Making memories

When you work as freelancer, weekends and national holidays mean nothing. There are no set summer holidays, no half-terms, no winter breaks. There are no set long weekends, three-day weeks, or working Saturdays. It’s all in the hands of the workflow gods. Some weeks are quieter than others. The rhythm that most lives have is something I have long-since forgotten. Were my life a musical score, it would be a cacophonous tune running parallel with a sublime melody. I’d not have it any other way.

August is my between-term vacation. Most of my clients are on holiday too, so the work slows to a trickle and my choices are two: I can stay in Budapest and bake, or get out of dodge and travel.

One of the many joys of living in this city is how accessible it is. Planes, trains, or automobiles ‒ whatever your chosen mode of transport, there is so much to do, so much to see, and all within easy reach.

I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in the forest at Gödöllő. Monday took me to Siófok, to the Balaton. Thursday found me in Dublin. That’s the beauty of being able to work from wherever you can find an Internet connection.

IMG_7845 (800x600)

IMG_7847 (800x600)A day-trip to Szentendre on the Hév or by river is a well-known escape from the oppressive heat of the city. But what about Ráckeve? It’s a lovely little town on the banks of the Danube down on Csepel Island also accessible by Hév. Get there for the Saturday market and enjoy a potter around, making sure to visit the incredibly gorgeous fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist. There’s a wonderful story about the wooden bridge that was built across the river, a story worth repeating:

‘You have got a nice occupation’ said the little child to the old bridge builder. ‘It might be difficult to build bridges, but if someone learnt it, it is easy’ said the old bridge builder. ‘It is easy to build a bridge of concrete and steel. Building other bridges is more difficult…’ ‘What other bridges?’ asked the little child. ‘Building bridges from one person to another, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy. I would like to build bridges to the happy future.’ The little child said: ‘It’s a special thing you do.’

IMG_3289 (600x800)Further afield, heading towards Austria by car to another bridge, is an amazing open air sculpture exhibition that lines the narrow road leading to the Bridge at Andau, the escape route taken by thousands fleeing Hungary in 1956. It is a chilling (and timely) reminder about the lengths people will go to, to make a better life for them and theirs.  The artwork is what remains of a 1996 exhibition along what’s known as the Road to Freedom and originally featured 90 pieces of work entitled The Road of Woes. Just a few miles outside the village of Andau along the Austrian/Hungarian border, it’s well worth the drive.

In the opposite direction, my favourite train destination is an Art Nouveau Serbian town known to Hungarians as Szabadka and to Serbs as Subotica. The birthplace of Hungarian writer and poet Kosztolányi Deszo, it’s not far from Palić Lake, home to the European Film Festival and the best apple ice-cream you will ever taste. This gem of a place has lured me back time and time again. In fact, I think I’m overdue a trip, where dinner at the delectable Boss restaurant will be my reward at the end of the three-hour train journey. That’s me sorted.

Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 July 2015

 

A change of heart

You know the expression – to feel like a red-headed stepchild? That’s always amused me. I could be mistaken but as I understand it, the combination of being a red-head AND being a stepchild is not the best. That said, all the red-heads I know are gas craic, happy, well-adjusted people with just the right amount of crazy to make them special. And the stepchildren I know, be they red-headed or not, seem to be fine.

IMG_0078In the UK last week, the term was just to describe the relationship between the sibling cities of Bath and Bristol, with Bristol feeling a tad overshadowed. Certainly, Bath is beautiful, far more quaint, with lots of eco-stuff going on, and has far better buskers. And in truth, when I visit that part of the world, I rarely get further than the train station at Bristol Temple Meads as I, too, head for Bath.

IMG_0070 (800x600)IMG_0071 (800x600)This time though, I stayed put. In Bristol. And what an eye-opener that was. The city, once a major departure point for the slave trade and a less than glorious history, is lovely. There are plenty of green spaces and it has more than its far share of bombed-out churches that are still magnificent. My favourite is Temple Church. No question. A stunning 12th-century ruin in Temple Gardens that just begs quiet contemplation. I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.

