Forks on wheels

It takes all sorts to make the world go around. Many of us have our pet peeves, our passions, our preferences, and yet few of us ever do anything about them. Most of us are content to sit back and watch the world go by, and as long as things don’t directly impact our own lives, we’re happy to live and let live. We do our bit for the environment by recycling our plastic and our glass, give to the needy, and live within the moral boundaries set for us or set for ourselves. And for most, that’s enough.

But for Beth Martin (who grew up in the UK) and Julia Mason (who grew up in Hong Kong), life is a little bigger, and the world is about to get a lot smaller.

Science graduates both, they left university last year and decided to take some time out before engaging with their careers. Both are passionate about food – and in particular, food waste. They’ve formed their own opinions about the reasons behind the shocking waste of food: ‘an inefficient process from farm to plate, outrageous regulations, excess stocking and unrealistic expectations of consumers driven by an ever demanding, ever competitive market’. Sadly, it all rings true.

But the ladies are open to learning – to seeing firsthand what goes in the world’s supply chains and why this waste is happening. They want to understand the mindset behind this waste and how it differs across countries. In an interview with Endeavour 360 (an archive of news and inspiration from the world of adventure travel that boasts the lovely, life-affirming strapline: find a way, or make one) – the pair laid out their plans to cycle 16 000 km from the UK to forksChina. It’s a long way, certainly, but not nearly as long as the distance some of our food travels.

Their grand plan is to learn as they go. They want to discover more about the world’s food production processes, how farmers operate, and what food means in the various countries they will travel through. On their journey (which began on 11 April), they will be collecting stories, capturing them on film and in photographs, and then sharing them with others in the hope that they can get people to listen, and then to act. Their project, Forks on Wheels, is geared up to make a difference.

There is enough good in the world to go around, if only we were more responsible about how we produce it and how we consume it, and more conscious about how we waste it. That’s a sobering thought. And the vast majority of us are culpable. I wrote some time ago about an enlightened friend of mine buying just one carrot, and the changes that prompted me to make in my own consumption habits. There’s still work to be done but I’m getting there.

Just four weeks in and their Facebook page is like a larder filled with inspiring stories about others who are making a difference and working to put the consciousness back into consuming. The good news is that the ladies are heading our way. Beth and Julia contacted me last week to tell me that Budapest is on their itinerary.

A message from the pair:

We will be arriving in Budapest on Friday, 15th May (5 days) and we would love the opportunity to speak with anyone involved in food waste or with a perspective on food waste in Budapest. Our e-mail address is [email protected]. Best wishes, Beth and Julia.

If you can help them, please do. If you know of anyone involved in food waste, forward their invite. The world needs more people like them, people who care enough to try to keep it going ‘round.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 May 2015

2015 Grateful 34

saraAs is my wont, I wandered across the road for 6 o’clock mass to find the church packed to the rafters – standing room only. And I was only a minute late. A quick scan of what knowledge I have of feast days threw no light on this unexpected crowd. Two priests stood on the altar, one who might well have been a bishop. And in front of them, on an easel draped on flowers, was a black-and-white photo of a woman about my age. She didn’t look familiar.

I caught a few words in Hungarian – something is happening in 10 days’ time and the woman in the photo died in 1944. There were other bits and pieces but I couldn’t catch it. Nuns, in habits and in plain clothes wandered around, the tell-tale gray cardigans and white blouses a giveaway. Like the Gardaí (Irish police) you can always tell them, even when they’re out of uniform. So I figured the woman in the photo might be a nun.

I did the unthinkable and skipped the queue, cutting out the priest who was giving out Communion in the half of the church I was in.  I wanted to catch a name on that photo – and I did. Beata (Blessed) Sára Salkaházi (1899-1944). Her birthday would have been tomorrow.

Still clueless, I came home and Googled her and discovered what a fascinating life she had. She was a  tomboy with a strong will and a mind of her own, someone who liked to play tug-of-war with the boys, who liked to joke a lot, who wrote plays and short stories. She qualified as a teacher, learned her trade as a bookbinder, and then became a journalist. And before she signed up, she had been engaged to be married.

From what I read though, she never did get to take her final vows – because she was the 1940s equivalent of a  female dynamo and the sisters of the Sisters of Social Service (an order of nuns I’ve never heard of) thought that all her energy was her way of drawing attention to herself and this wasn’t exactly God-like. She was into everything to do with women and set up the  first Hungarian college for working women near the Balaton. But willfully, and in spite of their narrow-mindedness, Sára lived her life with self-imposed restrictions as if she had taken her final vows anyway. I like that.

