Back by popular demand

Modesty aside, I think I have a fairly decent vocabulary. I can’t lay claim to knowing every word in the dictionary but I could make an educated guess at the meaning of most. Yet I’d never heard of a charnel house. Char I could do, but charnel?

IMG_6153 (800x600)IMG_6154 (721x800)Last week, in Naples, I visited a massive charnel house and didn’t even know I was in one until I’d left. Back in the day, when cemetery space was in short supply, it was common practice to bury bodies for a  few years to let them decompose and then dig them up and move their bones to a charnel house where they’d take up far less room. In Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, a 30 000 square metre cave in the hillside was once home to eight million of such bones. Today it’s thought that the remains of about 40 000 lie here but for the life of me, I can’t imagine how anyone could count.

IMG_6195 (800x600)The original inhabitants had been relocated from cemeteries in the city in the sixteenth century to make room for those who insisted on being buried in their local church grounds – now there’s a different take on eviction. With the Great Plague of 1656, thousands more were added to the displaced. A century later, a great flood washed many of the bones out onto the streets  (has a movie been made of it yet I wonder?). In the nineteenth century, it was officially named a pauper’s cemetery and its  last big influx was provided by cholera victims of the 1837 epidemic.

IMG_6161 (800x600)IMG_6172 (800x600)IMG_6178 (800x600)The bones are anonymous – rows and rows of skulls sit atop stacks of femurs and tibia, and stare back at you. I fancied I saw holes in some that suggested bullet wounds but it might well have been damage done in transit. It is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been – and I’ve been to a fair few cemeteries in my time.

IMG_6174 (800x600)Some have names carved into boxes but these may not match the bones inside. Apparently a cult took shape in the late 1800s when it was fashionable to adopt a skull and give it a name, a name that was often transmitted to the adopter through a dream. They would come to pray to their skulls and make offerings in the hope of having favours granted. The cult of the  anime pezzentelle (abandoned souls) lasted into the late 1960s when the city’s Cardinal Ursi had enough. What might to those involved have seemed like caring for people in death who had no one to look after them in life, was branded a fetish and the cemetery was closed. It was renovated a few years ago and is now open to the public. Back by popular demand ….

IMG_6199 (800x600)It’s hard to find though so if you’re in Naples and curious, take Line 1 metro to Materdei. Walk down the hill and around the corner to the left. Half-way along that street there are steps going down even more. Take these to the bottom and turn left. When you get to the small piazza, hang left and the cave is just past the church (worth a visit – a lovely change from the ostentation of the bigger city churches) on your left. Free entry. Open 9-4pm.


2015 Grateful 40

IMG_6053 (600x800)Pope Francis swarmed by nuns – what a spectacle that must have been. And to think we were there when it was all going on and saw said same nuns going back inside after having been let out for a day to meet their boss. But we’d just arrived in the city and hadn’t a clue what was going on. If I’d known, I’d have grabbed the chance to have a chat with the ladies in black, just to see what life was like far removed from the outside world. I’d have asked whether that same world was everything it was cracked up to be, now that they’d caught a glimpse of it again. I was having flashbacks to way back when I thought I might have had a calling. And then I met a chap who drove a Kawasaki 650… I wonder what Mr Kettle is doing now…

IMG_6283 (800x600)We went back the next day to have a peak into the Chiesa di Santa Chiara, the  scene of the swarming. It’s a stunningly gorgeous basilica, founded in 1310 by a chap with an intriguing name – Robert the Wise.  His wife became a nun and his granddaughter was murdered – that would breed wisdom in anyone, I suppose.

The Neapolitan attitude to mass is quite amusing. There seems to be an invisible line at the back of the church. If you stand behind it, you can text, take phone calls, and chat with your neighbour. If you cross it, you have to kneel and pray. The church in Naples is truly a place of the people, for the people, and by the people.

IMG_6277 (800x600)The outer perimeters are lined with confessionals but not the standard boxes I’m used to. I saw people leaning casually with an elbow on the sill and one foot up on the step,  in much the same way as they might prop up a bar.  And all out in the open. Given that the priests face forward, I was struck with an image of playing poker with them. No matter the magnitude of the sin they’ve just heard, they have to keep a straight face. I’d lose a fortune in that game of seven-card stud.