IMG_0094 (800x600)

IMG_0090 (800x600)Bristol Marina has been majorly revamped with the Brunel’s SS Great Britain the main attraction. Time wasn’t on our side so we didn’t go in to see what all the hoo-ha was about but it’s on the list for the next visit. The colourful terraced houses that look down on the docks would be more my style than the lavish penthouses that line both sides of the river. Mind you, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at one of them either. There are myriad cafés, brew pubs, cider houses, and restaurants to choose from with boat taxis to ferry you every which way. Think Venice without the striped t-shirts. A lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Wills Memorial Tower

Wills Memorial Tower

The St Mary Redcliffe, billed as a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, has stood tall for over 800 years. Like many other buildings in the city, the ones that managed to dodge the bombs like the University’s Wills Memorial Tower, it, too, is gobsmackingly gorgeous.  Again, with time being at a premium, the tour of this tower has also made it to the list of things to do next time around.

IMG_0107 (800x600)IMG_0106 (600x800)And in sharp contrast to all this stylish splendour, Shaun the Sheep was everywhere. Seventy sheep have been scattered around the city as part of a fundraising campaign for the Children’s Hospital. And cleverly positioned near places of interest so that some little bit of cultural exposition might sneak past. It was my first time spending any time of note in the city and I liked it – a lot. I’d happily go back . Anytime. I won’t forget Bath, because she’s been good to me, but perhaps its time the red-headed stepchild got some more of my attention.

 

Moving to the Balaton

I have an aversion to debt. The thoughts of having a mortgage brings me out in a cold sweat. And I know that if I ever move, I’ll need one, which in and of itself is enough reason to stay where I am. I’d love to live beside some water – preferably the sea, but I’d settle for a lake. I’d like to look out on some large expanse of water, with maybe a few sailboats bobbing along the horizon. I’d like to wake up to the sound of seagulls and the smell of salt air.

The few times I’ve been to the Balaton or Palić lake in Serbia, I’ve spent hours looking at what’s for sale in the way of apartments and houses. I’ve daydreamed about living there – off-season of course, as the tourists would do my head in.

Siofok9siofok10I was in Siófok yesterday, visiting friends. Their villa looks out on to the lake. It’s been in the family for generations. And I had a real dose of house envy. I could walk out their front door, cross the road, and be in the water in less than two minutes. I could sit on the terrace, drink a cold wine, and look out at the sailboats. And if the mood took me, I could walk the ten minutes it would take to get into town and enjoy the best of what Siófok has to offer.

But there’d be the damn mortgage. And my aversion to debt.

Siofok1 (800x533)Siofok3 (800x533)The house is set in two separate two-bedroom apartments, each with its own kitchen and bathroom. There’s a smaller, 40 sq m house at the back that also has the same, so plenty of space to live, and plenty of space to rent.  And there’s parking for 2-3 cars and a lovely back yard. And did I mention how close it is to the water?  My imagination was having a field-day. I could do the whole B&B thing. Long-term lets during the mad summer days when Budapest empties and everyone goes to the Balaton. And I could live there off-season with a few select weekend guests for candlelit suppers and walks by the lake. Maybe take in a writer or artist in need of solitary sustenance and the occasional after-dinner chat.

And then reality set in . What I want to do is travel, not settle. My pied-à-terre in Budapest will do me nicely as I plan where to next.  I’m not quite ready for that house on the water. Give me another ten years or so though and things might change.

In the meantime, my friends are selling their place. The asking price is a little too good to be true (I think they’re short-changing themselves, but then again, what I know about real estate could be written on an aspirin). But it is true. I trust them. If you’re interested, check it out at Ingatlan.com . If you buy it, don’t forget to invite me down for an off-season weekend or three.

 

 

2015 Grateful 23

I was at a birthday party last night. The invitation said no presents, just your presence. But people still brought gifts. Me included. There’s a whole culture around gift-giving that probably says more about ourselves than the person we’re giving to. Friends I’ve known for years, and know well, have yet to get it right with me while more recent friends get it right all the time.

There’s an old Indian thing (I think it’s a Cherokee belief) that when giving a gift, you should give something you value, not something you think the other person needs or wants. And the more you value what you part with, the more they say you value that friendship. I think that has legs.

The older we get, the fewer things we need, the less clutter we want in our lives. Okay – it is nice to wear a piece of jewelry that is a daily reminder of the person who gave it to you. Or to spray some perfume and have the scent evoke nice thoughts. But for me, experiential presents are the way to go. Give me something from which memories are made.