She set up a Catholic Women’s Association and three years before her death, was appointed National Director of the 10, 000-women-strong Hungarian Catholic Working Women’s Movement  and edited its magazine, frequently writing against Nazism. She started hostels for working single women and in these hostels she hid those fleeing from the Nazis. On 27 December 1944, the Nazis descended on one of her hostels on Bokréta Street (just across the road from me and I never knew it) looking for Jews. They’d been betrayed by a woman who worked there. Sára wasn’t there at the time and could have stayed away, but she came back. And along with five others, she was arrested, taken to the banks of the Danube, and shot by the Arrow Cross. Together the sisters had saved more than 1000 people; Sára had saved 100.

She has the distinction of being the first non-aristocrat Hungarian to be beatified  and I wonder when she will be canonised.

sara2I can only imagine what the Sisters of Social Service thought when this chain-smoking, in-your-face, live-wire of a woman turned up declaring her vocation. From the little I’ve read, she seems like she was a force to be reckoned with, doing the work of ten, all the while challenging the system and standing up for what she believed to be right. That so many owe their lives to her is testament to the courage she had in her convictions and the beauty of her selflessness.

This week was a blue-arsed-fly type of week week, a good one that never let up,  full of challenges and new discoveries. To end it by stumbling across one of life’s better people is a bonus. I’m grateful that there are women in the world who truly have made a difference and still do. And I’m grateful that I know (of) some of them. I’m grateful, too, that I can include Sára on my list of the dead I’d like to have to dinner. What a woman.

And to Budapest, the city that keeps on giving – ta much.



Ageing to the sound of music

I’ve just discovered that I have onychorrhexis. For months now, I’ve been telling myself that I should go see my doctor but I never found the time. So I did what any semi-digital native might do – I checked my symptoms online. And there’s no doubt. I have onychorrhexis – vertical ridges on my fingernails. And the main cause of this condition? Ageing.

I’m lucky. Had the ridges been horizontal, they’d be known as Beau’s lines. These, apparently, are caused by ‘diseases that affect the entire body, including malnutrition, heart attack (myocardial infarction), severe infections, and metabolic disturbances, including poorly controlled diabetes’. Whew. I only have to deal with ageing. I just love a bit of perspective.

I am getting older, though. And this fact was brought home to me earlier this week as I walked the streets of Budapest catching up with what’s going on. I make it a habit to take a walk and read the billboards, the posters, the tram-stop advertisements, just to see what’s happening in the city. And with summer within sneezing distance and the shoes and socks already discarded in favour of sandals, the festival season is almost upon us.

dropkickThis year’s Sziget (Island of Freedom Festival 10-17 August) line-up has left me cold, even colder than last year. I don’t recognise any of the acts, apart from Robbie Williams and the Dropkick Murphys (and in truth, it might be the Murphy part I’m relating to – I couldn’t begin to tell you what they sound like but I’d hazard a guess that it’s some type of Celtic rock). Florence and the Machine? Marina and the Diamonds? Gentlemen and the Evolution? Who are these people?

vayaLast year, I missed out on VeszprémFest (this year happening from 15-18 July). I was raging. Too late I saw the posters for Katie Melua (I could sing you at least two of her songs … offkey of course). Too late I saw the posters for Vaya Con Dios (Dani Klein would go on to play her last concert in October last year and that I missed the opportunity to hear her live still makes me mad). And too late I saw the posters for Youssou Ndour – it’s a personal ambition to be able to dance well to his music. I could have gone for the whole five days and felt at home. So this year, I was on the ball. But who have they playing: Kool and the Gang and Roger someone who used to be with Supertramp. I was hoping for Leonard Cohen and Imelda May and the Beautiful South. But no joy.

When I looked at the line-up for Balaton Sound (9‒12 July), I despaired. Hardwell, Nicky Romero, Afrojack, DVBBS, Showtek? I’d never even heard of this lot – but then I realised that they’re DJs. I’m excused. That last time I was at a disco, the Parish Priest was passing through the hall making sure we all had our arms fully extended during the slow set.

motorheadThe Volt Festival in Sopron (1‒4 July) brings me out in hives stressing about how uncool and out-of-touch I am. In fairness, I have heard of Motorhead and enjoyed an interview I heard recently with Fat Boy Slim, but neither of them would aerate my Aperol Spritz.

palomaI was charging my ignorance of all things modernly musical up to me getting older but then remembered that a friend in her seventies had turned me on to George Ezra and another one tipping eighty is mad about Paloma Faith. Wait! I saw that name on a poster somewhere. That’s all I need: my septuagenarian friends bopping away at Sziget while I sit at home, educating myself on YouTube. Ridges on my nails? Onychorrhexis? That’s the least of my worries.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 May 2015

The price of popularity

Driving in Italy was quite the experience, not least because my Italian is worse than my Hungarian. Figuring out the caveats that came attached to parking places was a nightmare. Working out how to use a parking meter (I’ve never had to enter my licence plate into one before) was only possible with the help of a street vendor.

