Murphy's Law

For most of my adult life, by virtue of the family name I was born into, I’ve been an unintentional victim of Murphy’s Law, that adage asserts that if anything that can go wrong, it will go wrong. I was curious enough at one point to check to see which of my ancestors might be blamed for saddling me with this rather pessimistic outlook and discovered, much to my surprise, that it wasn’t a Murphy at all.

200px-De_Morgan_AugustusOne hundred years before I was born, mathematician Augustus De Morgan apparently wrote: ‘The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, what-ever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.’

Those in the know reckon that Murphy was born when the name De Morgan was lost in an international game of Chinese whispers, misremembered, misreported, and generally mistaken for Murphy. And so we have Murphy’s Law.

Last week, I came across a more contemporary law – Godwin’s Law – which states: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ So, no matter what the topic under discussion, Godwin, an American lawyer, reckons that if it goes on long enough, eventually someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. What an interesting observation.

Two other things happened last week that got me thinking.

bookFirst, I finished In the Garden of Beasts: Love, terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. In it, author Erik Larson, a noted historian and able writer, gives ‘a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.’ [I couldn’t have said it better myself so I’ve borrowed the words of an anonymous reviewer – were I to add a descriptive to it, I’d choose ‘chilling’.]

Second, I found myself in conversation with three people who regularly visit Budapest for various reasons. All three (none of whom know each other to my knowledge), in answer to my question as to whether or not they thought the city had changed, said yes. One, a musician who has been coming here for twelve years to play a gig, said they noticed that people seemed to be more on edge. They mentioned a pervasive sense that something (and not something good) is about to happen. Another, who has come back a few times since moving home, said it didn’t feel quite as safe as it used to be. They couldn’t point to anything specific; it was simply a feeling. But the comfortable familiarity that they once enjoyed had been replaced by a sense of no longer really knowing the place. And the third commented on the public attitude and a welcome that wasn’t a great as it used to be, infused as it was this time with a certain wariness, peppered with a degree of resignation.

New laws (I’d be all for shops not opening on Sunday were it a vote on whether to introduce it or not, but to rescind?), new taxes (I still can’t fathom the logic of a tax on solar panels!), and new proclamations from on high might, when taken individually, amount to nothing, but if added together, could they weave a different story? And while, for the record, I’m not drawing any comparison between 1930’s Berlin and Budapest in 2015, there is a tiny, niggling something at work in my heart that says tomorrow might be a better place if, collectively, we paid more attention to what is going on today. Could I make that the new Murphy’s Law or has someone else already snagged it?

First published in the Budapest Times 30 January 2015

Why didn't I listen?

Few could accuse me of not knowing my own mind. I’m rarely short of an opinion or three and, depending on the mood I’m in, I’m usually happy to share said opinions, whether asked to or not. My mind, normally in a made-up state, occasionally dithers and when that happens I take the first suggestion that comes my way. But if my mind is set on something, there’s no budging me.

More than six years ago, when I was in the midst of the angst that is spelled R-E-N-O-V-A-T-I-O-N, the Job-like VL suggested that I install water meters in my flat so that I would only pay for water used rather than a flat fee every two months. I fast-forwarded in my mind’s eye to the deluge of visitors I was expecting and the heartburn it might cause me if they spent more than their allotted three minutes in the shower. I decided to go with the fixed rate.


Three years later, I recanted. I finally got that I was being charged per square meter and that I simply wasn’t using even half of what I was being charged for. It might take me a while, but I eventually get there 🙂 I went, cap in hand, and asked VL to arrange it. Excessive pride isn’t one of my faults. I can admit to having made a mistake. I’ve had lots of practice.

The same VL also suggested that I install some plug sockets in the hall. But the floor is tiled, I reasoned, so I won’t be using a vacuum. And I have runway lights, so I won’t be needing standard lamps. So let’s not bother. Mind made up, I refused to budge. And that was a stupid decision indeed.

Today, after years of cursing my own stupidity, I’ve had an electrician in. He’s been in my flat all morning looking for connectors as he tries to install said plug sockets. There’s dust everywhere, my pictures are down, the place is a mess, and I have visitors arriving this evening. My Hungarian is as good as his English and I have no clue  what I’ve agreed to. Job almost done, I’m left wondering why the sockets can’t be closer to the ground… but still, a socket is a socket.


