mother were either going home or going to PEI for the long weekend.

I popped by the Ferry’s information desk and asked for a map of the island – just to be prepared. The ever-s0-helpful Margaret asked me where I wanted to go on P.E.I. I said I wanted to see Pugwash. ‘Oh dear’, says she, ‘that’s in Nova Scotia’. Okay, I thought, once again cursing my geography (or the lack thereof), what about Green Gables? She thought for a while before dropping the bombshell – ‘It’s not a great time to visit, dear, as the whole place practically closes after the season. Best stick to Charlottetown – it’s sure to still have some places open.’ With a vague stirring of disquiet, I went out to the viewing deck and shared the good news. Still, at least the world that was passing us by was worth looking at. IMG_5150








Thin bloodlines and lone stars

You sure you know where you’re going? he asked.
Absolutely – Meat Cove – most northerly point in Nova Scotia. It’s at the end of this road, isn’t it?
Sure is. But are you sure you want to go there? he persisted.

I met Eric on the Cabot Trail, about 11 km from Meat Cove. He drives a gravel truck. We were stopped by a flagger on a road under construction and we got chatting. As you do. He told me that bloodlines were very thin in Meat Cove. And that the cops dared not venture in. Shoot-outs weren’t unusual and, as Chuck (another trucker) would tell me later, the foundations we would see were not new houses waiting to be built, but old houses that had been burned out ‘cuz the locals didn’t like ’em. 

IMG_4993 (800x600)IMG_4995 (800x600)We were on the Cabot Trail. We’d left Margoree Harbour that morning and had driven into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. It was like driving through a Monet exhibition, had the great man ever painted autumn. As the day progressed, we wended our way in and out of the park, stopping here, there, and yonder, with little aim other than to reach Ingonish by six-ish  or seven or whenever.

We ran into Chéticamp, famous for its hookers – and no, I don’t mean boats or prostitutes, I mean rug hookers…people who use hooks like crochet hooks to make rugs. The things ya learn on the road. We sailed past Pleasant Bay and declined all offers that guaranteed us a whale sighting – it was if we’d been divinely inspired and knew what awaited us at Meat Cove.

IMG_5030 (800x600)IMG_5032 (800x600)We stopped at Cape North where the North Highlands Community Museum was closed (qu’elle surprise) but the local cemetery was open – and full of McLeods. The Settlers Garden represents, in miniature, the natural and cultivated world of the early European settlers who made their homes in the North Highlands of Cape Breton. I tell you, these lads have it sussed – simplicity all the way and ten times as effective and emotive than the grandest of displays.

IMG_5044 (800x600)From there we took the road to Meat Cove, as advised by Gordon, our host the night before. Some miles in, we hit construction, where I met Eric. Some might well have been put off and turned around … but I’d never seen a thin bloodline or witnessed a shoot-out with shots being fired and I was curious. When we finally got to the end of the road, it was beautiful – yes. There was a humpback whale playing in the water, and he a shameless exhibitionist at that. Magnificent. There were two restaurants – one of which was closed and the second didn’t have enough veg in the kitchen to make a salad. Enough said.

Waiting for the flagger to take us back up the trail, I got chatting to Chuck. He’d been part of a work crew there to lay gravel for 12 days and he couldn’t wait to get home. He was a big man. A tough man. And he was casting furtive glances over a massive shoulder and speaking in whispers. We didn’t hang around. Before we left though, I did ask one of the four locals I saw (there are nine families in total….) why it was called Meat Cove.  Back when, I don’t know the date, sailors used to drive by and see caribou. They’d get out and hunt and so it came known as meat cove. Enough said (I said that already, didn’t I?). Still, I got to chat with Chuck and Eric and have breaded clams from Dingwall, enjoy the thought of a salad, and see a whale relatively up close and in mammal. Not bad for a Thursday afternoon in the boonies. IMG_5054 (800x600)With the petrol light blinking a violent orange and three successive gas stations closed, we were happy to ride on vapours into Neal’s Harbour and find a gas station open. The map had conveniently pointed out the gas stations, but hadn’t said when they were open or closed. This part of the world is getting ready for the last hurray of the year – the Celtic Colours Festival – after which the place shuts up and half the occupants snow-bird it to Florida – the other half have already left 🙂

IMG_5047 (800x600)We thought we were staying in Ingonish but we were actually 45 minutes further up the road, closer to Baddeck. Prompted by some sixth sense (in honesty, more to do with the number of ‘closed for the season’ signs we were seeing), we dropped by the one liquor store we’d seen in two days. These Bluenoses are a clean living people – they don’t smoke, don’t seem to drink, and always obey the speed limit, even when there isn’t a cop within a hundred-mile radius. The place is pristine clean with not a rubbish bin in sight so they don’t litter either. Did I use the word ‘surreal’ already?

