Headscarves and padded bras

If this trip to Romania taught me anything, it’s the need for patience. We turfed up at the guesthouse to find it empty. Not a sinner. No one around. We walked about, hollered our howayas, and then tried to explain our quandary to a toddler who didn’t speak either Hungarian or English. Some time later, a woman appeared, very surprised to see us. A phone call was made and it turned out that yes… we had booked in. Oops. That’s Romania. You take it as it comes. There’s little point in fussing or getting upset. It makes no difference.

IMG_0717 (800x600)IMG_0720 (800x600)Răchiţele (Havasrekettye), our home for the night, is the birthplace of the Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc. I didn’t know this then, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have enticed me into the village. And no, I didn’t see the waterfall, the village’s one main sight to be seen and the one thing that everyone asked us if we’d seen when we mentioned we’d stayed the night there. I was tired. For some reason my sleep was restless and my dreams zapped me. I was sleeping but waking up even more tired than when I went to bed. So I took the afternoon off and worked, giving thanks, yet again, for having a job that only needs an Internet connection. With regard to seeing the sights, I contented myself looking at the colourful houses across the road. IMG_0715 (800x600)IMG_0716 (800x600) (2)Later that evening, after discovering the joys of a local blueberry liqueur (a bottle of which I managed persuade the woman of the house to part with so that I could take back to Budapest), we popped next door to the pub. Women don’t really go to pubs in this part of the world but there was only one chap in there and he didn’t look much like he cared. I might well have been in Ireland, in an ould shebeen. Where else could you by a shot of brandy or a pair and a rubber gloves at the same time.

The plans the next day were fluid. We’d decided to get the bus to Heudin (Bánffyhunyad) at 10am and catch the market. The lady of the house called the bus driver and told him that we’d be waiting. There are no bus stops. You’re very much dependent on local knowledge. So there we were on the side of the road, waiting for a bus that never came. It would come at 11, they said. So we decided to chance walking and hitching – again. And this time, it didn’t work. No one stopped. Perhaps we looked a little too strange. Perhaps we were a little too far from anywhere. Perhaps we looked like trouble. So we tossed a coin and doubled back and waited. And the bus came: a blue transit van that had a couple of benches in the back. The neighbour across the road was waiting to pick up some motor oil the bus was delivering (it doubles as a courier service) and he assured us that yes, it would take us to where we were going. Along the way we picked up more people, stopping randomly wherever someone was waiting. All pre-arranged it would seem. I didn’t read this in the guidebook (that said though, I didn’t read a guidebook at all).

IMG_0734 (800x600)IMG_0733 (600x800)Back in Heudin (Bánffyhunyad) the best of the market was over. The ladies with their embroidery had left already and what was left … well, think fruit and veg and clothes and everything you could need from a fishing rod to a padded bra. Clothes on the second-hand stalls were going for 25c a piece. What appealed to me most were the people – little old head-scarfed dears in from the surrounding villages selling their veg and their cheeses. Tough women. Women who have had a tough lives. Women who know what hard work is. I was suitably awed to be in the presence of the sisters. And wished I had some way to talk to them. They seemed like a feisty bunch.

IMG_0739 (800x600)IMG_0730 (600x800)Those who were selling sold. Those who were buying bought. A steady stream of conversation. Perhaps it was the only time that week that they would have something to chat about. Market day seemed to be at the epicentre life, a day out for many. I wondered if there was an age when you got to wear the headscarf – did you have to be 50 or 60 or older? And when I voiced this thought I was told that these women would have worn them all their lives. They even have a Sunday scarf, one they use for going to church, and in one of villages in the area, a woman hand paints them. Now there’s a job. A craft, like so many others, that is in danger of dying out.

IMG_0748 (600x800)IMG_0746 (600x800)We stopped at the local church to have a look-see (and the regulatory three wishes) and once again, there are few words that can properly convey how stunning these places are. The ceiling was hand painted, what looked like ceramic tiles of some sort. And the decoration this time wasn’t made of wheat but of flowers, cleverly crafted to look like a  bell. The church doors were open and it was empty. It looked like we had just missed a service. Someone had left their laptop open  on a table in plain sight. I can’t think of anyplace else I
IMG_0752 (600x800)know where this might happen.

