A world behind walls

Other people’s opinions and impressions can have a marked effect on me. It depends, of course, the weight I give them and how they’ve done in the past. Not having the luxury of travelling for long periods of time, instead snatching a few days here and there, time is always at a premium. So how to spend that time requires thinking about.

When I said I was going to Tuscany, the one place that was repeatedly recommended by friends and acquaintances was Lucca. Way back in 1902, Hilaire Belloc, a writer, had this to say:  ‘The neatest, the regularest, the exactest, the most fly-in-amber town in the world, with its uncrowded streets, its absurd fortifications… everything in Lucca is good.’ And most of that still holds true – apart from the uncrowded streets, one of the side-effects 0f cheap and easy travel. It was busy. Very busy. And again, I found myself giving thanks that we’d come off season – not that there is an ‘off season’ in Italy. I can’t imagine the hell it would be at the height of the summer.

The tall Renaissance walls (all 4200 metres of them) that surround the medieval city hold all expectations at bay. If you hadn’t done your homework and realised that the town was really inside the walls, you could lawfully pass it by. Needless to say, I hadn’t done my homework, but the intrepid MI had.

IMG_0102 (800x600)The narrow, cobblestoned streets, soaring church spires, and buildings dating back centuries are all so well preserved that it’s like stepping back in time. Probably the most impressive piazza is Piazza dell´Anfiteatro, which sits on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, accessible by four arched entrances. It’s a hive of activity with numerous bars, cafés, and restaurants making it an ideal spot for people watching.

IMG_0107 (800x600)IMG_0097 (588x800)The city’s understated elegance is mirrored in the brass mail boxes and ancient intercoms. With about 90 000 residents, it’s somewhere I wouldn’t mind living for a while, if they could fit me in. Most of the locals travel by bike and I’m sure they get royally pissed off at having to navigate the hoards of tourists that descend on the city every day. Mind you, though, if ever a nation was predisposed to patience, it has to be the Italians. They seem to take everything in their stride, no one in a rush to go anywhere. The narrow streets give way to even narrower alleyways with the view skywards impressive enough to cause a few run-ins and stubbed toes, as tourists stumble into each other and over each other trying to take it all in.  I’ve never fully appreciated the Tuscan colour palette before and how the sun bounces off the golds and yellows and oranges that make up the mix. What artistic talent I have wouldn’t fill the smallest of canvasses but had I any, I’d have been in heaven.

IMG_0124 (800x600)IMG_0166 (600x800)IMG_0140 (800x600)Trees pop up in the most unlikeliest of places and after an hour or so you realise the truth of the old adage – in Lucca, you really never know what’s around the next corner. Narrow alleys open on to wide expanses, the courtyards of which are crisscrossed with shadows of church towers and steeples. Its history was a tumultuous one. Once a centre for textiles, silk, and banking,  Lucca managed to stay independent of Florence and even had its own currency. The kings of Bavaria and Bohemia seized it at various stages, and the Noblese from the nearby cities of Genoa, Verona, and Parma traded it back and forth over the centuries. In the early 1600s, it was taken over by an oligarchy and managed to steer clear of trouble until Napoleon captured it in three centuries later. It had a good run.

IMG_0135 (800x600)IMG_0142 (800x600)IMG_0122 (800x600)What stuck me most, though, was how laid back it all is, despite the crowds. You can move from a bustling street to an empty square in minutes. The hundreds, if not thousands, of steps make perfect perches for those who want to spend some time enjoying the sun. When it all gets too much, take a break. Or even when it hasn’t gotten too much, take a break anyway. There’s very little that can’t wait.
IMG_0130 (800x283)In July, there’s a massive music festival and the line-up this year is impressive. I’d travel back to see the Dublin lads from The Script, and maybe take in Paolo Nutini the night before and Billy Idol the night after. What a few days that would be. Spoiled for choice. No matter when you go, if you’re in that part of the world, it’s a city not to be missed.
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Auto correction

If I’m already in a bad mood, auto-correction on my phone has been known to drive me over the edge, into a world where I even irritate myself. I know that it’s nigh on impossible to proofread my own work as my eye sees what my brain thinks I’ve written. That I can accept. But to read back over a text I’ve sent and see errors not of my making – that does my head in.