IMG_5068 (800x600)IMG_5070 (600x800)We passed plenty of churches of all denominations, shapes, and sizes. I wonder how so many of them make do with so few people – but they seem to work and what’s more, they’re open. Regular readers will be familiar with my rants about closed churches in Europe and how difficult it is to find one open and with candles. It was a pleasant surprise to see a sign, no less, saying that St Peter’s was open for prayer (without the candles though). Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what part of the road it was on but I think it safe to say it was the Baddeck side of Ingonish because we were still praying we’d find the Sea Parrot Inn before dark.

IMG_5066 (800x600) Mind you, stopping as we did every ten minutes or so to marvel and something that was just as gorgeous as what had gone before, it was a wonder we got there at all. There are no words to describe the beauty of it all. A thousand adjectives couldn’t do it justice. Billed as the most spectacular drive in the world, the Cabot Trail, in the autumn, has to be as close as you get to perfection on this earth. I would challenge the staunchest atheist not to wonder if there is a God because it is difficult to ascribe this sort of beauty to anything other than miracle. IMG_5061 (800x600)We made it to the Sea Parrot by six, with time enough to catch the ONE restaurant – The Clucking Hen – open for miles before it shut at seven. We got a take-out and coated up, braving the cool evening to dine al fresco and watch the sun go down over the Atlantic from the deck of our top-floor room. We had the place to ourselves. And it was lovely. It’s been a while since I’ve sat looking out over the ocean with a glass of good wine (who’d have thought there were vineyards in Nova Scotia? I’m a convert…), in good company, with nothing to see for miles but a few lights on the horizon and one lone star in the night sky. An old childhood rhyme came to mind:

Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight
I wish it may, I wish it might, this wish I make come true alright

Here’s hoping…

IMG_5076 (800x600) (2)




2014 Grateful 12

IMG_3375 (600x800)Each year, for the last four years, Ronnie Thompson would come to Budapest in March. The Londoner visited at other times, too, but it was his March visits that I best remember. Ronnie wouldn’t have won any prizes for being the tallest chap in the room, but he made up for it by being larger than life itself when he headed up the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the city. Ronnie was our mascot – our leprechaun – our piece of magic that made the day special.

When Mark Downey first ran into him one night in a bar and proposed the idea, Ronnie told him to feck off. If you’ve met Ronnie, you’ll know how funny this was. He thought Mark was joking, taking the mick. But he was serious. And finally convinced that it was all for real, when Ronnie donned his green and gold, he was serious, too. Seriously funny.

Ronnie (602x800) (2)His humour could draw blood from the most insipid of turnips, make a crying child laugh through their tears, and put a smile on the grumpiest of faces. You couldn’t help but laugh at his antics. I remember the first year, when he and St Patrick (aka Patrick Davitt) led the fledgling parade through the streets of Budapest, the city didn’t quite know what was happening. There were times when Ronnie appeared to be walking on air – he loved it. The celebrity hairdresser from the East End (a Brit I ask you!) leading the St Patrick’s Day parade in Hungary … how far he had come. And along that starry path I heard mention of Dragon’s Den and a chair made of hair. He was a certainly a man with stories.

Last weekend, RonIMG_1366 (464x800)nie died. Suddenly. His tea was still warm when he was found. I don’t know what happened but judging from the shock of it all, it wasn’t expected. I didn’t know him well. But what I knew of him I liked. He was a breath of fresh air, a man who loved life with a passion. His enthusiasm was infectious. Our parade will be all the greyer for his passing.

But no – wait a minute. He wouldn’t have wanted that… he’d have expected us to party on and celebrate. And we will, Ronnie, we will, and we’ll certainly raise a glass or three in your memory.