The next time you want to persuade me to do something, Napoleon, and my mind seems firmly made up, just mention plug sockets to me – it might make me rethink.


2015 Grateful 49

haggis2I like my food. And I like the rituals that go alongside all things culinary. But to see my dinner marched into a room on a platter led by a pipe band with all its pipers a’piping and its drummers a’drumming – that has raised the bar to a standard I doubt will ever be surpassed.

As this is my year of saying yes to things I usually say no to, I found myself  alongside 300 other hungry souls with a penchant for charity and perhaps things Scottish, at the 17th Annual Burns Supper in Budapest on Saturday evening. The Address to a Haggis, recited by the lead piper Rab Tait, may as well have been delivered in Zulu for all I understood of it. Written down, I get it, but spoken word? Not a chance. ‘Twas all very dramatic.

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

Dresses of all lengths swanned around the ballroom as ladies of every vintage inveigled their dicky-bowed men to dance. It was all terribly posh – a lovely change from a jeans-and-shirt night down the pub. While we were insisting on boy-girl-boy-girl seating upstairs, I noted an All-American table on the main floor with men on one side, women on the other. Had I had time to reflect more on this, I may well have found a story there.

haggisWith wine and whiskey on tap, the haggis, flown in from Inverness, was in good company and judging by the complete silence at our table, it was served at just the right time. Welcome drinks can be a little too welcoming at times and it’s hard to resist the bubbly in a hotel as upmarket as the Corinthia. The latent environmentalist in me did shudder at the food miles involved, but to my shame, any guilt was quickly squashed under the banner of authenticity.

With all sorts of trips and hotel stays and other goodies up for auction (including a pig-killing for eight!), my speculative self came to the fore and today, I sit in front of my laptop praying that none of my bids were high enough because if they all come in, it’ll be a lifetime before I can afford the haggis experience again.

kiltOne of my favourite days of every other year in Ireland is when Scotland comes to Dublin to play rugby. I have a soft spot for the highlands and still have a hankering to settle down with a gillie. Perhaps I overdosed on the TV series Monarch of the Glen or read one too many Hamish Macbeth novels, but there’s something about a man in a kilt that is … well … something else! Some of the sporrans were riveting – it’s not often that propriety permits blatant staring at a man’s nether regions…

Every man I met with a Scottish accent on Saturday night, I called him Graham. I have no idea why. Some switch clicked off in my brain and everyone became Graham – except for the one real Graham whom I insisted on calling Dougie. And, I swear, I didn’t touch the whisky.

One of the Charity circuit’s highlights, the raffle alone made 5 million huf (about €15 000 / $18 000). Was I glad I went? Definitely. Would I go again? Let’s see how my auction bids do. But regardless of whether the 18th Annual Burns Supper sees me tripping the light fantastic in 2015, I am grateful that I said yes. I am grateful to have renewed my acquaintance with haggis. And I’m grateful that I got to spend time with the pipers.

An oldie for you:

President Barack Obama visits a hospital in Glasgow. He enters a ward full of patients with no obvious sign of injury or illness. He greets one, and the patient replies:

Fair fa your honest sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin race,
Aboon them a ye take yer place,
Painch, tripe or thairm,
As langs my airm.

Obama is confused, so he just grins and moves on to the next patient.
The next patient responds:

Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat an we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit.

Even more confused, and his grin now rictus-like, the President moves onto the next patient, who immediately begins to chant:

Wee sleekit, cowerin, timorous beasty,
O the panic in thy breasty,
Thou needna start awa sae hastie,
Wi bickering brattle

Now seriously troubled, Obama turns to the accompanying doctor and asks: ‘Is this a psychiatric ward?’

‘No’ replies the doctor:
‘……this is the serious Burns unit.







From a tourist's point of view

One evening earlier this week, a succession of trams disgorged their passengers at Corvin Negyed, the drivers giving very clear reasons for the disruption in fluent Hungarian (to be expected). My plan was to take the 4 or 6 tram to Blaha and then a bus to Keleti (the lazy joy of owning a monthly travel pass) but the trams weren’t going anywhere and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why.