Plaques and pictures had embroidered frames, this time in black and white. So simple and yet so stunning. A traditional take on what the Jazz Bar in Cluj had done by framing their flat screen with a large, old, ornate wooden frame. I don’t think I could ever tire of these churches and well impressed so far, I had no idea that the best was yet to come.  Huedin is on a direct train line to Budapest – there’s no excuse for me not to go back.




2015 Grateful 18

For the last month or so, I’ve been keeping fairly constant company with a lovely man who has the most amazing green eyes and even more amazing hands. He’s in his mid-fifties, Jewish, Israeli, and absolutely and utterly fascinating. He goes by many names but the one I like most is his real one – Gabriel Allon. Born from the pen of Daniel Silva he has taken me to places I could never otherwise hope to go.

He works for Israeli Intelligence on the dark side of the dark side. And he’s one of the top four art restorers in the world. He’s taken me through the history of Israel/Palestine and has helped me understand a little more of what’s behind what’s going on. He has spent pages describing his work  restoring some of Bellini’s famous church art in Venice. And the insider view of the Vatican has me wondering. Getting kindle versions of all his books was one of the best birthday presents I received. They’re an education.

IMG_0661 (800x599)IMG_0662 (800x600)It was Allon who came to mind when our driver that day in Romania took us to see a monastery in the making [it’s somewhere between Magyarvalkó and Bélis in the middle of nowhere]. The building of this Orthodox church began in 2001 and it’s now in the process of being painted by a team of 12-18 young artists from the University of Theology in Cluj-Napoca (Koloszvár)  under the guidance of Alexandru Nicolau, a team chosen apparently by open contest. Money is tight so they work when they have it. Each of them is a religious scholar in their own right and they live their lives in accordance with the Orthodox creed. I know this because we were befriended by a visiting student from the University who showed us around. He’d come to the monastery to clear his head, to enjoy the peace, to paint.

IMG_0672 (800x600)IMG_0681 (600x800)It was a change from the centuries-old churches we’d seen earlier in the day and it’s newness was a little hard to take. To see paint brushes and tins of paint, scaffolding and blank walls, a few radios and the occasional bottle of water – there was a little  of the Mary Celeste about it all, and it was hard not to think of a life interrupted.  The style – Byzantine apparently. Russian Orthodox churches prefer more realistic depictions of their icons, whereas Romanian Orthodox goes more for showing the transfiguration of the saints in its style. I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant – Allon’s teaching stopped at the Old Masters – but I was suitably impressed, both by his telling of the story and by his reverence.

IMG_0674 (800x600)IMG_0686 (600x800)I’ve never before been in a church in the making. And while I’m a great fan of old stuff, I was fascinated by the newness of it all.  And in particular by the depiction of the three wise men as angels. That’s something I’ve not come across before.  I searched the walls, those that had been completed, and looked to see if I could find any more familiar scenes. I wouldn’t swear to it, but part of an image on a side wall looked remarkably like a human portrayal of the three wise monkeys who hear, see, and say nothing. I could be wrong. It was hot that day.

IMG_0676 (800x600)IMG_0691 (800x600)He also mentioned a movie that I want to watch – Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic film, The Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966) – in which an old iconmaker who has lost his faith meets a young boy, the son of a bellmaker. Together they go to the Trinity Monastery where one paints icons and the other makes bells and the whole ‘love thy neighbour’ wins out. We could do with a bit more of that these days. It’s on my list.

Of course, now that I’ve seen the new monastery, I want to see the old ones, too, the painted ones, in Bukovina. After these few days in Romania, I’m really grateful to have had the chance to visit and even more grateful to have it so close to me. I’m already scouring my calendar to see when I can possibly go back. There is so much to see and do, so much to experience. I am blessed to have the freedom to travel and even more blessed to enjoy it as much as I do.  I’m grateful too, that I enjoy losing myself in a book or a movie and have an unchartered curiosity about people and places that gets me up off my ass and out there.