I got an early birthday present last week. A weekend in St Ives in Cornwall. Visiting St Ives has been on my list since I learned the nursery rhyme:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

IMG_0045 (800x600)IMG_0044 (800x600)IMG_0033 (800x600)20150718_195322_resized

But I got it wrong. That particular St Ives is in Cambridgeshire. The one in Cornwall is famous for its light. For about 200 years, the area has attracted famous painters like Turner, potters like Bernard Leach, sculptors like Barbara Hepworth and her artist husband, Picasso’s mate Ben Nicholson. Admittedly, I’d had my doubts about the whole light thing. But I’m now convinced. It’s somehow purer, clearer, crisper than usual. And it’s not difficult to imagine why artists would find it appealing.

We took the train from Bath- it’s about a five-hour trip with stops along the way, changing to a local coastline hopper in St Erth. We ate Cornish pasties. We had cream tea (scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream) while sitting on the beach. We discovered the delights of Cornish gin. We cooked local lamb for dinner one night. And we ate out at the fabulous Portgwidden Beach Café another night, a dinner which is now on my top ten list of most memorable meals I’ve had so far in my life. We wandered through the art galleries, hunted through the charity shops, dodged the tourists as they navigated the cobblestone streets. It was lovely. Really lovely.

I was there with one of my besties, the lovely MC. We hadn’t spent any time of note together in a while so it was a much overdue catch-up. Between us, we clocked up a fair few hours talking through the whys and wherefores of relationships, politics, religion, kids, careers, life in general. We parsed and analysed our independent lives, our sense of self, the challenges we face in compromise. And we concluded, that having had no kids ourselves, our friends have become our extended family.

20150719_165359_resizedThis time last week, I was being attacked by a seagull who stole the chocolate out of my 99 and then had the nerve to stand in front of me and wolf it down.  I should have believed the signs. Today, I’m in a blessedly cooler flat (a massive storm last night with another on the way by the sounds of it), with  a long to-do list in front of me, hoping to make inroads into the work that has accumulated while I was gone. But before I get to it, I’m reliving my weekend in St Ives and giving thanks for the joys of lasting friendship – the gift that keeps on giving. And for experiential presents that can be relived over and over and over again.

A woman on the altar

I’m not very big on religions. I have a hard time distinguishing between the various Protestant churches and an even harder time identifying which church I’m in. I’ve learned to look for the little red light and know that when it’s there  the Eucharist is present. I’ve learned to look for a statue of Our Lady and if there is one  know that there’s a pretty good chance the church is Catholic. But when it comes to distinguishing between Church of England, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist… I am lost completely.

I was in Durham last week. Visiting the Cathedral there has been on my list of things to do for a long time. The city itself is very pretty. The northern accent is lovely to listen to. And the people seem to be dead sound. I was impressed. Down on Market Square, a group of volunteer tour guides offered help and directions and a bit of banter that made me want to stay longer. Popping in an out of the local shops took an age as every interaction involved a conversation. No one seemed to be in any rush to do anything. Buskers provided the entertainment as people sat around the square enjoying the morning sunshine and living the moment. If I had to live in the UK, I could live in Durham.

2015_0526_0825_52 (800x585)2015_0526_1031_31 (800x600)The Cathedral is magnificent. An amazing piece of work. It and the castle were amongst the first to be designated World Heritage Sites, along with the Taj Mahal and the Palace of Versailles. Built between 1093 and 1133, it is a testament to endurance. It’s mind-boggling how builders back in the day managed to do the work they did, given that they didn’t have any of our 21st-century tools. So much for progress. Perhaps though it was because they took 40 years to build something and weren’t in any rush. It has been in continuous use for 900 years, has more an 1700 services a year, and costs £60 000 a week to maintain. And it’s still going.

I was pleased to see that there wasn’t an entrance fee. I object to paying into churches but am happy to light my candles and make a donation. I wandered around for about an hour or so and then sat for almost another hour just contemplating life and the universe. I’ve a lot to be thinking about these days so it was good to have the time. I saw that there was Holy Communion at 12.30 and I went. And when the priest turned out to be woman, I figured the Cathedral definitely wasn’t Catholic. The words were pretty much the same – the same stand/kneel/sit rotation – the same readings. But it was so strange to see a woman in full clerical garb. I wish the Catholic Church would catch up – I’d be amongst the first to register.

20150715_111948_resized (600x800)I was fascinated by the door knocker. Apparently, if you were on the run from the law and managed to grab hold of it, you were given sanctuary for 37 days and then had the choice of facing your accuser or getting safe passage to the coast and from there escaping to another part of the world. I wonder what the significance is of the 37 days though…  and how many people availed of it… and if anyone ever cheated … With questions like these it’s no wonder than I lose countless hours day dreaming and surmising.