The new intercoms were alive with messages but none was slow enough or clear enough for me to understand. I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Other foreigners (tourists by the looks of their camera bags and backpacks) were equally bemused. And as we hung around in ones and twos and threes in vague anticipation of the next tram actually continuing to its appointed destination, no one seemed to notice our cluelessness. I had a fleeting thought as to how nice it would be if some English-Hungarian-speaking commuter took the time to explain what was going on. But at least I knew how to get to where I was going.

rakI decided to walk to Rákóczi tér to catch the M4 metro, along with hundreds of others, as the replacement buses that usually appear on such occasions hadn’t yet materialized and I wasn’t quite sure whether or not they ever would. More camera-toting tourists standing in coffee shops along the körút peered out of windows, curious to know what was going on. I wondered how this locust-like two-directional odyssey would be portrayed on their travel blog, what impression they would take home of the city? It must have looked very strange indeed: one minute relatively empty streets, the next two crowds moving quickly en masse in either direction.

keletiI finally found my way above ground at Keleti. It took a while. Although familiar with the surface streets surrounding the train station, try as I might I couldn’t superimpose that mental image onto the maze of corridors beneath the ground. It took me a while to figure out which way was up.

I walked around to the side-entrance to the station where I had arranged to meet a friend. A train (or three) had just arrived and hordes of wheelies cases were leading their owners to buses and taxis and waiting cars. A dozen or more policemen in full uniform stood curbside, watching or chatting on their phones as more of their colleagues searched a group of what might well have been an extended Roma family: an elderly couple, a middle-aged couple, and about four young people of varying ages. Each in turn held open their coats and jackets as they were patted down, showing none of the concern or nervousness I would have shown were I in their place. They offered, when asked, what looked like ID cards. And they answered whatever questions were put to them with what sounded very much like resignation.

Again, I didn’t understand.

I could, of course, have written my own script, one that would have been largely shaped by political commentary and social observations. But what if I were a first-time visitor, a tourist just off the train from Prague or Bucharest? What would I have thought had I come across the scene, knowing little, if anything, about Budapest other than that it is billed as being the must-see Paris of the East (a descriptive liberally applied also to Baku (Azerbaijan) and Beirut (Lebanon))? How would I have written it up on my travel blog? Would I have been shocked, horrified, enraged? Or have such things become so commonplace that we no longer even register them?

First published in the Budapest Times 23 January 2015

An introduction is in order

Many, many years ago, in another life, an old friend came to visit me in Anchorage, Alaska. We spent a week or so travelling around, me showing him my world while catching up on what was going on in his. He left one day while I was at work. When I came home, there was a box on my kitchen table with a note thanking me for my hospitality.

JDEANI opened it, not quite sure what to expect. I’d not had a present from him since he’d chipped in to buy me a framed poster of James Dean’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams for my 21st. [I still have that, on the top of a wardrobe at home, one of the many things I’m sure my mother wishes I’d take with me next time I’m back.] I read the note in which he told me that he wanted introduce me to ten old friends, friends he thought I would enjoy. I opened to box to find ten books by authors I’d never read. Some, like Edith Wharton and Anais Nin, I’d heard of. Others were complete strangers – names I can’t even remember now. I read them all and from memory, enjoyed most of them.

I’ve done the same a few times – sent ten of my favourite books to avid readers who have opened their homes to me – it’s a lovely present both to give and to receive.

A quick search of the almighty Google shows that there are about 5.8 million published authors in the world (this includes those that are self-published, about two-thirds). Enough said. There’s way too many to be current on all of them. And while it’s relatively easy to familiarise yourself with those publishing today, the gems from yesteryear worth searching for.