One of the joys (or sorrows) of being an ill-prepared tourist is that I arrive in a city without a clue as to what to do. Especially if it’s a city that I knew little about to begin with.  But I figure that if I don’t have expectations, then I’m already ahead of the game. And if I don’t have a plan, a checklist of things to see and places to eat and museums to visit, then all the better – I can take it as it comes. But what when I happen upon some place I know absolutely nothing about and all the information is in, say, Italian? And the pictures don’t help either?

Across the road from the church, in what is still part of the whole Santa Chiara complesso, are the cloisters of the Poor Clares. We had a peak through the gates but decided that the entrance fee (I loathe paying into holy places), and the litany of don’ts posted outside,  weren’t worth the gamble, so we left. Don’t sit or touch the Majolica, it said. But what in the Lord’s name  was a majolica?

On the day we were leaving, we made an attempt to see the No. 1 tourist attraction in Naples, but it wasn’t open on a Tuesday (?) putting paid to the universality of Monday closing.  So with time to kill, I found myself gravitating back to the majolica. Curiosity will be the death of me, but I just had to see for myself what it was all about.

And it is amazing. Simply amazing.

IMG_6243 (800x600)IMG_6249 (800x600)IMG_6262 (800x600)The cloisters are home to about 60 pillars decorated quite gaudily in yellows and blues. Back in the day, when the Order of the Poor Clares was at its height, almost 600 nuns lived here.

This fourteenth-century monastic site is an oasis in a city that beats 24/7. Planted with lemon trees and wisteria, there’s a haunting silence to the grounds that begs for whispers. Strolling around the gardens, it wasn’t difficult to fancy myself in a habit, praying the rosary, wimple reflecting the light of the noon-day sun. I couldn’t get the Beatle’s song Let it Be out of my head…

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom,
Let it be, let it be.

Cheeky of me to think I’d have come up through the ranks and made Reverend Mother… but hey, nothing like aiming high. I was disappointed that there wasn’t a nun to be seen. Perhaps the excitement of the papal visit was too much.

IMG_6254 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_6274 (800x600)IMG_6258 (600x800)The frescos on the four walls surrounding the cloisters are faded but still magnificent. I could  have spent hours looking at the intricate detail of each of them. The nativity scene, made from paper maché, depicting eighteenth-century life in Naples is equally intricate and again, an hour wouldn’t be enough to take it all in . It is stunning.

Excavations in the grounds have unearthed old saunas and swimming pools. If you’re into archaeology (which admittedly simply doesn’t to it for me), you’d find it fascinating. Likewise with the museum, full of reliquaries and testimonies to a life long-since lost. I found it hard to believe that I had nearly passed all of this up because I couldn’t bring myself to pay to see something that flew under the banner of religion (and my religion at that). Now I know better – and I’ve learned that majolica is ‘earthenware pottery decorated with brightly colored lead glazes best known for naturalistic/whimsical style’. And I got to reminisce of times goes by and Mr Kettle in his tatty blue jumper … them were the days.

In a week that has spanned three countries, I’m truly grateful for the second chances I give and have been given.

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There's more to a country than its capital

When I ask an Irish person where they’re from, I get the name of the village. When I ask a Hungarian, if they’re not from Budapest or one of the bigger towns/cities like Debrecen, Miskolcs, Pécs, Győr, or Sopron, they simply say ‘the countyside’. Now, in fairness, this could well be because they assume I won’t recognise the name of their town or village, but sometimes I get the impression that to be ‘from the countryside’ simply isn’t cool. And that’s wrong.

The small town of Békéscsaba made the news last weekend in more places than Hungary. And all because a footballer in the local second division club scored a goal that is in contention for FIFA’s Puskás Award. Named after that great Hungarian footballer Ferenc Puskás, who also played for Real Madrid, the award goes to the player who scores that ‘most beautiful’ goal of the year. And Birtalan Botond, who made the world’s football stage on Saturday with his ‘incredible backheel scorpion kick volley’, in a game against Gyirmot, might well be taking home the trophy. How cool is that?