In Milan, in the D’uomo recently, my camera died. The lens stuck open and wouldn’t close. I’ve had it fixed twice and given its age and mileage, it owes me no favours. So I bought a new one. No research (not that I’d have done any anyway), no clue of what I wanted, other than it had to be smaller and have a bigger zoom. I went with Canon again – a little number that apparently would do everything my G9 did except offer me a viewfinder – something I never used anyway. And, he said, it was smarter.

I’ve come to dread that word – smart – especially when applied to technology. Smartphones my arse. They do the dumbest things. A smart camera was something  I could without. The bells and whistles do nothing but confuse me. I played around with the features and found one that distorts – I tried it out in Pisa.

IMG_0039 (800x600)The famous tower, probably the first and only thing that comes to mind when you hear mention of the city of Pisa, took 800 years to complete. It stood straight for the first five years, when it had only two floors, but as more were added it started to lean. It’s part of the Piazza Dei Miracoli (field of miracles), which is also home to the amazing D’uomo, the interior of which has a much bigger wow factor than what is arguably the best known tower in the world. Rumour has it that to demonstrate that the mass of an object has no effect on how quickly it falls  Galileo Galilei dropped two cannonballs of differing mass from the tower. This has yet to be confirmed though.

IMG_0031 (800x600)IMG_0029 (600x800) (600x800)Anyway, back to my smart camera. Too lazy to read the instructions (which were in Italian anyway), I played around with the settings and whatever I did, the display screen kept showing a straight tower. Auto-correction taken to a new level. And even what little tilt it did show was in the wrong direction. Piazza Dei Miracoli  indeed. I finally gave up but, when I uploaded the photos, what I was seeing on the screen wasn’t what came out on my laptop, begging the question as to whether my laptop is really smarter than my camera. It was enough to drive me to drink… but I was driving.

Pisa was my first taste of tourist Italy. There are a number of ticket combinations you can purchase that will take you up the 294 steps on the north side and down the 296 steps on the south side as well as into the Baptistery and the Camposanto and the museums. But I wasn’t in the mood for a climb and have long since lost the urge to do things just to say I’ve done them. Thankfully, entry to the cathedral (D’uomo) is free as I object in principle to paying to go into a Catholic Church considering I’ve been a lifelong member. [Tip: You have to get your admission ticket in advance though and enter at your allotted time so if you go, do that first before you wander around.]

IMG_0069 (800x600)IMG_0068 (800x600)IMG_0067 (800x600)The black-and-white marble is something else. Stunning. Galileo also spent time here apparently (he studied at the University of Pisa so it makes sense), as rumour has it that he developed his pendulum theory by watching an incense lamp swinging from the ceiling in one of the naves. The frescoes are spectacular and the whole place has a genuine feeling of sacredness, something missing from so many churches today. But it wasn’t the marble or the frescoes that did it for me… it was the statues of two lions at the base of the pulpit. They look as if they are in agony. I was mesmerized.

IMG_0078 (600x800)IMG_0081 (600x800)I don’t remember ever seeing a marble statue being so real. I’m not sure whether it was the combination of the open mouth and the huge eyes, but it took very little, if any, imagination to feel the angst. I rather fancied that it was guilt at killing the antelope – but did that make sense? To be guilty about what, in your very nature, you are? To apologise to the world for how you were born? To have to seek permission or validation or public sanction to feel as you do?  Now there’s a distorted picture.IMG_0026 (800x587)



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Who exactly is Mark Dawson? How come I didn’t know about him? I consider myself reasonably clued in with regard to who’s writing what in the crime/thriller world and would be reasonably familiar with a lot of author names and characters. And if I hadn’t read them, they’d have come up in conversation with similar crime aficionados. But Mark Dawson slipped beneath my radar.

I happened across him during a Kindle 99p sale. Three of his novels on sale for 99p. A digital boxed set. With nothing to lose, I paid, I downloaded, and I started to read. Seven novels later, I’m on the brink of identifying a little too much with his character, the rugged John Milton, former SAS, former assassin, current alcoholic, who is on a mission to atone.

MD3Milton ain’t no Jack Reacher, but he’s as close as I’ve come to finding someone who might, with a slight stretch, touch his shirttails. I’m impressed. Not only with the depth of character, but also with what I’ve learned about political situations in the various cities, states, and countries that Milton (an Englishman) finds himself in. I’m enjoying the moral dilemmas and the subtle lessons to be learned from each book.