Last year, I met Penelope Fitzgerald. When, in 1938, she graduated with a First from Oxford, she said that she’d been reading steadily for 17 years and now it was time to start writing. But it wasn’t until her twelfth (and final) book that she achieved fame in America – she was 78. The Blue Flower was the ‘most admired novel of 1995′ featuring as it did on 19 lists of Best Book of the Year and winning America’s Book Critics’ Gold Circle award. Four of her books were shortlisted for the Booker Prize; one – Offshore – won it. I  met her through the good auspices and fine taste of the lovely MC. I started with the shortlisted The Bookshop and read it with delight. Everything in it – every character, every happening, every observation, does something. Its covers are quite close together so it’s readable in single afternoon/evening and once you start, you’re pulled into a world you don’t want to leave.

I followed this with the prize-winning Offshore and again was struck by the simplicity of it all.

Everything that you learn is useful, says the 11-year-old Martha in Offshore. Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come in useful at some point in your life?

And, having reminded myself of her genius, I’ve interrupted this blog to order Innocence  and At Freddie’s.

Fitzgerald was first published at the age of 59. I read that little morsel with the same hope-inducing satisfaction I feel when I hear of someone older than I am marrying for the first time. She was a some woman.

If you’ve not already met, an introduction is in order.

The spinning heart

Never backward about coming forward when asked for my opinion, it usually doesn’t take me long to share whatever it is that’s being asked of me. Occasionally though, very occasionally, I need time to think of an answer. It’s not that one doesn’t immediately come to mind but more that I discount the first half a dozen answers before settling as if I can hear the quizmaster asking: Is that your final answer?

When asked the title of the best book I had read in 2014, I had to stop and think. I’ve read a number that have been excellent. My mind felt a little like a lottery-ball shaker – some suggestions almost made it out of the chute but weren’t quite close enough; not quite good enough to top the Best of 2014 list.

I eventually decided. Donal Ryan’s debut novel The Spinning Heart.

Spinning heartSet in modern-day Ireland, its 21 narrators (ergo 21 chapters) tell their stories of pain, loss, misery, grief with the occasional flash of humour and large dollops of wit. A fine thread weaves between them, one that is just about strong enough to get us to where we are going without feeling we’ve read a series of short stories or essays.

Daphne Kalotay, reviewing the book for the New York Times was a tad concerned as to how she’d deal with such an extensive cast of characters. I shared that concern till five characters in when I realised how skillfully they all knit together.  Facebook and dubious deals in Dubai, ghost estates and drinking the family farm pay homage to Ireland as she is today. The spoken word jumps off the page as the characters come to life – they could be your neighbours. And that’s the beauty of it. Anyone who has lived in Ireland (especially in the last 15 years) will be able to identify with the cast of 21.

It took best book of the year at the Irish Book Awards and the Guardian’s Best First Book prize. I haven’t read the other books that were shortlisted for those competitions but this one is the best debut novel I’ve read since Jon McGregor’s If nobody speaks of remarkable things. And like McGregor, Ryan is someone I’ll be keeping track of. To follow this one will be quite the challenge.

Treat yourself. It’s a bargain at twice the price.

2015 Grateful 50

Blessed is [s]he who never expects anything, for [s]he shall never be disappointed. Heady words indeed. Words, in fact, I have mistakenly attributed for many years to being the ninth beatitude. And today I find that they’re not. They were written, apparently, by Alexander Pope, sometime back in the eighteenth century.

Now, you’d think that it wouldn’t much matter who wrote them or why, not if you use them as I do on a regular basis to better manage my expectations. But this error of mine sent me on a search for the eight original beatitudes, a list to which I’ve been unwittingly tacking on a ninth.

Blessed are..

….the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
….those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
….the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
….those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. ….the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
….the pure in heart: for they will see God.
….the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
….those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

So, it dawned on me that the term beatitude has to do with blessing. [I’ve never claimed to be the smartest kid in the class.] And I can see why I might have thought that Pope’s line on expectation could have fit so nicely.

But Pope wasn’t the only one to coin his own beatitude:

Albert Camus reckoned: Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken. Friedrich Nietzsche had this to say: Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders. But my vote goes to Groucho Marx: Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.

But back to expectations and not being disappointed.

dissolutionA few years ago, I came across author C.J. Sansom. I was in Malta and in need of something to read. I’m a sucker for 3-for-2  deals and a good thick book. So I bought the first three in his Shardlake series, historical crime set in Tudor times. Unputtable downable. All of them. I eagerly awaited books 4 and 5, having fallen completely in love with Matthew Shardlake while at the same time learning about Tudor history, something I’d obviously slept through in History class.