20150715_134209_resized (800x600)The Castle is now part of the University and when not in term, it offers B&B accommodation to the public. So, having crossed Durham Cathedral of my list of things to do, a night or three in the Castle has now replaced it. I only had one day in the city but it left an impression. Will simply have to go back.

 

G&Ts all round

Countries, like people, have their favourite tipple. Gin is probably best associated with England, the country that gave it birth back in the late seventeenth century. Some 30 years later, London had 1500 working stills and more than 6000 places to buy gin. Over the years, its popularity waned. Vodka and whiskey took over. Yes, it had occasional flits with fame. Who doesn’t remember the line from the movie Casablanca when Bogart’s Rick Blaine wonders: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

In the last couple of years, gin has been enjoying quite the revival in Britain with gin parlours opening up all over the place and craft distilleries experimenting with botanical additives. [Useless fact: statistics show that the Philippines is the country with the world’s highest per capita gin consumption… I’d never have made that association.]

There is something very stiff-upper-lippish about the G&T that goes hand in hand with the upper-class insouciance so redolent in period pieces. I think it’s the tonic that promotes it from the working-class gin-swiller to the pre-prandial gentry. And even tonics are enjoying regeneration. But perhaps the heat is getting to me.

I was once rather fond of my gin, with Ireland’s Cork Dry Gin my bottle of choice. Anyone visiting me from home would be asked to include a bottle along with the Tayto crisps and the Barry’s teabags. In Alaska, I was introduced to Bombay Sapphire, and later in London, it was the quintessential Gordons.

gin2I’ve just come back from a trip to the UK that took in Oxford, Durham, Bath, St Ives, and Bristol, a trip on which I rediscovered the joys of the juniper. The standard fare of Tanqueray and Hendricks (both produced in Scotland) are still on the shelves, but beside them are craft gins like Tarquin (Cornwall) and Brennan and Brown (Cheltenham).  And the question of the day is how they should be served. Lime, cucumber, orange peel, and lemon, respectively.  [Brennan and Brown already comes with an interesting hint of ginger.] I’m now particularly fond of Tarquin, served in a balloon glass with some orange-peel ice cubes. Another craving has been born.

 

Other countries have their favourites, too. Cachaça in Brazil. Rum in Barbados. gin3Rakija in Serbia. Each nation has its special spirit, a liquid thread in the fabric of its cultural make-up. Coincidentally, Ethiopia and Eritrea have a fondness for a honey-mead wine known as tej (which is also Hungarian for milk).

In Ireland, summer is typically cider time. The weather is too hot (if you can call 24 degrees hot!) for Guinness. The nights are too long for shorts. And if you retire to the pub on a sunny afternoon after a hike or a walk or a bike ride, you want something long anciderd cold. Cider, particularly Bulmers (known to the rest of the world as Magners because of some weird branding issue), served in a pint glass over ice would seem to be the choice of many. I know it’s mine.

Here in Hungary, with the temperatures soaring into the high 30s, the seven types of wine spritzer are even more popular than usual, with the hosszúlépés (1 dl wine: 2 dl soda) giving way to the vice házmester (2 dl wine: 3 dl soda) as more liquid intake is needed. Bottles of rosé and siphons of szoda are commonplace in a country where even the most he of he-men thinks nothing of drinking a girly drink in public. And that’s refreshing in more ways than one.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 July 2015

 

A naked man and a post office

I’m well aware of my limitations. Painfully aware of them at times. When it comes to all that’s arty, I have my favourites. But as breakfasting with the Telegraph is not on my list of Sunday-morning pursuits, my education in this regard is severely lacking. That could get me down, were I to dwell too much on it. Instead, I revel in the delight of new discoveries that others, better read than I, have long-since enjoyed.

IMG_0002 (800x600)Take Antony Gormley. He of Angel of the North fame? [Another addition to my bucket list.] The artist behind the series Another Time? I’d never heard of him until I was in Oxford last week and happened to look to the skyline while in the vicinity of Blackwell’s bookshop. The last thing I expected to see (not that I had any conscious expectations) was a statue of a seven-foot-tall naked man in all his glory. Inspired by the artist’s own physique, it’s quite a sight and a somewhat refreshing change from the gargle of gargoyles that are more Oxfordy in style.