I like how Dawson goes back in time without disturbing me and I like how some characters reappear a couple of books after they’ve made their debut. I also like how I try to anticipate these follow-up appearances but have yet to be right. Saint Death won me over. Completely. Any lingering doubts I might have had about Milton were laid to rest. That’s not to say he doesn’t irritate me at times.  I was pretty pissed with him for the assumption he made at the end of The Sword of God – I’d come to expect more of him, but he redeemed himself in Salvation Row.

A little perturbed that I might be coming to the end of what Dawson has currently published, I was thrilled skinny to find that one character I particularly liked has been given her own series and those two boxed sets have just been downloaded. Dawson also has a Soho Noir series on the go and I’ve that slated for when I’m done with Beatrix Rose.

MDSo who is Mark Dawson and where has he been hiding? He’s English and lists his jobs to date as ‘DJ, a door-to-door ice cream seller, factory hand and club promoter’. A lawyer by profession, he spent ten years working in the City of London and Soho, ‘first pursuing money launderers around the world and then acting for celebrities suing newspapers for libel’. He currently works in the London film industry … and write books. Lots of books.

His website has it all, including some free books (if you don’t believe me and want to try see for yourself…).

This week was a good one, a busy one, one where new doors opened and other doors closed but the balance tipped in my favour. The boys at Békéscsaba beat Siofók on Saturday and I was there to witness the 2-0 spectacle. I was out and about and catching up with old friends and getting to know new ones. And I had Mark Dawson’s Milton with me every time I had a free minute. So, this week, I’m grateful for my Kindle. Yes! I know. I never thought I’d hear myself say that either… but I’m hooked. It’s my IV … just turn the tap and the books flow in. And I’m grateful for writers like Mark Dawson who give me a door through which to escape my world long enough to appreciate it.


The origin of the species

chinaI like to think that I’m a conscious consumer in that I check the labels of everything I buy and decide whether or not to purchase based on where it was made. I do this, even though I heard recently from someone who was outsourcing clothing designs to be fashioned in China. They were asked by the supplier where they’d like the label to say they’d been made: Vietnam? India? Sri Lanka? The world was theirs for the making.

Last week, a Hungarian friend was presenting a paper at a European Association of Agricultural Economists (EAAE) seminar in Parma on Intellectual Property Rights for Geographical Indications. I tagged along. And I was educated.

bekA geographical indication (GI) is ‘a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. In order to function as a GI, a sign must identify a product as originating in a given place […] Since the qualities depend on the geographical place of production, there is a clear link between the product and its original makjplace of production.’ Hungary has a few GIs, including szegedi paprika (paprika from Szeged), makói hagyma (onions from Makó), and békéscsabai kolbász pap(sausage from Békéscsaba). To achieve GI status, producers have to follow a litany of rules and regulations and the complete life of the product should be visible to the consumer, assuming they know what to look for. Or even care to look.

Most of the produce on sale in a supermarket in Budapest shows its point of origin. I can make informed decisions about what to buy. Not so with the meat though. At the larger markets, if I ask where the carrots, or the cabbages, or the parsnips were grown, I’m met with a shrug. I might get a tentative ‘Magyar’, but it’s so weak that I am reluctant to believe it. In my innocence, I had thought that all the sellers were selling their own products but I discovered that most buy wholesale and then sell on. I was shocked to see that vegetables rank No. 22 on the list of fastest-growing imports to Hungary, and mainly from Spain.

So what if I want to support Hungarian-grown produce that I know is from Hungary? Not just because it says so on the label (paper will take any print) but because I can trust the supplier. I asked my friend, who is well up on all things food-related, and she pointed me in the way of www.szatyorbolt.hu a webshop that has three pick-up points in Budapest (districts V, VIII, and XIII). I can order Hungarian produce online and have it delivered to the pick-up point on Tuesday or Thursday. The website shows photos of the producers and lists their products. I am well impressed. There’s also an option to pay for home-delivery.

veg2www.nekedterem.hu is a similar initiative, specialising in home delivery of boxes of fresh, seasonal, organic fruit and vegetables grown within a 50-km radius of Budapest. Again, sources are transparent. And if I don’t have time to cook I can order from www.Haziko.hu that offers home-cooked food using locally sourced ingredients. They deliver their fresh food in biodegradable packaging by bike. Nice!