Sansom is first and foremost a historian. He’s doubly blessed in that he’s also an excellent writer. And if you’re a fan of crime novels, you get the mystery and the education at the same time.

He left Shardlake to his own devices for a time, writing Dominion – set in a fictional 1952 where twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers, and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. It was so real, I had to constantly remind myself that it wasn’t true. I’ve just finished Winter in Madrid and am reeling at the atrocities committed during and after the Spanish Civil War. I’d been completely clueless. What did we study in History class?

I thought I’d read them all but see that his latest Shardlake – Lamentation – published in October last year so it’s now officially topping my list of what to read next. The man’s a genius. I’ve come to expect great things from him and, not one to disappoint, he always delivers. Blessed am I indeed to have found him – and grateful, too, that there are writers out there who can both entertain and educate at the same time.


Life without work

Caricatures of Irish road workers breast-feeding their shovels, as five of them watch a sixth dig a hole, mesh seamlessly with a vision of BKK controllers guarding the top of the metro escalators, desultorily checking travel passes, while chatting idly amongst themselves. Neither are advertisements for the Confucian theory that if you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.

I’m still trying to figure out what my passion is in life. When I finally do, so much will click into place. In the meantime, when I come across it in others, I am awed by its power to inspire.

Last weekend I went to Békéscsaba for a disznóvágás (pig killing) with players from Békéscsaba Előre ‒ the local football club (of which I’m a fan). I met lots of fascinating people, two in particular who between them illustrated the power of passion so vividly that I envied them and such envy in me is rare.

Tomas4Thomas Michel Prasler has been playing with the team for 11 months. He came to Békéscsaba from Romania, via Germany, where at 24 he was already on the cusp of being too old to break into professional football. For a man who has ‘lots more football in his legs’, not playing the game wasn’t an option. He sought out trials around Europe, scored some goals, and was signed last year by the Hungarian club. It feels good, he says, to be part of a team, a team that plays together as one, rather than as individuals. Injuries aside, he could have ten years of professional football left in him and he plans to make the most of it. It’s work, hard work. Staying fit, avoiding injury, giving the fans something to be proud of, it takes it out of you. But when the passion is there, it’s not work as most of us understand the term.

Listening to Thomas, I was struck by his single-minded determination. Currently nursing an injury, it’ll be a few months before he starts for Békéscsaba Előre again, but until then, every day’s training takes him one day closer to doing what he loves. The five-year-old, who grew up in Germany falling asleep clutching his football, is still very much alive in the sportsman he is today.

IMG_6003 (800x600)Baukó Tusi András has been with the Club for 50 years. He used to play himself back in the 1950s and 1960s and never wanted to leave. Football is in his blood, too. As kit manager/masseur, this demi-god is a local institution. Loved and respected (and occasionally feared), he has seen many changes in the industry. Passion, a desire to be the best, club loyalty, all these motivators are being supplanted by money as the game becomes more lucrative, more cut-throat. Some 500 or so players have passed through Tusi’s hands in 50 years and they still come back to say hello to the man who helped shape their careers as players and their lives as men. For him, attitude is more important than skill. Technique can be honed with training and discipline, he says, but heart and passion have to come from within. As for himself, life without his work at Békéscsaba Előre doesn’t bear thinking about.

Although poles apart in both age and position, for Thomas and Tusi their work is their raison d’etre, a religion almost, that brings with it the fervent passion of the most devout devotee. And while Thomas, on the pitch, might get the glory, Tusi reigns supreme in the locker rooms. Each does what he does best and does it with an enthusiasm and a dedication that is sadly missing from so many working lives today. For this pair, Confucius got it right.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 January 2015


Getting an education

We’re half-way through January and my resolve to do more than simply work, eat, and sleep, is holding. I’m saying yes to things I would usually say no to and am working on saying no to things I usually say yes to. And it is work. Especially the latter.