OX signBut that wasn’t the only thing that caught my attention. This sign has me completely puzzled. Sleeping in the loo? What exactly is an overnight facility? And how does that differ from a public convenience? Enquiring minds want to know.

20150710_153418_resizedMind you, if I had to pick one thing that really impressed me – it wouldn’t be the magnificent colleges, the churches, the statues, the Alice Shop, Sunday lunch at the Parsonage, or any of the usual Oxford attractions. Perhaps I was suffering from a slight case of Stendahl’s syndrome – it certainly surprised me that I was so fascinated with something rather mundane. Boring even: a self-service machine at the post office in St Aldates. What does that say about my life, I wonder, that the thoughts of being able to successfully interact with a machine that speaks my language and can, in its own way, smile, delights me.  I spend way too much time in the post office as it is. And this would make it all the smoother. I know there are ramifications in the form of job losses and redundancies. I know that machining the life out of social interactions can’t be a good idea. I know that there are myriad social consequences of going self-service… But even knowing that didn’t detract from the sheer pleasure of a hassle-free exchange. Yep – Oxford has it nailed.20150710_152843_resized

 

2015 Grateful 24

I’ve spent the last week or so on trains. Or so it seems. I’m quite partial to train travel and enjoy staring vacantly through a window as the world passes me by. I need to be more efficient in my booking though and be sure that I get the quiet carriage because the one-sided phone calls I’ve had the dubious privilege of overhearing have bordered on inanity. Honestly, people, ye need to up the ante a little and talk about something a tad more interesting than your colleague’s BO, last night’s drink count, or whether Penny really does look good in fuchsia.

It’s been a while since I’ve had so much face time with any public, let alone the great British public. And while I’m ready to get back to my burrow, it’s been quite the experience. And most all of it good.

In Cornwall, I came across a young girl busking. She couldn’t have been more than 10. And she was well on her way to raising £50k for the local children’s hospital. An amazing way to spend your Saturday afternoons.  In Durham, I had the privilege of sitting around a dinner table with four South African friends with a combined age of 270+ years. Talk was not of pains and aches and pills and potions. There were no complaints, no regrets. Instead the conversation was futured with new opportunities, new travels, and new friends. No one was even close to being ready to sit back and retire to suburbia. Aging gracefully is truly a case of mind over matter.

I’m lucky in that my friends run the gamut from late teens to early 90s. They come from all over the world, bringing with them their different perspectives, viewpoints, and upbringings. In their own way, they add immeasurable richness to my life and are not shy about pulling me up when I approach the abyss of self-pity, when I waste time measuring my life against the successes of others. They’re a constant reminder that life is there to be lived. And that if you can make a difference, you’ve little if no excuse not to.

At the end of a week that has been restorative and much-needed, I’ve reconnected with old friends and have been reminded of the agelessness of age. I’ve come across my fair share of romance, too. I’m a sucker for a good story and while in one of the many charity shops I visited this week, I saw this framed note:

oxfam1

I wonder if Cedric-in-the-camel-coat ever did get his phone call. I’d have liked him. I’m partial to that venturing forward, that casting of the die, that empty-handed leap into the void. Life is way too short to carry the weight of regret.

oxfam4

Back in Cornwall, while scoffing a couple of Cornish pasties, I sat on a bench overlooking the sea. The memorial plaque spoke volumes. I can’t imagine going to the same place each year on holiday. That would do my head in. I even have trouble dealing with the concept of one two-week holiday a year.  I had difficulty imagining myself occupying any one of the myriad lives of the other people I came across this week. If I had a friend Penny, would I really care if she looked good in fuchsia? Yet I’m sure that many of my friends look at my life with nothing approaching envy either. But it is mine. For all its ups and downs, its uncertainties and its possibilities, it’s mine. And it works. For me. Comparing it to the lives that others lead is a waste of time. Amazing what comes to you when you spend hours looking vacantly out of a window. For this and similar revelations this week, I’m truly grateful.

 

Save

A portal to another world

I’m allergic to queues. Apart from the post office, there are few places I’d wait patiently in line for anything. With the post office, I’m conditioned. I think of it as time out – meditative time where I can move temporarily to a parallel universe. And anyway, with the ticketing system in Budapest, it’s not really a queue as such in that there’s no orderly line, just a room of anxious faces watching the numbers tick over. I will also queue for the loo – but then, too, I have other things on my mind.