Le mile buíochas, Ronnie. I am truly grateful that I had the chance to march a few streets with you.



Remind me where I am again

In a world of constant change, it’s almost gratifying to know that my abysmal sense of geography is still matched by my equally pathetic knowledge of history. It’s always been the case, despite getting an honour in both in my Leaving Cert. Driving north from Halifax up to Cape Breton had me questioning both.

IMG_4952 (800x600)I knew we were heading north-ish – I could see as much on the map. But I wasn’t prepared for the Scottishness of it all. Duh. Nova Scotia – New Scotland, Canada’s second-smallest province. So why then was the chap on the radio speaking French while the signs showing names of rivers, mountains, lakes, and towns had a peculiar Gaelic translation? And what was with the fall colours – that wasn’t supposed to happen until we hit New England!

People from this province are known as Bluenosers and not, as I thought, because it can get cold in winter – I honestly believed that to be true) but because of a ship – a fishing and racing schooner built in 1921. Store that one up for your next pub quiz. And they’re incredibly friendly. Talkative enough to be Irish and inquisitive enough to want to know what you had for breakfast, they’re not at all backward about coming forward. The banter is great. My mother would be quite at home and I was feeling like I’d lived here before myself.

IMG_4955 (800x600)IMG_4956 (800x600) (2)I’ve seen some horrendous house colours in my day and the colour combinations here border on being Csontváry Kosztka Tivadar like (which works on canvas rather well, but not on walls). We passed one café painted in mauve, lilac, and yellow but was a good mile beyond it before I recovered from the shock. Trust me. You didn’t want to see it anyway. But in the tiny towns that mark the route, once you get off the main drag, some of the houses are really gorgeous, even if they’re in the middle of nowhere. The one thing they all have in common is a spectacular view, particularly the more north you go. It is gobsmackingly gorgeous.

We saw towns like New Glasgow and Inverness. And others like Antigonish (remember the poem?) and Tatamagouche (Mi’kmaq Indian names). We saw signs for Gaelic lessons, ceilidhs, and tin whistles. We saw names like New Dublin Road, Money Point, and Grafton Street. And the country music station had songs in French. I was finding it difficult to remember where I was, particularly when we happened across a distillery.

IMG_4983 (800x600)We got there too late for a tour and at about $120 (€85, US$108) a bottle for the single malt, perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t get to taste it. Had we to do it again, we might well cough up for a bed in the inn itself and then sit and sample to our hearts content. Mind you, I’m not sure they’d appreciate me diluting mine with ginger ale. The Glenora is North America’s first single-malt distillery and has been distilling since 1990 and throwing ceilidhs every afternoon and evening, too. Still, it all adds to the New Scottishness of the place.

IMG_4971 (2)There’s a oldie worldy feel to the region, particularly when you cross the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton, travelling on the Trans-Canadian Highway. Built back in 1955, the causeway is something to behold. Linking Cape Breton to the mainland, it’s quite a testament to man’s building prowess. But as you cross it, and miss the turn you need, make an illegal left, and realise that in two days you’d hadn’t seen anything resembling a police car or a Mountie, you pass into another world. A more mystical one, more sublime. One of colour, romance, and … peace.

About 350 km after breakfast, we arrived at Margaree Harbour and the Duck Cove Inn just in time for dinner. Welcomed by name (cue theme music from Cheers!), I was more than compensated for the fact that there was no bar and we had 30 minutes before the kitchen shut (it was just 7pm – things close early in this part of the world). Everything here works to its own time and once you accept the fact that no one is in a hurry to do anything and multi-tasking isn’t on the menu, then it’s lovely – truly lovely.

Gordon, the owner/receptionist promised that next time I came, he’d rally all the Murphys in the area and we’d have a hooley. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one in the vicinity that night.

IMG_4973 (2) (800x401)





Moving cities???

If I were in the mood to relocate, or was even contemplating a life outside of Budapest, I may well have found my city. In the past few years, when I travel, I have found myself looking at a city’s livability… would I move there? I first noticed it in Riga (possibly) and Geneva (no). Perhaps it’s a testament to how much I love living in Budapest that nowhere has gotten an affirmative thumbs up. Until now. Until Halifax.