Yes, there are smaller markets like Hyundai tér market on a Saturday where everything on sale is produced in Hungary (I trust), but it isn’t always convenient and I still don’t know where exactly the stuff comes from and who’s grown/produced it. I want to have more of a relationship with my food – if we’re on better terms, perhaps I might be a little more selective about what I eat. And that can only be good.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 April 2015

I’m not bossy, I’m the boss

We’re the same age, me and her, give or take a few months. But we’ve led completely different lives. And while I might have had a poem or two written about me in my day, Kris Kristofferson has yet to write a song about me. I’ve been described as a lot things but never a ‘bald-headed brave little girl’. For one, my hairstylist put paid to my life ambition to shave my head telling me that mine is very oddly shaped and it would look comical rather than cool.

sineadSinéad O’Connor played MUPA last night as part of the Budapest Spring Festival. She appeared on stage in jeans, a red shirt, a sailor cap, and a pair of sunglasses. She told the almost-packed venue that she was wearing the glasses because she was shy and didn’t want to see us looking at her. If she loosened up, she might take them off. She didn’t. And she didn’t. mmmm… not quite what I expected.

sinead2I grew up on Sinéad and her antics and respected her for her willingness to put herself out there and speak her mind, no matter how often she was misunderstood or castigated by the press. She has a stunning voice – one that doesn’t need mixers or back-up, one that is best heard solo and last night’s concert proved that. And I always thought her stunningly gorgeous – right up there on my list of the world’s most beautiful women.

Mixing problems for the first few songs meant that I didn’t hear a word until she launched into Jackie. Another surprise. I’d thought it would be all songs from her latest album and I wasn’t quite expecting this oldie from the eighties. I was a little taken aback at her choice of Black Boys on Mopeds – and wondered what the Hungarian audience would make of  the lyrics:

England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving

Her rendition of In this heart was goosebumpingly great and showed her at her best. And yet the lyrics, when added to those of the rest of the song list, suggest that she’s seen better days. Far from the feisty, outspoken, star of the 1980s, the Sinéad we saw last night seemed far more subdued, anxious, and … strangely dependent. It was odd, upsetting even. Her Thank you for hearing me nearly had me in tears as I watched her almost palpable resignation from the gallery. When did this happen? What have I missed? Where has her life force gone?

She played for an hour and apart from a series of ‘thank yous’ after each song that ranged in strength from matter-of-factness to bare whispers, and one stray ‘oh bollox, never mind’, she said nothing. When she returned for a two-song encore – the crowd were not going anywhere until she did – she apologised (?) for not saying much while on stage. She said that this was because she’s an idiot and what she says is idiotic and that this was because she has these – pointing to her boobs. I can only hope that she was being sarcastic but I wouldn’t swear to it.**

Were I to guess, a lot of the audience had turned up on the strength of the one song that rocketed her to international fame, a song, she said, that she was finally putting to bed and would sing for the last time in Budapest, never to sing it again. To hear her sing the classic Nothing compares to you, live, and for the last time, was worth the ticket price and more. But it was sad, so sad, to see Sinéad almost apologising for being … well… Sinéad.

sinead2We’re the same age, give or take a few months. I grew up with her and admired her tremendously for her spirit. Her album Am I not your girl ranks on my list of favourite albums of all time, particularly her rendition of Black Coffee. And I miss what she once was. Okay, so MUPA isn’t exactly a Sinéad-type venue; had she been playing to a tented crowd at Electric Picnic, perhaps it would have been different. I’m glad I went though. And I’m glad I heard her sing live. And I’m glad that she’s still singing.


** Yes, she was. Whew. Check out her FB page and see that she’s still as spirited as ever – must have been the venue and the fact that the gig was being filmed for a live album. Faith restored.

Exposing style

‘I’ll come around and pick you up’, he said, in a to-die-for Italian accent. ‘Ten minutes. Be ready.’ ‘Okay’, says I. ‘I’ll go down and wait on the street so you won’t have to park. What’ll you be driving?’ ‘I’ll take the Ferrari,’ says he.

IMG_6769 (800x600)Nothing like waking up in Milan and getting straight into the thick of a rather stylish way of life. I’m not that into cars … usually. I’m more of the ‘does it come in any other colour’ rather than ‘how fast can it go in 60 seconds’ type. But I’m sucker for old cars – cars that were made as cars should be made, ones you can sit in and feel the road beneath you and hear the revs as the speed notches up. And while a 18-year-old Ferrari doesn’t go any faster than a normal car, it sounds like it’s racing. From the low-slung leather seats, it’s like looking up at the world from beneath – a wonderful feeling. And not a bad way to have a quick tour of the neighbourhood.