Going through Kings Cross station in London the other day, I saw a tell-tale snaking line of people all queuing for nothing- all I could see ahead of them was a blank wall. No toilet, no post office, no ticket desk of any sort. I couldn’t leave it alone. Curiosity got the better of me and as I moved closer I was blinded by flashes as the crowds whooped and cheered and clicked away. A celebrity, I thought. But what were the masses queing for?

HP3HP1HP2I edged my way to the front of the rope and saw it. Platform 9 3/4. Of course – I was in Harry Potter country. The line of hopefuls turned out to be young’uns queing to get their photo taking pushing Harry’s trolley through the wall. The extra-long Hogwarts’ scarf was held up by the attendant and then let fly as the poser lept in the air.  Next door is the shop – the Harry Potter Shop – where you can buy anything from potions to lotions, from wands to broomsticks. In short, just about anything JK Rowling and her marketing machine have dreamed to be saleable.

I wasn’t a great fan of Harry Potter and had little desire to read him. I’m quite snobbily averse to anything that is so unversally raved about. But when I heard Stephen Fry read the books, I was hooked. Magic. Books written to be read aloud. And while I’d never queue for my photo to be taken, I’ve made a mental note to myself to go back to KC one night, late at night, or very early in the morning when I can have the platform to myself.

Years ago I remember reading about a photography/book project that pictured a city in the dead of night/morning, that hour or so when those who come in late are home and those who go out early have yet to leave. .

Walking through empty streets in the half-light of night/day is something I quite like to do. That strange suspension of reality, of time, of space, that’s my version of Platform 9 3/4, my portal to another world.

Friendly faces when they’re most needed

In a world where politics polarises people, where contrary opinions can ruin friendships, where ideological differences can result in being ostracised, it’s easy to forget that we’re all human. We all have feelings. We all bleed red.

Whether you’re in favour of the new fence going up between Hungary and Serbia or whether you’re against it doesn’t take from the fact that thousands of those it’s designed to keep out are already here. And more are coming by the day.

Where are the churches? Those pastoral institutions that purport to have the care of humanity at their core? Surely it can’t be true that they are sitting idly by and doing nothing? Admittedly the problem is so huge that it’s difficult to know where to start, but thankfully there are groups of motivated individuals out there who are banding together to make a difference.

maid2People like Zsuzsa and Patrick at the Caledonia Pub on Moszár utca who have offered their pub as a drop-off / pick-up point for volunteers going to meet the trains of incoming migrants arriving from the border towns. They’re in need of items like baby food, personal hygiene products, medicine, and food. They have cold storage facilities for fresh fruit and sandwiches and a network of distributors. Volunteers can meet there to plan and discuss who is doing what and what needs to be done next. Check out their Facebook page Caledonia Social Bite for details.

maidAnother group, Migration AID, has set up sub-groups to man each of the main stations so that those arriving see some friendly faces doing what they can to help. Volunteers give juice to the kids, toiletries to the parents. Many need plasters for their blisters, cream for their sunburn, and lots and lots of water. Some need medical assistance, or help finding missing family members. And through their social media networks, these volunteers put out the word and find someone who can help.

I can’t begin to imagine what it might be like to have walked for hundreds of miles, for weeks on end, from Iraq, Syria and even Somalia, in search of a better life, leaving everything I own behind me, and then to finally arrive and not see a friendly face. In some circumstances, a plaster and a bottle of water must seem like manna from heaven.

Reports say that about 1000 people cross the Hungarian border every day. Those who don’t slip through unbeknownst to the border officials are fingerprinted as they request asylum. They’re given entry papers and 48 hours to make it to their reception centre. If they don’t, and they’re caught with expired papers, they face jail. When they disembark in Budapest, the station staff shepherd them outside. So they head to the parks, where the police come and move them on. They’re left to roam the streets, waiting for their next train out. There’s no coordination, no infrastructure, no system in place to cope.

But the people have rallied. Hundreds of volunteers are readily giving up their time to help in a situation that is getting more nightmarish by the day. They accept the fact that for whatever reason these people are here and they need help. Each one has a story to tell, stories which many of us, accustomed to a life of relative plenty might find it difficult to empathise with.

And while it is important to debate the politics of it all, to find a policy solution that will stem the tide, we would do well to imagine ourselves in their shoes and think of how we’d like to be treated if, tomorrow, we found ourselves homeless, blistered, and hungry in a strange country, knowing that going home wasn’t an option.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 July 2015