I know very little, if anything, about art,  other than what I like and what I don’t like. I’ve never taken the time to learn. Visiting art galleries is something I might do if in a strange city and it’s lashing rain. It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation; more that it simply never crosses my mind. What I needed (although I didn’t know it) was a foundation. I needed to learn the basics and from there I could navigate the artistic waters on my own as and when the humour struck me.

The lovely GK was doing her last trainee docent tour at the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum) (it closes its doors in February as part of a three-year regeneration project in Hősök tere), and she invited me to tag along. Her animated presentation made my education all the more pleasant. And her notable lack of pretentiousness (an unlikeable trait that, for whatever reason, I mentally associate with art aficionados) was just what I needed.

The Museum of Fine Arts was commissioned in the late 1896, when the M2 metro line was laid under Andrássy út (the first metro line on continental Europe). It was a time when the city boasted over 600 cafés, meeting places for people to chat about art and politics and whatever else took their fancy. It houses a collection of work by international artists, including 400+ sculptures, among which is a cast of an old favourite of mine – Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss.

But there is so much to learn. While I was familiar with the concept of periods in art (Renaissance, Renaissance to Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Romanticism to Modern Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art) – even if I couldn’t have named them all in order, I hadn’t realised that the Baroque period fell under Renaissance to Neoclassicism, and impressionism under Modern Art. And I didn’t know that you can identify the Baroque style by the characters that appear to be jumping out of the painting, as they capture the exact moment when something happens.

artI’d never heard of the hierarchy of the genres (a list of which paintings are more ‘important’ than others). History tops the list – large paintings with multiple characters in the act of doing something – a prelude to the freeze-frame. This is followed by Portraiture – a painting of someone who is recognisable. There’s one painting in the Museum by an unknown artist – that of the Sleeping Girl. I’d have put money on it that it was a portrait but because no one knows who she was, it’s classified as a genre painting, the next step on the hierarchy – that of paintings of everyday life. These are followed in quick succession by landscapes, painting of animals, and still life.

Apparently these are ranked from top to bottom in order of their artistic merit – the level of skill noted by the Academy as needed to produce any or all of. They also correspond in size, with history paintings including those massive biblical scenes hung in churches around the world, down to the typically much small still lifes.

art2Of course, if you know the backstory to a painting, it enriches it even more. Ghezzi’s Pygmalion tells of the artist’s distaste for women and his subsequent falling in love with this statue he was sculpting. He asked the gods to send him a woman just like her and they brought the statue to life (a process that can be seen if you look closely at the picture – amazing). This is what makes art interesting.

art3And, of course, the lives of the artists add a certain flavour to their work as well. Paul Gauguin, a stockbroker-turned artist, left his wife and five kids because they were limiting his artistic ability (ahem) and eventually died destitute only becoming famous after his death. Karma? Perhaps. And I can’t say that I particularly cared for his Black Pigs, even before I could spot the mix of impressionism and solid colours.

And lest you think that photoshopping is a new concept, Tiziano was at it back in the sixteenth century when he painted a portrait of Marcantonio Trevisani.  After he painted the facial features, he covered it with a wash of sorts to give it a softer, younger look. You’d never think the Venetian was in his seventies.

But of everything I learned, what fascinated me the most was the move from egg tempera to oils and the level of detail the new medium allowed. Bellini’s portrait of Catarina Cornaro has some exquisite examples. It gave me reason to stop and look rather than walk by and glance. And it explains why people can spend hours in galleries and not tire of seeing. Unlike me, they know what to look for.

But now, with a little basic education, I might venture forth on my own and see what I can discover. GK – ta much.



At the edge of a tradition (3)

It’s not often that parties in my world start at 7.30 am these days. Perhaps years ago when I was following Irish soccer and time differences meant that the World Cup games were shown at dawn, I’d be in the thick of it when the bars opened. But that was years ago, when I was younger, fitter, and able to last the pace. Nowadays, if I can hold my own till midnight, I’m happy. But starting at 7.30 am, I had no chance. Yet I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a proper, country disznóvágás, especially one that was thrown for Békéscsaba Előre, my football team. Pick yourselves up off the floor:  not alone have I done the pig killing thing to death this year, I’m now a soccer fan to boot.