I’ve been to Milan a couple of times, and each time there’s something new to see and more to learn about this lovely city. I had no idea that back in the early 1900s, the streets we were driving on were actually canals. In old paintings, Milan looks a lot like Venice. Neither did I know that Monte Stella, a hill in the city park, is an artificial hill, made from the debris of buildings bombed during WWII and the last remnants of the old Spanish Walls that once surrounded the city.

IMG_6771 (800x600)Given my complete lack of interest in soccer, other than the mighty Békéscsaba Elóre, it’s not all that surprising that I didn’t recognise the famous San Siro football stadium for the mecca it is for many. Home to both AC Milan and Inter Milan, the former having it all to itself until 1945, the stadium seats more than 80 000 … now that there are rules and minor inconveniences like Health and Safety regulations. Back in the day, it could take 100 000 on a good day. There are talks though that each club might well be building its own stadium – going down the 45k-seat, branded route that has turned international football into a multinational business. The stadium sits on prime real estate and the surrounding parks are the focus of many a developer’s fantasy. And what a loss that would be to a city where greenery is still fighting its corner.

IMG_6774 (800x600)For all its style, though, Milan has still retained an undercurrent of contrariness that sets it against societal norms. One gem of a building near Lotto, a squat to all intent and purpose, has been occupied by a group of people whose mission, as emblazoned in graffiti, is to ‘occupy, assist, and produce’. It’s now home to Libreria Don Durito, a revolutionary library that has been on the go  for ten years. The best Google Translate can do to explain its rationale is:

Fantasy and irony. As Don Durito we want to preserve the fantasy and a laugh even when the government launched a military offensive against us. Every day when we open the windows of our library we know why we are here; because we resist and build libraries, occupied spaces, popular universities and why we are still here reading and to read, to do slam poetry, to play and sing, to break the loneliness of the people, to be together in cord tied between mates, siblings .

What a wonderful mission, cause, raison d’être, whatever you want to call it. That’s something I could happily sign up to.

IMG_6780 (800x600)As if that wasn’t surprise enough, when I ventured inside the D’uomo, I found a sculpture by Tony Cragg, a British artist whose work I quite like. It is probably the last place in the world that I’d have expected to see a piece of his on display. He says, of his work, that it’s ‘very often about the structures that lay beyond, behind, and underneath the things we see’. This piece is part of a celebration of ExpoMilano 2015, which opens for six months in May and is expecting to attract millions to the city.

Expo Milano 2015 is the Universal Exhibition that Milan, Italy, will host from May 1 to October 31, 2015. Over this six-month period, Milan will become a global showcase where more than 140 participating countries will show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the Planet and its equilibrium. In addition to the exhibitor nations, the Expo also involves international organizations, and expects to welcome over 20 million visitors to its 1.1 million square meters of exhibition area.

Perhaps I might be one of them.


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In times when the Catholic Church in particular, and religious institutions in general, are receiving a bashing, it is nice to see that some churches are still attracting young people in their droves, to celebrate life in their own inimitable way. Yes, they might never darken the doors of the church itself, but they gather in their hundreds outside on the steps to sing and celebrate. They come from many different countries and mix and mingle in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous churches. Everyone welcome. Everyone accepted.

IMG_6378 (800x600)IMG_6388 (800x600)This is what happens each evening on the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris. Hundreds gather to sit on the steps and listen to impromptu concerts as enterprising buskers tout their CDs in the wake of their live performances. Hawkers sell bottles of Heineken at €5 a throw, still cold, despite the heat. There are no deals – perhaps they are all agents for a monopoly, or perhaps they have agreed amongst themselves, made a pact to get the most out of those who have forgotten that BYOB is de rigeur for this particular party.

IMG_6413 (800x600)Lots of people are drinking and yet no one is drunk. Perhaps this has something to do with the Cathedral looming in the background, banners hanging from its portals declaring that it has been open every day for 125 years. An amazing feat, given that I’ve often been hard pushed in Ireland and Hungary to find a church open mid-week.

Situated in Montmartre (the Mount of Martyrs), where worshiping of some sort or other has been going on since the Druids, the Sacre Couer dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a stunning piece of architecture that came into being as a result of a promise. Back in 1870, when France and Germany were at war (Germany won and partially occupied France as a result), two men – Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury – saw France’s troubles not as political but as spiritual. Their idea was to build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart in reparation. So they did. And it’s still there.