I wrote earlier this year about going to a pig killing in the village with the boys from Békéscsaba 1912 Előre. And while I was there, I got to see more than just the killing.

Local man Zoltán Váradi has turned an attic in one of his outbuildings into a private museum. He was concerned that his children and their children were losing touch with the traditions he and his parents and grandparents grew up with. Modern life, in its technological wonder, leaves little room for anything else, as iPods and smartphones and other wonder-gadgets make everything look redundant.

IMG_5972He scoured through stuff that his parents and grandparents had left lying around and collected them all in one place. Farming implements, tools, dishes, clothes, leather goods, pálinka stills, and viniculture accoutrements line the walls of the attic, marking the evolution of technological progress over the space of a hundred years or so. Going upstairs amidst the hanging hurka (sausage) is like stepping back in time.

He took me on a tour, all the while telling me of his life, of how he grew up with Communism and what this meant for him. He quietly related how confused he was as a child when the Party decreed he could no longer pray. He told of the changes that came after the transition when the country moved from full employment to capitalism, which brought with it its accompanying woes.

IMG_5986 (600x800)As we travelled around the room, he pointed out WWI memorabilia that came from uncles and granduncles who had fought alongside the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who died fighting with Austria-Hungary along the northern border between Austria and Italy. A stunningly beautiful jewellery box from 1910 spoke of the relative wealth of his ancestors. A magnificent heavy embroidered wool coat transformed this modern man into a traditional shepherd. Years fell away and the heart of the Hungarian in him shone through.

He says he did it out of respect – respect for a way of life that is no more. He says he put the museum together to remind him of all that had gone before him. It’s a peaceful place, a lovely spot in which to sit and have a pálinka, to recalibrate and remember from whence you’ve come.

Zoltán, too, played for Békéscsaba back in the day and while he and Birtalan (a Budapest native) are from different generations, they both share the fortunes of this small town. One has captured the football world’s attention while the other quietly makes sure his world never forgets.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 March 2015

The art in public transport

Naples is an eminently walkable city, once you get your bearings, and are quick-witted enough to dodge the vespas and the Clios as they barrel along the narrow streets, driven by those who believe that horsepower rules and pedestrians are disposable.

The buses seemed a little complicated and although usually my transport mode of choice, I  was a little intimidated. So I walked. Everywhere. English is not as widely spoken as I had thought and the few times I stopped to ask directions, it was like looking at a deer caught in the headlights, such was the terror that speaking English evoked. I’m well used to miming though, but admittedly found miming ‘dead’ to find the cemetery was a little challenging. No matter. I eventually got to where I was going and the detours were delightful.

The metro looked handy enough (the trains don’t run nearly as often as they do in Budapest). And like Budapest’s Metro 4, they’re built to impress. Lines 1 and 6 have stops on them referred to as Art Stations. And, by all accounts, the L1 Toledo stop was voted the most beautiful in Europe back in 2012. I got to see Mater Dei – which came in at No. 13 on that same Daily Telegraph list. And it was impressive.

IMG_6151 (600x800)At the Dante station, a coat and hat with many many pairs of shoes trapped behind some random railway tracks caught my eye. I spent quite some time looking at it and finally decided that for me, it represented a never-ending journey, one of constant movement trapped within a rigid framework so that although we have the illusion of progress, we’re making little headway. But hey – art is subjective. Apparently, Grecian artist Jannis Kounellis had  ‘travel as an existentialist condition’ in mind when he created this piece. And I should admit that I’m not altogether sure what that means.

IMG_6215 (800x600)But if I had to take one thing from Naples and bring it to Budapest, it wouldn’t the pizza or the orgasmic canoli or the mozzarella; it would be its eagerness to teach its tourists how to speak Italian … while waiting for their train. What a brilliant idea! How quickly my Hungarian would improve if my waiting time was spent actively engaged in learning the language.

When I first started travelling, I had this insatiable need to see everything. The older I got, the more I realised that cities aren’t going anywhere, meno male. If I don’t get to see it all, I can go back, and go back again. So when I next visit Naples, I plan to spend an entire day underground looking at the art and learning Italian.