Viszlat and a thousand thanks, ambassador

It could be said that diplomacy was born when our ancestors decided that it might be better to listen to the messenger rather than to kill them. Coming with news from neighbouring tribes, these original diplomats served as relayers, negotiators, and purveyors of peace, precursors to those we now know as ambassadors.

It is thought that the first permanent diplomatic mission was established in 1455, representing the Duke of Milan in Genoa. Since then, ambassadors in host countries around the world have been promoting the interests of their home countries while serving the greater interests of their states.

Diplomacy has had its ups and downs. Back in the sixteenth century, British ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, then serving in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, is said to have defined his ilk as such: ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ In times of war and upheaval, the role of ambassadors takes on new meaning. It could be argued that in recent years, the presidency of Barack Obama has done much to put diplomacy back at the heart of foreign policy, and perhaps earning it another descriptive, that of ‘the velvet glove that cloaks the fist of power’.

Amb Dowling SPD 2015For the last three years here in Hungary, the Irish in residence (an estimated 1000 or so) have been fortunate in being represented by Irish Ambassador to Hungary, Kevin Dowling.  Under his auspices, Irish culture has enjoyed a renaissance of its own. Major events on the Irish social and cultural calendar, such as St Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday, are marked with aplomb, most notable for the wide participation not just of Irish citizens, but their myriad Hungarian friends, too. The Leopold Bloom Award, a special contemporary art award was established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, Maurice Ward and Co., with the prize given to young Hungarian artists every second year in Budapest. Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and WB Yeats have been celebrated in the city, most notably with the birth of the Yeats Society set up to mark the 150th anniversary of the great man’s birth this year. Irish films continue to feature at the Titanic Film Festival and the Irish Embassy, under Ambassador Dowling’s steerage, has been extremely supportive of initiatives such as the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, the St Patrick’s Day Parade, and the charity speech slam, the Gift of the Gab.

Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the USA, in his 2009 account of British diplomacy Getting our Way, says of diplomats that theirs is a delicate job that requires ‘a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a warm smile, and a cold eye’. In the three years that he was at the helm, Ambassador Dowling wore his credentials well.  As citizens living abroad, we can find ourselves in need of a mother ship, somewhere to go should we have difficulties and require assistance over and above what our friends can provide. And for this to happen, an embassy, and its ambassador, has to be open, accessible, and interested in those it serves.

Gyngell & Wesley’s 2003 description of diplomats being seen as ‘a caricature of pinstriped men gliding their way around a never-ending global cocktail party’ has had its day. As so laudably epitomised by Ambassador Dowling and his team, embassies and their staff have a role to play within the various expat communities in providing help, support, and encouragement to their own in addition to fostering good relations with the host country. As Ambassador Dowling returns to Ireland at the end of his term in Hungary, he goes with thanks and appreciation for a job well done, knowing that he has served his community well. Le mile buíochas.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 August 2015

Holy stitches and sunken churches

When you see a map of a country that has the dirt roads marked clearly, and then you read the fine print in a car rental agreement that seriously limits where you can take the car, you soon realise that many places will be off-limits. And that’s where the locals come in. Their cars are well used to it.

From Sâncraiu (Szentkirály)* we decided to find a man with a car, a man who had access to places we would never get to on our own. And we found him. He picked us up at 10 am and was ours till 2pm, charging by the kilometre and by the waiting time. And he had an agenda.

His Opel Corsa had a couple of dings and the inside had some very strange brown splotches all over the roof. The scented interior was more an eau d’body than an eau d’cologne but I soon made like a dog and stuck my face out the open back window. Amazing what you can get used to.