IMG_6425 (800x598)As the evening draws on, the lights in Paris switch on, one by one, gradually lighting up the city below. It’s a show not to be missed, free for all to see, and so compelling that many come back again, and again. The atmosphere is electric. It’s what church and religion should be – and sadly are not.

IMG_6418 (800x600)The only anomaly are the three security agents on patrol, dressed in combat fatigues, touting what guns that I imagine AK47s to look like. They walk in circles, constantly scouting 360 degrees, fingers on the triggers, ready for whatever comes their way. I wondered briefly whether this was a reaction to the recent terrorist attacks or whether it’s always been this way. I have no way of knowing. I would hope it’s reactionary and given time, will no longer be necessary. But perhaps, that too, is a sign of changing times.

This week, a week where patience (a limited commodity in my world on a good day) was tried and tested, where frustrations at my own inabilities ran high, and where self-berating was the order of the day, I’m glad of this memory. It was a lovely evening, on a lovely weekend, a weekend when I got to know Paris a little better and was big enough to admit that I was wrong about her.



Every cloud has a silver lining

One of the things that struck me when I first discovered Hungary was that Hungarians have a pride in their ancestry that has led to a litany of substantiated claims to major inventions: Bíro László  (biros), Petzval  Joseph (binoculars), Irinyi  János (safety matches). Unfortunately, most are not in living memory. Others, too, proved their worth while living overseas: the Ford T car was designed by Hungarian-American immigrant József Galamb and another Hungarian, Károly Simonyi, led the Microsoft applications group responsible for Word and Excel. The list appears endless.

But let’s back up. I say ‘discovered Hungary’ because, truth be told, what I knew about Hungary before first visiting in 2003 would have fit on the nib of one of Bíro’s biros. And I wasn’t alone. When the Celtic Tiger opened Ireland’s doors to reverse migration, things changed. We were so used to moving to other parts of the world, that it seemed strange to see so many people (including 10 000 Hungarians) come live in Ireland. But they did, and were successful. Dotted around Ireland you’ll find signs saying Beszélünk Magyarul proudly posted on the windows of local businesses. Great to see.

And while Hungarians are going abroad and making arguably better lives for themselves, those left at home have little to look forward to. Or do they? I met a young lady recently who has me thinking.

Twenty-five-year-old Nóra Ulrich went to Ireland to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin as an erasmus student from Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME) in Budapest. She did a short, five-week programme with Newbridge Silverware when two of her 20 designs were chosen for their 2014 collection.

(C) Russell Skidmore Photography

(C) Russell Skidmore Photography

Newbridge liked Nóra and her work so much that they invited her back on a paid internship. In collaboration with Guinness, they were designing a new range of products that included jewelry and home accessories. [Incidentally, Guinness is one of Colaiste Íde’s corporate partners – I wrote about them last week – and together with Pallas Foods in Dublin, they created the 1759 Silver Menu presented at the Irish Ambassador’s residency recently with a nod to 1759 being the year Guinness started brewing the black stuff and silver being the backbone of Newbridge Silveware.] Nóra worked for nearly a year on this collection using brewing ingredients as her inspiration. A number of her pieces now feature and more appear in the regular 2015 collection, too. Her silverwork is exquisite.

Nóra’s back in Budapest now, finishing her diploma at MOME and is full of enthusiasm about the possibilities open to young Hungarians: ‘It was a wonderful experience for me. I like that the jewellery I designed will reach so many people. It feels incredible. I want to inspire others to get out there and try – just about anything can happen if you do.’ It did this jaded heart good to bask in the glow of such positive youthful energy.

Back in the 1980s, Ireland lost a significant part of her brain-power to emigration, as hundreds of thousands of young people went to North America and Australia in search of opportunties denied to them at home. Three decades later, I see the same is happening in Hungary. Swathes of young and not so young people are moving to other parts of Europe where they have a chance to be economically independent and where the concept of ‘savings’ becomes a reality rather than a dream. Singles, couples, couples with kids, all vanishing through the departure gate. My fear is that they, unlike Nóra, will never come home and that their creative genius will be lost, destined to be eulogised in yet another long list of Hungarians who made it abroad.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 April 2015

Memories – or the lack of them

I was in Paris many years ago as part of an Inter-rail trip around Europe that I embarked upon myself. Alone. On my tod. I cringe when I think of how naive I was to think I could travel on my own, without mishap, for three weeks, based on the relative success of  a single weekend away in London with a friend from college, and an uneventful two weeks in the Canaries with said same friend. I was so unqualified it was pathetic.