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Grubby, dirty, and graffitied to within an inch of its life, Naples is a city you’ll either love or hate. There are no half-measures. I knew this even before I came, such was the degree of polarity expressed by friends who’d already visited with more hating it than loving it. I had zero expectations and these expectations were more than met. I’m in the LOVE NAPLES camp – love it so much that were it not for the complete absence of any sort of order, I’d even consider moving there. And perhaps I might, in time, even get used to the chaos.

IMG_6077 (2) (800x600)IMG_6074 (2) (589x800)It’s a dirty city. The streets are littered with cigarette butts and beer tops. Bins overflow. Every wall within writing reach is covered in graffiti – not the Bansky type though;  more of the ‘I wuz ‘ere’ banality that gives the art a bad name. Not even churches are spared. In fairness, there is the occasional gem, but for the most part, it’s names and dates and monosyllabic words. Grime aside, it’s full of life with a tangible  energy that makes it vibrate. The locals, who by all accounts consider themselves Neapolitan first and Italian second,  take an inordinate pride in their city and there’s no quicker way to please than to tell them how much you love it, too.

IMG_6079 (2) (800x600)We stayed in the Old Town, Centrico Storno, on Piazza Bellini. It’s a favourite hangout of Napoli football fans and at night, people spill out of the tiny bars onto the streets in what at first seems like a loud, rambunctious melée but in actuality is just the locals having  a good time. All are drinking, few are drunk. The roofs and bonnets of parked cars double as tables and although it was chilly enough, tables inside were empty – the street is where it’s at. Now that’s something I doubt I could get used to. My standing around days are over.

Naples was once Europe’s second city, after Paris, a description it’s long since lost. While its people are beautiful, their style is more urchin cool than catwalk. They are a law unto themselves and patterns of behaviour, if there are any, are not easily discernible. Queues don’t exist. Social propriety, or the absence thereof, borders on an appearance of rudeness. There is no holding back with opinions [shop assistant to me: your pronunciation is soooooooooo bad].  And what they want takes priority [Waiter to me: Just order a pizza. We are busy]. In some places you pay immediately; in others you pay whenever the humour takes the waiter, regardless of whether or not you’re finished; and in more still, you might be waiting all night before you can find someone to give your money to. They like blanket pricing and a little consistency – all drinks, be they alcoholic or not, are €2.50 or €5.

IMG_6108 (2) (600x800)With coffees and drinks paired with nuts, crisps, pastries, bruschetta, and the odd ham and cheese sambo, you could quite happily go about your day without ever having a proper meal. But when you do – it has to be pizza. The home of the Margarita, Naples is famous for it pizza – that is something everyone I spoke to recommended to do. Eat pizza. And the toppings are generous and exotic. But the opening hours are hit and miss. No patterns. So take it when you can get it. IMG_6105 (2) (600x800)IMG_6069 (600x800)It’s narrow medieval streets are strung with laundry, that had one either the time or the inclination to ‘read’ would speak volumes as to who lived inside. Given the small cars and vespas that drive at breakneck speed through the veins of the city, it’s a wonder that the laundry is ever clean.

There are many police, many different uniforms. Italian policing has to be as convoluted as it comes, with state, provincial and municipal police to name just three. In Naples, one particular lot fascinated. A weird mutation of Captain von Trapp and General Patton – it was hard to know whether they’d shoot or yodel.

We had three days and based on accounts from others who had been before us, we all set to desert the city and head to Sorrento or Pompeii or up the Amalfi coast. But we never  made it outside the city limits. Naples – a great city with so much to offer. Should I ever get tired of Budapest, that’s where I’d head to next.



2015 Grateful 41

‘Ask the Pope to say a prayer for us.’ So went the Viber message I received earlier this evening from a Hungarian friend of mine (a Leinster supporter) who was chomping at the bit while watching the lads attempt to nail the Six Nations. She was sitting in a bar in Budapest. I was on the streets of Naples. She was watching Paul O’Connell. I was watching the Pope. I asked. He obliged. The rest is history.

We’d arrived in Naples anxious to find a pub to watch the match ourselves. I enquired at the information desk at the airport as to where might we go to watch the rubgy today.