I know little of the city – we landed downtown at the hotel about 7 pm and left the following day around 1pm. Not a huge amount of time on which to base a potentially life-changing decision, admittedly, but I’ve made life-changing decisions overnight before and have no regrets. I’m all for that ’empty-handed leap into the void’, for it is often in that void that true potential is realised.

20141007_203908_resizedIt’s the capital of Nova Scotia, Canada, is closer to Dublin than it is to Vancouver BC, and has a population of just over 400 000. It has to be one of the friendliest places I’ve been to. Everyone, from Hilary, the receptionist at the Four Points Sheraton, to Victoria, our waitress at the Old Triangle, to Emily at the airport’s Alamo car-rental desk who dealt so professionally with my mini, bordering-on-tears rant at the Internet company who blatantly lied about the size of a compact boot, to the lovely pilot who so helpfully directed us to the black phone when we sauntered through customs without picking up our luggage – oh, wait, no. That was Montreal. Perhaps all Canadians are friendly and helpful and nice. Or is that too dangerous an extrapolation? Of course, it could also have something to do with the fact that it has more pubs per capita than any other city in Canada. [But back to the Old Triangle for a minute – it was hopping on a Tuesday night, with great food, and a clientele that was on the right side of 37. Given a few more days, I reckon the lovely Ms G and myself could have wreaked some havoc. Mind you, we’d need seed money; the city isn’t cheap and the wine (how knew NS produced wine?) though excellent, is a tad expensive.]

IMG_4898 (800x600)IMG_4899 (800x600)The Citadel is the main attraction (the most visited historic site in the country apparently) with museums detailing Canada’s military history, something I’d never given much thought to. But they seem
to have been everywhere of any importance and places, too, that I’d never heard of. The death of 24 Canadians on 9/11 at the Twin Towers took them to Afghanistan. And I’m still trying to figure out what went on in 1812. It reminded me a lot of KomIMG_4888 (2) (800x600)árom – except for it is round and this was star-shaped; and it is much bigger; and it has an indoor railroad. Apart from that though, they’re quite similar. This is the fourth (I think) to be built in Halifax and interestingly, though build to defend the city, it has never seen battle. It took all of 26 years to complete (compared to the six envisaged) and today provides employment for some keen young people who don’t mind having their photos taken by a regiment of random strangers. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse – but every crumb to its cookie. You can actually enlist to be a ‘soldier’ for a day and get your own uniform. As I said – cooks and crumbs.

IMG_4913 (800x600)IMG_4910 (800x600)Just below the Citadel is the famous clock tower, supposedly commissioned by Prince Edward back in 1803 to help cure the garrison of its lack of punctuality. It’s been keeping time ever since. Trivia question: did you ever notice that most clocks with Roman numerals use IIII for four and not IV? I certainly hadn’t… but apparently that’s the case. What struck me though was when viewed face on, it looks rather sweet. And when viewed from the citadel itself, it seems to be struggling a little to hold its own.  Perhaps I was letting my imagination run away with me and empathising a little too much with something that seemed a tad out of sync with the world around it.

IMG_4930 (2)IMG_4924 (800x600)The waterfront is slightly twee but still lovely. It’s off-season and what few tourists were around far outnumbered the shops and restaurants that were actually open. It would seem that during the week there’s not a lot going on in city but yet it has a wonderfully warm feel to it. There seems to be unlimited potential bubbling away just waiting to be discovered. It’s avidly anti-smoking, with smoking banned even on outside terraces. I think I saw three people smoking in the whole time we were there. But back to the waterfont, and Pier 21, where more than one million immigrants disembarked for a new life in Canada. It has the oldest continuously operating farmers market in North America, and a host of maritime exhibitions involving boats from WWII, schooners, and all sorts. I can only imagine how thronged it gets in the summer months – and I can well imagine being a regular down there for a morning coffee.

IMG_4949 (800x600)IMG_4945 (600x800)Next up was the cemetery – the one where 150 of those who died on the Titanic are buried. Surprisingly, I had to ask five people before one could tell me where it was, and he had to Google it. What was interesting is that many were buried and then later identified, their names added to their tombstones after the fact. And many more are still known by  their numbers rather than their names. I find that incredibly sad. How ever anonymous we might be in life, we should at least be named at our death.