I know I spent a night in Paris. Perhaps two – and maybe twice – one day/night each time? I’m not sure. I know I was definitely there though because I walked off an overnight train from somewhere and was half-way up the platform before I realised that my arms were swinging. And they should have been holding the bag that had my passport, my Eurocheques (remember them?), my credit card and my cash.I did what any self-respecting naive innocent abroad would do when her mammy seemed oh so very far away and unable to right her world … I sat down on my rucksack on the platform and cried.

A lovely French woman in her early 30s, whose name I can’t remember, took pity of me. I remember applying the word ‘chic’ to her in my mind and it finally embodying something tangible.  She contacted security. They located my stuff. And then she took me home to her flat and let me sleep for a few hours until she had to go to work. She even fed me breakfast.

I know I took a tour. There is no way I wouldn’t have (is there?). But I have zero recollection of seeing the three pillars of Parisian sightseeing: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Elysées . I had thought that when I went back a couple of weeks ago, unchecked memories would come flooding back – but they didn’t. The grave of the unknown soldier that lies under the Arc rang a faint bell, but so faint that it might well have been my next-door neighbour’s phone.

IMG_6475 (800x600)The Eiffel Tower is still standing (even though when it was built in 1859, it wasn’t meant to be permanent). It’s besieged by thousands of tourists who patiently queue to ascend to the top (it’s the most-visited paid monument in the world ~ 6 million a year last count). I didn’t feel the need. Since I discovered that the same chap  (Gustav Eiffel) who designed it also designed Nyugati Station in Budapest and the Statue of Liberty’s spine, some of its magic has been diluted along with its exclusivity.

IMG_6627 (800x594)Mind you, its tenacity is admirable – it was to be demolished in 1909 but was saved when some bright spark had the idea of repurposing it as a radio antenna. It was originally intended for Barcelona, in Spain, but the Spanish rejected the plans… that’s a little like some not-so-bright spark in Bloomsbury turning down the US rights to Harry Potter as they didn’t think he’d appeal to Americans (don’t know where I heard that… bloody memory… it’ll come to me). On some days, it’s taller than others, by about 15cm, because of the temperature and the paint that takes to coat it weighs as much as ten elephants. Or so they say. The best view I had of it was at night, from the Trocadero, when its twenty thousand lightbulbs were lit up. Absolutely stunning.

Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806 to honour his army, who, the previous year, had been victorious against the Russo-Austrian army at Austerlitz. He told them that they would ‘return home through archs of triumph’, but it wasn’t completed till 1836, by which stage Napoleon was dead and the army had presumably already gotten home.

IMG_6457 (800x600)As a structure, it is magnificent, every metre of its 49m x 45m x 22m expanse. For me though it’s the tomb of the unknown soldier buried there in 1920 as a reminder of the 1.5 million French soldiers who died in the Great War – that’s where the poignancy is. Apparently, every day at 6pm since 1923, French veterans and serving soldiers rekindle the flame. I can’t vouch for though but if it does indeed happen, it’s a lovely thought. I’m not in favour of war or fighting of any kind, yet those who have laid down their lives so other can live free deserve to be remembered.

The Arc sits at the top of the Champs-Elysées , the city’s favourite boulevard. Did you know that in Greek mythology, the Champs Elysées are where heroes stay after death? I didn’t, but Napoleon’s choice of location makes sense now. Just under 2 km in length, it’s 70 m wide – and takes a while to cross. It’s really only been back in fashion for about 40-something years, after being resuscitated in the 1980s. Now it’s home to all the biggest, most exclusive brand names in the world. Curiously, apparently none of the many famous painters who ever lived in Paris have painted it, so one has to wonder what the hype is about? Yes, they’re home to the Jardin des Tuilieres and provide a suitable address for many notable buildings but Andrássy in Budapest is longer at 2.3 km even if at its widest (45.5) it doesn’t even come close – and it rates just as high, if not higher, in this mind.