Que? What rugby? There is no rugby in Naples. Just football.

A sharp reminder of provincial Italy at its best. I told the duo on the desk that Italy was playing, too. But to no avail. So we tossed caution to the wind and got a taxi, willing to pay ten times the bus fare to get into the city as soon as possible.

IMG_6035 (800x600)En route we  encountered a problem. The city was closed. The Pope was here visiting for the day. Security was heightened, as last year, apparently, he had excommunicated some Mafia heads. And Naples is a serious Mafia city. I didn’t know that…

But then, this morning, when I was leaving for the airport, I ran into my neighbour. He asked (in Hungarian) where I was going. I said France.
Lovely, says he. Paris?
No, Naples, says I.
That’s in Italy, Mary, says he.
I knew that… I did.

IMG_6036 (800x600)Any, back to the Pope. We had to detour. And detour. And then the detours ran out of detours and we had to walk. Fortunately for us, our hotel was in same direction as the route the popemobile was taking. The streets were lined with people waving €1 flags. Toddlers and teens. Three, four generations, all waiting patiently for a glimpse of the man. They might have been waiting for hours. We waited some 15 minutes.  Just to see. And we saw. Himself. In all his glory.

pope (800x577)It was all over in a flash. He had passed by, to the cheers of an adoring crowd, when I realised that I hadn’t actually seen him at all. I’d been too busy trying to get a photo. Other than a vague notion that he was wearing white, I couldn’t have told you what he looked like. I had no feel for him. I’d missed the essence. And I was so annoyed with myself.

IMG_6050 (600x800)The crowd, en masse, turned to their phones to see if they, too, had managed to capture him in photo or on video. Some were delighted; others not so impressed. Some older people who had come to see the man rather than capture the moment had smiles on their faces and some looked a tad moved. It was then that I  remembered a Venetian travel writer saying that to see Venice you need to leave your camera at home. He had a point. I’d missed him. And I might never get to see him again.

IMG_6043 (800x600)As the popemobile turned the corner, we continued our climb to the hotel, following in its wake. But the crowds weren’t moving. We stopped to ask why. He was going to a church at the top of the hill and would be back this way again, in 20 minutes. We walked on and happened upon the very church he was in. This was my second chance.

This time, when he came out of the church and got into this popemobile, I looked through the maze of extended arms brandishing iPhones and camera and looked at the man. As he passed by, I saw him – the head of the church to which I belong – and a man who is doing so much to return that church to the people. Today he visited Poggio Reale – a prison that holds nearly twice the number of people it was built to hold. Of the 2500 inmates, 90 got to have lunch with him – including transexuals, homosexuals, and those with AIDS. I bet that’s something not many of them ever imagined doing. [I wonder how they were chosen? Was it a lottery?] I bet they’re grateful for the change of pace that this particular Saturday brought with it.

This week, I’m grateful, too. For the unexpected. For those unplanned moments. For those unanticipated meetings. And for the potential they can hold. I saw Pope John Paul II back in 1970s Ireland but I was miles away from him. Today, I stood within 15 feet of Pope Francis. That day had been planned and anticipated for months. Today was a complete surprise. I wonder if there’s a lesson for me there.







Air quality

I live on the fourth floor of a street-facing apartment block on Üllői út. When I was doing the rounds of flats all those years ago, the ever helpful Márta told me that I’d have to give ‘something for something’. If I found the right layout, then I’d have to sacrifice a view. If I found the best deal, then I’d have to live without an elevator. If I found the greatest kitchen, the loo would most likely be in the bathroom. Something for something, she said.

I found the perfect layout with a great kitchen and a separate loo, but I had to give up any notion of quiet. Truth be told, I don’t hear the traffic any more. I’m used to it. It doesn’t bother me. But those days when I open the front windows to air the flat out, I realise what I’ve lost. Clean air.

exhaustOn a bad day, it takes just ten minutes for the exhaust fumes to permeate the two front rooms of my flat. Just walking into the room is like walking into a closed garage where a car has been idling for hours. I can practically taste the carbon monoxide, the sulfur dioxide, the nitrogen dioxide, the benzene, the ozone, and the particulate matter in its various sizes. But that’s on a bad day.

bad airI never worried unduly about it. It was a rare enough event that my days for opening the windows coincided with a bad air day in Budapest. But lately it seems like it happens three out of four times. And last week, on Sunday morning, with very little traffic on the road, it was particularly bad. I could see the smog hovering like a blanket at throat level.