I was struck, too, by the marker of a man from Clones, in Ireland. Of course there were plenty of Irish aboard, but what got me thinking was the idea of a priest (or vicar, as it’s a rectory) being on duty – and ergo, off duty. I’d somehow thought of religious life as a 24/7 calling rather than a profession.

IMG_4936 (800x600)IMG_4933 (800x600)We did get a little lost on our search for Fairview Cemetery. But that is only to be expected when I’m driving. The silver lining was that we got to see local neighbourhoods with their colourful wooden houses (does this style have an architectural label?). One in particular caught my eye, or rather the inscription beneath its window. Perhaps because it embodied what for me has become something I’ll forever associate with the city – its honesty and its openness.

While I don’t think Budapest is in any danger of getting rid of me anytime soon, it’s good to know that there is somewhere I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of years. Definitely worth a visit.






How to marry a farmer

I’m told that the best place to find a farmer husband in Ireland is at the National Ploughing Championships, a three-day mid-week event that this year attracted more than 279 000 people. Not that I’m looking or anything… but it’s been on my bucket list now for a number of years – the Ploughing, that is, not the farmer. Mind you, I could well be tempted. Some of those lads had to be in search of a wife themselves, but it’s hard to compete with the latest Massy Feguson. Most of the punters were there to see  the 460 or so stands displaying everything from supermarket food to combine harvesters. Apparently only 10% (myself included) actually go look at the ploughing itself.

IMG_4758 (800x400)IMG_4754 (800x600)You could eat your way around the Aldi and Lidl stands (the sausages were in the great demand) or enter competition after competition to try to win a year’s supply of fertiliser or heating fuel. There were fashion shows (wellies are all the rage this year) both for people and animals, and displays of all sorts that made sure everyone was catered for. Had I been in practice, I’d have signed up for the Welly-Throwing Competition. As it was I had to tear myself away from the sheepdog trials. Just about anything passes for entertainment and it’s the simple stuff that’s the most amusing.

IMG_4795 (800x600)On the radio during the week in the lead-up to the big event, Lorna Sixsmith  was being interviewed (she’s written a book called Would you marry a farmer?). And she was at the Ploughing  – am raging I missed her stickers:


I dated a farIMG_4747 (800x600)mer once. And while we were stepping out, I read the Farmers Independent on a Friday with a religiosity that bordered on fervour. I knew all there was to know about artificial insemination, silage, and calving. I could IMG_4748 (800x600)find my way around a milking parlour and even managed to milk a cow or two by hand. That skill is still with me. It’s like riding a bike – you never forget. I was as familiar with cattle prices then as I am with the forint/euro exchange rates today. And I knew enough to know that you have to get the lingo right – drawing cattle means moving them, not painting them. Leave the easel and the oil paints at home. Thank you, Lorna. And as for the abbreviations and the acroynms? You’d need a degree to figure out what they’re talking about.

IMG_4837 (800x600)IMG_4757 (600x800)But back then, farming was farming. Today it seems to have gone all technical. Do you know that cows have showers now? Custom-made jobs, too. And these calving cameras had me going for a while. It’s all high tech stuff and I suppose it has to be really – there’s no reason in the world why modern technology should have passed the farmers by. And, believe it or not, there’s a UK-based Internet dating site specially for them  – Muddy Matches. ‘Tis a far cry from the days of John B. Keane’s John Bosco in  The Chastitute. Bachelor farmers these days apparently think more about the land they stand to lose should a marriage not work out than all they stand to gain if it does.

I hadn’t given much thought to what sort of farmer I’d be into, were I in the market for one. But apparently tillage farmers, according to Lorna, actually have down time and there might be some chance of a holiday once a year. The dairy ones are early risers and are at it year ’round. And as for the breeders… am not sure I could compete with a prize heifer. I have a thing for undivided attention and sharing it with a beast who is regularly titivated might be too much for me. Mind you, there’s always Seamus.

IMG_4797 (800x600)


2014 Grateful 13

I got on the scales this morning and read the digital numbers wscales1ith a contentment  I don’t normally associate with mornings. Over the course of the last few months I have dropped more than the official checked-baggage allowance on RyanAir. I am 16 kg lighter than I was (that’s about 35 lbs or 2.5 stone) and for the life of me I cannot figure out how I could have carried all that extra weight and not known it.