IMG_0415 (800x600)IMG_0421 (800x600)I had my heart set on seeing Cinque Terre – the five villages on the Italian Riviera that belong on a chocolate box. They’re perched at seemingly ridiculous angles on the cliffs and beg the question as to how the builders got the materials up there to build. I’d taken advice and decided to park in the first of the five, Riomaggiore, and then take the 20-minute train journey to the last one, Monterossa, stopping off at Vernazza, Corniglia, and Manarola on the way back. You can get a stop-off train ticket that’s valid for 6 hours which gives plenty of time to see what has to be seen.

So we drove to Riomaggiore, down to the village, and parked, only to be told that parking was for residents only. We hadn’t passed any public parking on the way in and so, with frustration levels mounting, we drove on to Manarola. There we found a public carpark about 15 minutes walk from the village and figured that was as close as we’d get.

It was April. And yet the trains were jammed to capacity with the ‘kids-in-college-time-to-travel’ brigade that numbered Germans, French, Americans, Australians, and Canadians in their midst. Bedlam. And having wasted time trying to find somewhere to park, the train schedule meant that we were doing the Japanese thing – hopping off, running round for half an hour and hopping back on.

IMG_0429 (600x800)IMG_0426 (800x600)IMG_0440 (800x600)

The highlight of Monterossa is definitely the huge statue of Neptune that hangs off the cliff face. It’s quite spectacular and worth the faffing around. The villages have sold their souls to tourist tat but they’ve also managed to retain some of their other-worldly charm, with tiny churches and cinemas and houses that defy gravity. The boutiques sell high-end Italian-made clothes that play to the vanities of wealthy tourists. Local artisans do a steady battle with the Made in China/Turkey souvenirs that seem to be a ‘must-have’ for today’s tourists, and the artisans appear to be winning.

IMG_0479 (800x600)Of the five villages, my favourite was Corniglia. To get to the top you need to climb 33 flights of steps – a total of 382 steps in all – and come back down them again. It’s ancient. With its narrow, cobblestone streets, quaint buildings, and tiny piazzas, it’s a gem of place borrowed from a world where time stands still.  I discovered muscles I never knew I had and was feeling them for days afterwards. But it was worth it.

IMG_0521 (800x599) Manarola is quite sweet, too. Lots of mad stairs climbing up alleyways to nowhere and windows appearing randomly, calling to mind the sanity of those who built the place. All five villages have something to offer and six hours is ample time to wander around, but if you want to really enjoy it, go off season. At the height of the melée, it’s like Grafton Street on Christmas Eve or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. And the villages weren’t built with tourists in mind.

IMG_0531 (600x800)IMG_0523 (600x800)Another option of course is to walk from village to village – lots of up hill and down dale – a natural roller coaster. But again, there were plenty of walkers, too, so if it’s a solitary sojourn you have in mind, it ain’t likely to happen. That’s the price of popularity.


2015 Grateful 35

I like my horses. I like a good day at the races. I like a bet or three. And I love the excitement that comes with a race meet, especially one as big as Punchestown, a five-day race meeting worth about €15 million to the local economy. But this year, it wasn’t the horses I was looking at …

People come from all over the country, and not just for the racing. They come for the craic. The pubs in Naas and surrounding towns are heaving with racegoers and party-seekers alike. Taxis from as far away as Limerick come to cash in. B&Bs and hotels are booked up weeks in advance. And on Ladies Day, the Friday, all gloves are off as the style icons take over from the four-legged fillies.

I’d planned to go on Wednesday, but we had rain and hailstones and much and all as I love my racing, I’m not into discomfort. So we went on Friday and it was bitterly cold. Ten degrees. With a biting wind blowing in across the open plains of Kildare. I was frozen. And I was well wrapped up.

IMG_0687 (800x600)IMG_0689 (800x600)As far as the racing went, it was a waste of time. I couldn’t concentrate on the horses. I was far too taken up with watching the young wans and their style. Mind you, I was in the cheap seats, not even in the reserved enclosure, so I was mixing IMG_0688 (800x538)with the teeny-boppers, those who from hours of eavesdropping I determined had pulled together on average about €60 to come to the races. What wasn’t going on bets was going on booze and fair enough – everyone was well mannered and no one seemed to be overdoing it. What teetering that was happening wasn’t drink-induced – it was more to do with the ridiculously high heels they were wearing. I was getting dizzy just looking at them.