IMG_0580 (600x800)First stop was Văleni (Magyarvalkó), where after borrowing the key from the vicar, we made our way up a hill into this fortified Romanesque Reformed church dating back to the mid-fifteenth century, a church which still serves as a place of worship for about 150 souls today. We wandered around the outside noting the plum trees laden with fruit hanging over the graves in an almost surreal visualisation of the cyclicality (did I just make up that word?) of life. [Apparently this year will be a good year for the plum pálinka.]

IMG_0600 (800x600)IMG_0597IMG_0593 (800x600)The walls were decorated with lovely examples of Írásos (written) embroidery marking confirmations, weddings, births, and other occasions noted by the parishioners. Even the bible covers had been embroidered. From the magnificent painted panelled ceiling hung ornaments made from wheat. At first glance, they looked like big pieces of fur hung as lampshades but no… it was dried grass.  This has to be the oddest thing I have ever seen in a church – and I’ve been inside my share of houses of worship.

IMG_0594 (800x600)But it was the ceiling that did it for me – the wood panelling under the gallery. All hand painted eons ago, the paint was still clear and the patterns visible. So much time and work went into this church and even though it was decorated to within an inch of its life, it was done by hand, simply. Compared to some of the gilt and glitter of even the simplest of Catholic churches, this stood out. It felt as if it had been made by the people, for the people – and is that what a church should be?

IMG_0601 (800x600)IMG_0619 (800x600)IMG_0644 (800x600)The next stop was another church. This time in Mănăstireni (Magyargyerőmonostor). And another Reformed church (think Calvinist) so no prizes for guessing that our Romanian driver was Hungarian-speaking rather than Romanian.  Apparently most Romanian Transylvanians are Orthodox and we didn’t get to see inside any of those that day.  I liked the exposed brick on this one but couldn’t decide if it was by accident or design. Again, I was stuck by the simplicity and although slightly more prepared for variations on the same interior theme, it IMG_0623 (600x800)was the same, but different. Less rustic. More ordered. More planned. If the church had an Interior Design magazine, this one would probably feature.  Again the embroidery but less of the home-made feel. Were the first a collection of villagers each contributing what they did best, this was more like a coordinated effort by a management committee run by someone who knew exactly the look they were going for. Still beautiful. No doubt there. And had I seen it first, I might have been more awed.

IMG_0624 (800x600)IMG_0631 (591x800)But the painted door, tucked away at the back, saved it from being simply more of the same. I’m quite partial to effort. Give me something that someone has put the hours into and I’ll cherish it, appreciate it, marvel at it. Give me something that stands the test of time and I’ll do likewise. And doors like this one have me seriously thinking about the need for a cottage in the country – somehow I can’t seem to fit it into my vision of urban living. Some might think it kitsch and perhaps it is a tad folksy, but it wears well.

IMG_0626 (600x800)IMG_0635 (600x800)This particular ceiling was quite plain but the wooden panels skirting the walls contrasted nicely.  And their intricacy was offset in turn by the relatively simply patterned wooden posts. There was a curious mix of the simple and the complicated. And it worked. The whole saga of Mary and Martha came to mind – the talker and the doer.

These two churches we’d never have seen on our own. We wouldn’t have found the first one or known where to pick up the keys for either of them. Them the blessings of having a local driver. There was one more church to see but that deserves a blog of its own. Am still gobsmacked by it. Still processing what I saw. And the church isn’t even finished yet.

IMG_0706 (800x600)IMG_0707 (800x600)So, having had our dose of religion, he then took us to the lake. To Beliș Lake (Béles tó) But in keeping with the day’s theme, told us that there was a church buried beneath the water – one that is sometimes visible.  The dam was quite impressive, too. As was the prospect of spending a few days in one of the two local hotels. Nothing to do but swim and read. And perhaps fish. Magic. And noted for future reference. It’s not my first time in Romania and yet it feels different. There was snow on the ground last time and I was in a different part of Transylvania then, too. I loved it then. I love it now. But this time it’s more real. There is so much to do and so much to see and so much to come back and do and see again… and again.