I’m still getting my head around the fact that I have zero recollection of my first foray to Paris, apart from the abiding distaste it left me with. I find it hard to believe that it was so uneventful, so forgettable, that I simply erased the trip from my memory. But going back this time was like going there for the first time – albeit with a lingering sense of deja vu that refused to be pinned down. Would I go back a third time? Definitely. Perhaps it’s a city that matures with age – my age.





2015 Grateful 38

You look at me and what do you first notice? My size? My shape? The colour of my eyes? My glasses? My hair? My attitude? The size of my ears? How I’m dressed? What you see is pretty much the finished product. Yes, superficially I might decide to go blonde again, or pile back on the pounds, but the essence of me will still be recognisable.

Think of what a sculptor sees when he looks at a block of granite or marble.  To the untrained eye, it’s a block of stone. To them, though, it has form, shape, and essence, all of which they need to bring to the surface so that other, less-trained eyes, can see them too.

In hindsight, my rather tame reaction to seeing one of the world’s most acclaimed masterpieces might well have stemmed from the fact that I’d spent the previous few hours touring the Musée Rodin on the other side of the Seine. I’ve always been a great fan of his, and number The Kiss as one of my all-time favourite statues. One day, when I have money, I’ll have a copy in my living room that I can enjoy every day. Right now, I’m settling for a framed poster from the gift shop.

IMG_6709 (600x800)Rodin himself wasn’t all that impressed by it, calling it a ‘huge knick-knack’, but there we differ. I was taken with it the first time I saw a copy and could look at it for hours.

The Kiss originally represented Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed, once again, from Dante’s Divine Comedy: slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell.

The museum was undergoing renovations so I’m hoping that’s why it was stuck in a corner that didn’t do it justice. I’d hate to think that everyone else sees it as a knick-knack, too.

IMG_6674 (600x800)Out in the grounds of the Musée Rodin, along with a series of other individual pieces, many of which end up on the famous Gates of Hell, is the even more famous of Rodin’s creations –  The Thinker. He originally had the poet Dante in mind, but the statue apparently evolved to represent all poets and creators. Just the male ones, obviously. It’s a curious piece to see up close and in person. I’d never realised that the muscle detail was so obvious and in a certain light, it didn’t take much imagination to fancy he was real.

IMG_6684 (800x600)IMG_6687 (800x600)The detail in each bronze sculpture was extraordinary. The day was wet and overcast. It was raining. The ground was muddy and the visitors few in number. Perhaps that added to the eeriness of the place, a setting that would, I’m sure, be so much different on a bright, warm, summer’s day. But this seemed more appropriate somehow.

IMG_6689 (593x800) IMG_6691Each statute took us one step closer to seeing the Gates of Hell, the ultimate collection of over 200 pieces that Rodin created separately, a collection which was not cast in bronze until after his death. He never saw for himself what IMG_6694 (800x600)so many enjoy today.  It’s stunningly grotesque. There is a tangible pressure from those who simply come to take its photo to cut your scrutiny short – to get out of the way. Best ignore it. Take time to digest, to explore, to see, and despite the damp cold, to feel the heat from the flames of hell.

Rodin began drawing at the tender age of 10. And although he had talent,  the École des Beaux-Arts, a prestigious Parisian art school, refused him admission three times. He spent a couple of decades as a decorative brick-layer, and it wasn’t until he was in his forties that he started his artistic work.There’s hope for me yet.

IMG_6678 (600x800)He considered his best piece to be a statue of Honoré de Balzac, which he described as ‘the result of a lifetime, the very pivot of [his] aesthetic’. He eschewed the idea of a poet/writer in contemporary dress, quill poised over paper, and took the more ballsy approach of cloaking Balzac and his belly in the dressing gown he usually wore while writing. A minor uproar ensued when the piece was unveiled in 1898 at the Salon. It was rejected by the commissioning body who said that it ‘regrets to have the duty to protest against the rough model exhibited at the Salon by M. Rodin, which it refuses to recognize as the statue of Balzac.’ Admittedly, it didn’t do a whole helluva lot for me either, but then again, me and Balzac aren’t on a nodding acquaintance.

Still though, I have to admire Rodin’s courage to challenge society and convention, to stay true to his convictions, and to stand by the product of his beliefs. In a week that has been thought-provoking and somewhat life-altering, I’m grateful to have Auguste Rodin as an inspiration – late bloomers are beacons of hope on what at times might seem a pretty flat horizon. And his work is a strong reminder that inside the ordinary lies something special.

If you’re in Paris, Musée Rodin is worth a visit.