Yes, yes, of course I knew it – but I didn’t really get it. While some part of my intelligent self knew that my heart would thank me if I lost some poundage, as would my back and my knees, I’ve never had the motivation to do so. And therein lies the crux of it all – I had to want to change – and I didn’t. Until recently.

diet 2I can’t remember what the catalyst was. I can’t put my finger on what started me down this road. Perhaps it was yet another photo of me that I hated? Or being out of breath having climbed the stairs? Or slipping into the size 18 range? Whatever it was, it worked. I never thought I’d ever see the day when I would enjoy exercise. Yes, enjoy! Me – that great believer in Churchill’s philosophy: never run when you can walk, never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down. Now I look forward to being put through my paces by the inimitable Young Malcolm twice a week. Diet and exercise, two words I despised, have come home to roost.

diet3As I continue to grow out of my wardrobe, I allow myself the luxury of enjoying the occasional compliment – another big change. Six months ago, I’d have been cringing at the attention.  But the lost pounds are being replaced by a graciousness I’ve come to enjoy. Is this what maturity looks like? Today I’ve got my walk on. I feel more alive than I have done in years and while those same years advance and the big 50 peeps over the horizon, it’s younger I’m getting.

The chosen few, those honest enough to tell me to my face that my face is aging, are on point duty. The minute the weight loss starts to age me, I stop. In the grand scheme of things, everything else being equal, I’d prefer tdiet4o look younger than to fit into a size 12. But it’s nice to have the choice.

This week seems to have gone on forever. It’s been busy every which way – and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to keep up. I’m grateful, too, to the encouragers, the motivators, the compliment givers … keep ’em coming 🙂




To answer or not to answer…

There’s something quintessentially Irish about popping in on a friend unannounced. There’s no need for phone calls to see if they’ll be there. You take your chances and if they are, great. If not, there’s always tomorrow.

Little explanation is needed other than ‘I was in the area’. They might be calling to have a cup of tea, to get fed, to drop off something or pick something up, to find out what happened last night or is going to happen next week. No matter. The point is ‒ they visit.

This visiting was drummed out of me when I went Stateside. My American friends rarely did drop-ins. The thoughts of someone rocking up unannounced was enough to induce palpitations. I put it down to being house-proud, fastidious about what part of their life the world could see, uninvited, unannounced. In Ireland, we have no shame. It’s a ‘take me as you find me’ thing. Of course there’s the frantic scurrying to clean up the mess as the car drives in, that precious minute before the doorbell goes during which a critical eye is cast around the room and anything that shouldn’t be on public display is shoved behind cushions or into drawers. But generally, no one really cares as long as there’s a cup of tea on offer.

In Budapest, with its street-side csengők (doorbells), there’s no warning. You can’t see someone turn into your gateway or drive up your avenue. You can’t spot the car slowing down or have a look out the window to see who is making their approach. When the csengő goes, you’re at the mercy of your own curiosity.

I’m caught between the Irish ‘take a chance and see if I’m home’, the American ‘call ahead and tell me you’re coming over’, and the Hungarian ‘wait till I invite you’. Pepper that with an innate curiosity and salt it with the fear that I might miss something by not answering the door, and you might come close to understanding just one strain of my many neuroses.

I stand in my hallway, looking at the intercom, wondering if I should pick it up. I mentally check what day it is, what time it is, and think who might be outside trying to get in. Chances are it’s a flyer distributor or someone flogging something. But what if it’s not? What if it’s someone who knows where I live but doesn’t have my phone number? Or a friend whose phone battery is dead? Or a neighbour who has locked themselves out? The angst, I tell you. It’s enough to drive a woman to drink.

As a rule, if it’s in the morning, before 11, then I usually answer as it might be the postman with a parcel. If it’s about 4pm in the afternoon, I’ll answer too, because that’s when my favourite florist makes their deliveries (Murphy? Optimist?). But any other time of the day, I dither. To answer or not to answer, that is the multi-million-forint question.