Various websites tell me that air pollution in Budapest is classified as moderate. So I checked with the European Environment Agency and discovered that, as with many other parts of Europe, the level of ground-level ozone is on the rise. And in cities like ours, levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides occasionally (increasingly, I’d say) ‘exceed the health limit values near main traffic routes’.

pollutionBut forget the -ides… it’s the fine particles that put us at most risk in terms of air quality. And way back in 2004, more than ten years ago, about 170 people in
100 000 died prematurely from long-term exposure to high PM concentrations in Hungary.

That shocked me on two levels. No studies have been published by the EEA since 2004 on Hungary? Air pollution can kill?

A friend of mine making one of their semi-regular trips to Budapest from Ireland, commented recently on the poor quality of air in Pest. He said it was a combination of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. And while my knee-jerk reaction was to rise up in defence of my adopted city, I had to agree. It’s bad. And it’s getting worse.

Many moons ago, in another lifetime, I was sitting outside a restaurant in Carlsbad, California, having a quiet cigarette. A rather precocious child passed me by, complaining loudly to her mother that ‘that lady’ was ‘polluting’ her air. As they both climbed in to their SUV, I wondered who was doing the most damage.

For every study out there that says that second-hand smoke is more carcinogenic than exhaust fumes, there’s another that says the exact opposite. Both are bad. Both are noxious. Both taste awful. And knowing that I contribute in some small way to this might, once and for all, make me quit.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 March 2015

Emigrants abroad

Well, that’s St Patrick’s Day done and dusted for another year. For me, anyway. It’s taking me longer and longer to recover from the endurance test that masks itself as a celebration. And this year, like other years, it included a few firsts.

I’ve always wanted to see the inside of Magyar Tudományos Akadémia (the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) and this year, it happened, courtesy of an invite from the Irish Ambassador, His Excellency Kevin Dowling, to a lunch-time National Day event, with guest of honour Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Irish Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality.

The building, designed by architect Friedrich August Stüler, is a blend of the Renaissance style of Northern Italy and the Neo-Renaissance tendencies of Berlin. Suffice to say, it’s gorgeous and sitting where it does on the banks of the Danube, somewhat dwarfed by the Four Seasons across the road, it’s a classic reminder of life in Budapest in the late 1800s.

After we applauded two Hungarians students who won bursaries to study in Ireland, the Minister introduced St Patrick as an immigrant (a perspective I’d not heard before) and situated him the context of immigration today. He spoke of immigrants from Hungary (10 000), Poland (180 000), Africa, Brazil, China and other countries enriching life in Ireland. He spoke of the traditions and culture they bring with them. And he spoke of the necessity of embracing migration as a key part of global living. I was a tad surprised that he’d be so bold, given how the current Hungarian regime is, to say the least, not of the same opinion. It was a subtle dig and I wondered briefly whether it was intentional – but then as is diplomacy’s wont, of course it was.

Later that evening, at the Military History Museum (home to the famous hand of Stalin), at a second National Day reception, he would repeat these remarks and in doing so, underscored Ireland’s gift to the world – her people. I felt faint stirrings of national pride as a warm glow emanated throughout the room. Nicely done, sir, nicely done.

photo (600x800) (2)Waiting outside for a taxi to take us downtown, we stood in the shadow of the remains of the wonderful church of Santa María Magdalena. During the Turkish reign, this was the only Christian church in town, shared by Catholics and Protestants alike, a fitting tie-in with Ireland’s troubled past. Today, its winding staircase, so clearly visible through the windows, stretches up towards the heavens, as it quietly makes the case for steadfastness and tenacity. The main body of the church was destroyed in WWII but its fifteenth-century tower stands tall in the centre of Kapisztrán tér. It’s a beautiful sight.