It was another early morning start but the pig was already dead when we got there. Utensils were laid out and no time was wasted in starting the depilation. The team vice-captain, Gyuri, won’t ever be stuck for a day job. He’s a good man with a blade; heavy work but someone has to do it.

IMG_5962 (800x600)

By 8am I was on my third pálinka (which, as Hungarians say, in small amounts is a medicine and in large amounts a remedy; whatever I had is now officially cured). I rarely touch the stuff, and then only to remind myself how much I hate it. But I was conscious of the fact that I was a guest (and a foreigner at that) and should behave accordingly. So I knocked ’em back – peach, cherry, plum, and quince. The boys found my grimacing hilarious. When I started turning in circles and doing a little dance, they got a tad worried. I detest neat alcohol. I’m a philistine. I need mixers. But I had to show willing and show willing I did.

IMG_5886 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_5897 (800x600)

At around 9 am breakfast was served. Hagmás vér – blood onion – accompanied by pickled cabbage and pickled peppers and pickled cucumber. I can’t say I was salivating at the prospects of a bowl of cooked blood but again, I had to show willing. I couldn’t let the side down – I might well have been the first Irish person the town had seen. One bite in though, I was converted. It sounds gross, but it tastes divine. This was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had – ever. Did I mention the pálinka?

IMG_5899 (800x600)

The decibels had risen and the quiet of the early morning had dissipated in a fire of onion breath and beer. The party had begun.

The assembly line converged. Each had their job to do – which, in true democratic style, could be as much or as little as you wanted. Me? I watched and took notes. Did I mention the pálinka? The meat was carved up, its future decided by whomever was in charge at any given moment in time. The sausages were made, the kolbász too, with a sizable chunk taken to the kitchen for lunch.

IMG_5913 (800x600)IMG_5945 (800x600)

It seemed like everyone had their particular specialty and favourite thing to do. Some of these lads have been dicing up pigs for longer than I’ve been alive. This is the tradition, the party, the celebration. When it came to the sausage making, Henry Ford couldn’t have done better. It was all hands on meat as the casings were filled for drying. Me? I was fascinated by the splitting of hooves and will never quite think of a pedicure in the same way again. Did I mention the pálinka?

IMG_5956 (800x600)IMG_6001 (749x800)

I’d lost count at this stage but judging from how much my Hungarian was improving, I’d say I’d had too many. And it wasn’t even noon! It felt like it was midnight. When the music kicked off and the cards came out, I thought I was at home in Ireland – except for the noticeable absence of women, which made dance partners a premium. [One thing I’ve never yet seen Hungarian men do, no matter how fast the pálinka has been flowing – I’ve never seen them dance together.] Zoli, our host, was in fine singing voice and the place was buzzing. But the songs… the songs lasted for hours. None of your three-minute jobs here. As I was being ducked and dived around the dance floor by whomever was passing by and fancied a dance, it felt like the end would never come. Then I realised that it wasn’t just the one song – it was that they all sounded the same to my untrained ear. Or…. it could have been the pálinka.

IMG_6013 (800x600)


IMG_6016 (600x800)

Lunch was divine – but at this stage, anything would have tasted great. Pork, pork and more pork. With lots of vegetables. The tepertő (crackling) was to die for. And then more dancing. And then the wine came out. By the time 4 pm rolled around, I was saying mass. My notebook was full of squiggles and exclamation marks. I’d dropped my camera on the concrete floor and it had died a death, which was probably just as well. My feet ached. My head was spinning. And three men had sworn blind that if they hadn’t been married already, I’d be at the altar on the morrow.

IMG_5997 (600x800)

But it wasn’t all about the pálinka or the sausage. I had a blast. Perhaps my being a foreigner helped. I know that my curiosity did. Everyone I met was just lovely and for about five minutes, I found myself wishing that I was young enough to be a WAG.  Okay – so maybe it was more like half an hour. I was on pálinka time.

When it comes to hospitality, the boys in Békéscsaba certainly know how to throw a party. I’m really looking forward to being in the stands when the lads take to the pitch in March. And my dance card already has names pencilled in for the stadium opening that same month. And, in the meantime, if I come across a time machine, perhaps that WAG thing could be a reality.

IMG_5892 (800x600)