The dirge of rapid Hungarian that is fired up the line if I do answer and don’t know the caller used to be frightening. But I’ve found a way to separate the tenacious from the timid. My tentative lassan kérem (slowly please) is either met with an exasperated sigh and a dead line as the caller hangs up (in which case I didn’t want to know them anyway) or an exasperated sigh and a slow repeat (in which case I buzz them in and see if they materialise on the fourth floor). ’Tis the stuff dreams are made of. Who says my life in this big city isn’t exciting?

First published in the Budapest Times 3 October 2014

What you find when you go looking for cider vinegar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI travel. Quite a bit. And I’m no stranger to unusual ‘bring back’ requests, but this was the first time I’d been asked to bring back cider vinegar from Ireland. And not just Ireland, but from a specific market in Dublin. I could quite easily have said a) I couldn’t find it or b) I didn’t make it to that part of town or c) I couldn’t be arsed – but I didn’t. And I didn’t in part because I was curious to see where they were sending me. And also what they were sending me for. Llewellyn’s Cider Vinegar no less… I’d never heard of it. Among other things, apparently ‘cider vinegar has long been considered beneficial to horses, but it is only recently that scientific evidence has emerged that it seems to improve milk quality in milking cows.’ Imagine that.

It’s been quite a while since I had a Saturday morning to roam around Dublin – so long in fact that the place has changed immeasurably. The whole Temple Bar evolution passed me by as I (quite wrongly, as it turns out) felt that that part of town was strictly tourist territory, to be avoided at all costs.

My destination was the Temple Bar Food Market in Meeting House Square. Thankfully, I had a local guide as I’m not sure I was in possession of the faculties needed to find the place on my own, given that it was the morning after the night before. As we strolled through the cobblestoned streets, I had flashbacks to nights spent in Bad Bobs and the Oliver St John Gogarty.  I noted with surprise the diversity of shops and the distinct lack of twee-ness about their wares. Has the tourist tat been barred from the Bar?

IMG_4732 (800x600)IMG_4731 (600x800)The market itself was impressive. Lots of freshly baked breads and scones and cakes with fresh smoothies and even an oyster bar. I was impressed by the burgers and wishing I was on carb day. There was an international flavour to it all with French crepes and an Asian noodle bar which all sat nicely with the home-grown  fruit and veg (bloody massive turnips!) and the hand-turned cheeses. Yes, were I living in Dublin, I could well see myself dropping in here quite regularly on a Saturday morning to pick up a few things – including a bottle of cider vinegar! How ever did I live my life without it?

IMG_4737 (800x600)With time to spare before our brunch date (sounds posh but we were on the Southside and one simply must do as one does!) we ambled up to Cow’s Lane to the Designer Market  and again, I was impressed by the quality of what was on offer and the reasonable prices. Some of these Irish artists are quite clever! Had they taken credit cards, I could have done some damage. Does the cash-strapped purse so peculiar to the morning after the night before sound familiar?

The sign exhorting me to take a new look at the old city hit its mark. I was looking and I was impressed (how many times can I use that word in one blog?). On our way to Cow’s Lane, we passed an outdoor exhibition space – which really was just a fence with a load of posters on it. On closer inspection though, it gave me plenty to think about. The recent scandals in Ireland about the mother and baby homes was quite heart-breaking and seeing these old photos posterised (is that even a word?) drove it home. The homes and the Magdalen Laundries were a bleak part of Irish history.

IMG_4733 (800x600)IMG_4735 (800x600)It’s mission is to ‘dignify and return individuality to people who were victimised by harsh and unforgiving institutions’. It said that ‘Irish society also needs to take responsibility for the silence and the indifference which allowed such horrors to be perpetrated in plain sight in so many villages, towns  and cities throughout the country’. Sobering thoughts indeed for a Saturday. IMG_4739 (800x600)Seeing as we were up that way anyway, we detoured to see where Handel first performed his Messiah back in 1742 (did you know he composed it in just 24 days?). I had some vague recollection of seeing the organ on which he played many moons ago on a school tour but I didn’t remember walking down Fishamble Street. I felt some vague stirrings of pride that were  amplified when, some time later, I looked down to see a series of brass plaques in the ground commemorating some of our more famous writers. And to think I’d only come out looking for a bottle of vinegar!

IMG_4741 (800x600)I can highly recommend being a tourist in your home town – you never know what you might come across. So, next time I go to Ireland, who wants what? Now, be specific please…