Later that evening, over dinner and drinks with Irish, English, and Hungarian friends in an Italian restaurant and a Scottish pub, his words came back to me. It is true, that no matter where we go in the world, we are blessed in finding  new family abroad. The friends we meet on our travels and the relationships that result can last a lifetime. And if ever there was a day to celebrate the international in us all, it’s St Patrick’s Day.

PS For those of you in Budapest this weekend, the celebrations aren’t yet over. The parade will start from Szabadság tér at 3pm on Sunday with people gathering from 1.30 onwards… for the craic.

PPS Note to self – visit the 1956 room at the Military History Museum.



Bring on the flashmob

I want to be flashmobbed. I want to find myself in a railway station, or a bus depot, or an airport one day and have hundreds of people come out onto the concourse and entertain me. Even thinking about it, I can feel the unbridled joy that such a ‘spontaneous’ act of revelry would bring.

Of course, there’s nothing spontaneous about flashmobs. The originator of the idea, Bill Wasik of Wired magazine, knows only too well the hours and hours of practice and coordination that go into making them seem spontaneous.

Defined as ‘ a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, before quickly dispersing’ some of those I’ve seen on social media are inspiring. And watching the faces in the crowd, they seem to do untold good. I can imagine how the memory of it all will keep people going for days afterwards.

In an era where we are constantly bombarded with bad news – shootings, killings, murders, kidnappings, poverty, mindless acts of terror – three minutes of something wholesome can do wonders to revive a drooping spirit and provide a feelgood feeling you can tap into at any time in the weeks and months ahead.

The jury is out on what Wasik original intended. It depends on what you read. He said that his intention was to

…poke fun at hipsters and to highlight the cultural atmosphere of conformity and of wanting to be an insider or part of ‘the next big thing.’

Oddly thought, his flashmobs seem to have given conformity a way to be non-conforming. Elsewhere,  he said:

The mobs started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could.

Whatever. Even watching later, on Youtube and the like, I am guaranteed to come away smiling. There was one in Budapest in November 2013 that I missed 🙁  and don’t even remember hearing anyone talk about.

And another in Mamut in 2010…

So bring it on, Budapest, time for another. And while you sort yourselves out, I’ll be walking the city in expectation.

2015 Grateful 42

So we didn’t win. We lost. To Wales. And if we had to lose to anyone, I am glad it was to them, even if Wales coach Warren Gatland isn’t on my Christmas card list.  It was an exciting game though, one that had me standing on the rungs of my stool reaching for the ceiling, willing the lads on. I was roaring like a fishwife on Moore Street, and wondering why Sexton and the boys weren’t listening to me.

wales2But we didn’t do it. Our coach Joe Schmidt says we’ve no one to blame but ourselves. He thinks we ‘let ourselves down a little bit’. I think that it’s not the first time. When we’re favourites, when we’re expected to win, to deliver, we fall short. It’s happened before sextonand it will no doubt happen again.

There’s simply something in our psyche that kicks in when it comes to delivering on expectations. As the country’s armchair critics dissect the game and list the many things they’d have done had they been on the pitch or in charge, Irish around the world are wallowing in a sea of disappointment. So confident 48 hours ago, today we’re all a tad shaken and probably a little hungover.

We’re not out of the championship – Scotland did their bit to keep England from doing more damage than it did and if we beat the Scots well at Murrayfield next week, points could decide it all. But the Grand Slam is gone and the Triple Crown is gone. And with them our hope for glory.

walesBut as was pointed out to me, last night, as I sat nursing my fröccs on the brink of tears, did we really want to go into the World Cup unbeaten and victorious? What might that have done for us, given that we’re so pathetically bad at living up to the hype? Perhaps Wales did us a good turn with their wall-like defense. Perhaps this isn’t as bad as it could be. Perhaps this is actually the better result – the battle we had to lose to win the war. Only time will tell.

This week, after a busy week and a rollercoaster weekend, I’m grateful that I got to experience the highs and the lows in the company of good friends – Welsh, Hungarian, Irish, English, and Scottish. I’m grateful, too, that we’re all still talking to each other.  We are, aren’t we?