They all seemed to be walking at a tilt- upper body leaning forward to keep the balance and battle the breeze. I was  fascinated. The shoes in the photos are not the highest I saw – these were the average. One girl  – a slip of a thing who might have weighed 30 kg soaking wet – was anchored to the ground by shoes with a 12-inch heel. I kid you not. It was painful to watch her attempt to sashay across Bookie Row and even more painful to see how she desperately needed the young lad with her to keep her upright as she climbed the steps into the stands.

IMG_0664 (542x800)There was lots of glamour out around the parade ring, where women one or two age-brackets up were stylishly dressed and not obviously shivering with the cold. Accessorised to within a french-polished nail of their lives, they made for great people watching.  And what amused me most was how they always seemed to be poised and waiting for the photo.  There were some amazing hats – and watching the line-up of finalists for the huge prize of a
€20 000 safari to South Africa plus – wait for it – €1000 in hair extensions (!) I was suitably impressed by the glamour. IMG_0676 (800x600)IMG_0681 (584x800)I loved the outfit that won (second from right) – I’d have picked the same had I been asked to judge. And while these might have been a tad cold, they can’t have been nearly as cold as the teens. I tell you, it was 10 degrees – maybe 12 in the sunshine. It was bloody freezing.

I was very impressed with the men though – wow. Gobsmacked even. From the youngest to the oldest they were impeccably dressed. Coordinated. Shined. Bow-tied. Handkerchiefed. IMG_0693 (600x800)IMG_0698 (600x800)Gorgeous. When did the Irish Male become so fashion conscious? When were suits and shirts and ties the only thing to wear to the races? Bloody amazing if you ask me. And I’d happily wager that most of them spent more time getting ready than I did.

This week was a good one – I caught up with good friends, spent time with my folks, got to see the wonderful Ruby Walsh in action up close and personal, and even managed  to catch up on my sleep.

I am grateful though, ever so grateful, that I’ve never felt the need to sacrifice comfort for style, that fashion is not something I’m a slave to, and that after buying and giving away countless pairs of expensive high heels I’ve finally realised that an inch is as tall as I can go. It’s been years since I’ve had to resort to bare feet and the line ‘these shoes are killing me’ is not one I ever want to utter again.

IMG_0695 (800x528)IMG_0691 (800x600)Elegance doesn’t have to be bare-backed in 12 degrees; there’s nothing attractive about goosepimples; witty conversation can’t be heard through chattering teeth. This has to be the first time that I was actually grateful that I am the age I am and not the age I’d sometimes like to be. My teens have been officially boxed and filed. I’ve acknowledged to myself that comfort will always win out with me. What lies ahead are years of experimentation to find my weather-appropriate style. Just how much fun can a gal have with twinsets and flats? Let’s see.



Top of the tree: Bonsai artist takes on Europe

(C) Zsolt Sztojka

(C) Zsolt Sztojka

Landscape gardener Gergő Schmidt turns 30 this year and his birthday present is a little unusual – he is to represent Hungary at the European Bonsai [1] Championships in Vilnius, Lithuania, in September. Last week, Schmidt won the honour of representing his country at the Hungarian New Talent Bonsai Competition, held during the four-day CONSTRUMA Garden event at Hungexpo, Budapest (April 15-19). Members of the Hungarian Bonsai Association were on hand, exhibiting 21 different Bonsai trees and giving talks and demonstrations to visitors who were amazed at the skill and talent involved.

Like any other work of creative art, Bonsai gardeners are inspired. Just as a sculptor sees a form in a block of marble or a painter sees a picture on a blank canvas, Bonsai gardeners search carefully for raw materials that have the promise of shaping into something extraordinary.

Schmidt first became interested in Bonsai trees when he was fourteen. It took seven years of patience and perseverance to create one that worked for him. In the early days, many of the saplings he experimented with failed to flourish and never grew into the potential he saw in them.

DSC_0066 (800x531)At his nursery in Zugló, he spends a couple of hours every day tending to the 20 Bonsai he has created and to the hundreds of other plants that might one day become a work of art. ‘I love to find the natural form and beauty in my trees’, he explained.

Schmidt has a preference for deciduous trees. He likes to see the autumnal colours and to appreciate the winter form of naked branches. He only uses imported Japanese ceramic pots, as style is at the essence of Bonsai art.

A member of Corvinus University’s Bonsai Club, Schmidt says that the art of Bonsai is very much a continuous learning process. Here he works alongside other masters of dendrology (the botanical study of trees and other woody plants) to develop his particular style. ’In this art, I find calm’, he said, ’I find my creativity, and the happiness and beauty of life.’

It’s an art that requires patience. Some Bonsai are grown from seed. Others are created from young saplings that are potted in small ceramic bowls, their roots cut to size. Or bigger, older trees are pruned and then let grow, and then pruned again, the process repeated over and over to strengthen the trunk of the tree. It can take hours, or days, or weeks, or years.

(c) Zsolt Sztojka

(c) Zsolt Sztojka

Last week, competitors were given just four hours to fashion a Bonsai from a nursery plant – a Juniper – sponsored by the Oázis Garden Nursery, in cooperation with the Hungarian Bonsai Association. Using elementary Bonsai techniques, the ‘new’ plant had to follow the rules of style and the formal principles of the art. The purpose? To find new talent in this art form.

As he prepares for Vilnius in September, Schmidt will be working with the Marczika Bonsai Studio in Érd to further develop his talent. ‘They have lots of expertise’, he said, ‘and the competition will be tough.’ The European Bonsai Association (EBA) New Talents Contest© was organised for the first time at the 1995 EBA Convention in Monaco. Representatives from the 19 member countries take part and Schmidt is keen to go up against them. He has spent more than half his young life preparing for this.

He doesn’t speak to his plants, or play them music. He enjoys the silence, the calm, the meditative environment. And he’d recommend the art to anyone who wants to create their own little world. ‘It’s another universe’, he said, with an introspective smile, ‘one where stress is non-existent and everything flows in harmony.’

[1] 盆栽, lit. plantings in tray, from bon, a tray or low-sided pot and sai, a planting or plantings


First published in the Budapest Times 1 May 2015

Through the looking glass

‘A lot of people are afraid of the big mirror. My work is to help them like what they see reflected.’ You might easily mistake these for the words of a counsellor or a psychologist, but the man who spoke them is a creative genius who has will soon mark thirty years as a hairstylist.

Serbian-born Milos Misković has been practising his art in Budapest for the last seven years. But he’s been in the business far longer. It started when he was 14, studying in a gymnaszium for lawyers in his home town of Santa. He played handball and was on the winning team. The coach told them all to get their hair cut before a photo shoot with one of the national papers. Misković went to the best stylist in town. She was busy. She didn’t have time to see him that week. Undaunted and tenacious, he stood his ground and stated his case: he wanted her to style his hair and would make coffee, sweep the floor, wash hair, do whatever it took to free up her time. She relented.

Watching her work, the young Misković found his calling. ‘I saw the change she brought about in people, the transformation she made, and how quickly she made it. I wanted to do the same. It was inspiring’, he said. When he told his parents that he wanted to swap his dream of being a lawyer to become a hair stylist, they insisted that he finish school first. So for three years, he studied one and trained in the other and at the age of 17, he opened his first salon in Serbia.

As a stylist, it’s important for Misković to know his customer, to see how they dress, what make-up they use, how they accessorize. Knowing this helps him find a look that they can work with, one that suits their lifestyle and fits who they are. With fashions changing at a furious pace, hairstyles are no exception. He has to follow what’s going on and know what’s happening internationally. This is perhaps easier for him than for many stylists.

As Swartzkopf’s International Ambassador, his reputation depends on being current. With a professional career that saw him to work in Austria, Canada, Italy, Serbia, Spain, and the UK, and a string of global awards to his name, Misković has a bevy of international clients who fly in to see him or fly him to see them. His secret to such loyalty? The realisation that his clients are his brand, his ambassadors, his advertisement. Whether in his studio on Bajcsy Zsilinszky, or in a hotel suite in Monaco, each client gets 100% of his attention and his creativity.

The artistic side of being a stylist is important for Misković. The shows he creates mirror his interest in a theme or icon (his latest was Queen Elizabeth I). He sees potential in every human face and has often chosen models for his shows from people he has met in restaurants or on the street. With the cosmetics industry touting an increasingly artificial world, his ambition is to recapture a person’s natural beauty and to develop that from within. ‘The sparkle in someone’s eyes as they take the mirror to check out their new style is my reward. That moment when they see the potential within themselves … it’s magic’, he explains.

And of the young pioneer who started out sweeping up hair so many years ago, of him he is proud. ‘He didn’t know enough to be afraid. And he still has a lot to learn’, he says, with a smile. ‘Every day, he tries to be a little bit better than he was yesterday. That, and loving what he does, that’s his secret.’

Milos’s number:  +36 30 319 9190.

(C) David Ajkai

(C) David Ajkai

First published in the Budapest Times 1 May 2015