*Hungarian names for these towns given in ( _ ) as requested

On the road in Romania

Horse-drawn carts are not an unusual sight in Romania, where for many they’re a familiar mode of transportation. But the sight of two lipsticked, middle-aged women pulling wheelie suitcases along a country road … that’s a little more rare.

We wanted to rent a car but there wasn’t a car rental place to be found in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár)* that (a) had a car and (b) opened on a Sunday. So we booked the next best thing – a car with a driver. We’d agreed by email on 100 lei, which is about €22, for him to pick us up at the hotel and then drive us about 60km to the village of Sâncraiu (Szentkiraly)- where villagers once needed a passport to work in their fields, scattered as they were back then between two countries – Hungary and Romania.  Then we called to confirm and it had gone up to 120 lei. And then he arrived and said 200 lei minimum. Now, I’m all for paying a fair price and had it been 200 lei from the outset, that would have been grand. But I hate to feel that I’m being taken advantage of. So we decided to take the train to Heudin and hitch from there as there are no taxis and buses don’t run to the villages on a Sunday. Or so we were told.

IMG_0523 (800x587)Walking up the main street of Huedin (Bánffyhunyad), with an amazingly decorative (and quite empty) tin-roofed house sitting across from an equally wowy Orthodox Church, a couple of people stopped and asked where we were heading (suit-case-dragging strangers are IMG_0520 (800x600)obviously not run of the mill on an early Sunday evening). Both were helpful with directions. At worst, we had a 5km walk ahead of us. At best, we’d get picked up. And we did. An old chap was dropping his mate home and said he’d take us along – for 10 lei. A bargain.

He dropped us in the middle of the village and from there it was a case of wandering like lost sheep with the intention of asking everyone we met where Erika’s Pensiunea was. ‘On the second hill’, the first old dear said, pointing vaguely into the distance beyond the church. So we walked some more. ‘I’m Erika’s mother’, said the second. Happy days. Could it get any better?

IMG_0551 (800x600)IMG_0539 (600x800)IMG_0537 (800x600)IMG_0535 (800x600)IMG_0561 (600x800)Apparently the village was razed by fire back in 1848 with only one house surviving. It was rebuilt since then and now has some beautiful examples of the region. But I swear, for a population of about 1500, I saw just one huckster shop, one bar, and two churches. No post office, no restaurant, no café. Every house has a bench outside where elderly villagers sit and watch the world go by. They aren’t half backward about coming forward and quite happily give you the third degree in stares – curiosity mostly. Nothing like feeling like a tourist. I suppose it’s fair play really – they must be sick to death of being photographed (and no, I didn’t dare).

The village fete was on that evening and so we had to go and have a look-see, as that’s where all the life had gravitated to. We had our wine and our langós and sat for a while listening to the local Country and Western band do their thing and then we left them to it. Too much excitement for one day.

Romanians mightn’t have much, especially those living in the villages. The average monthly wage clocks in at about €345  ($400) Sâncraiu (Szentkiraly) has at least 22 B&Bs and this is how many make their money. They’re happy to cook for you, too. Simple food, but good food. In order to get the most out of the experience, you have to leave your wants at home and simply accept that this is how life is in this part of the world. This is what’s done. No wonder there’s no need for taxis if any local passing  by will pick you up for petrol money. And who needs TV when you have tourists to watch and talk about. It really is another world, one that trundles along at its own pace, making the most of the occasional agritourist and passing stranger.

IMG_0564 (800x600)IMG_0573 (600x800)Most of the houses have a best room – a parlour of sorts – where they keep their old traditional costumes and linens. It’s not for living – it’s for show. [That takes me back to my granny’s day and her parlour or sitting room with its tablecloths and fiddedly ornaments.] Their gardens are a treasure trove of times gone by.  The detail in the wattling on the walls. The abundance of wild flowers. The fruit trees. The woodsheds. The quiet. Acres and acres of silence with nothing but the odd passing car to disturb you. I don’t think I could live there pIMG_0568 (800x600)ermanently, but I could surely spend a couple of weeks or so enjoying the IMG_0574 (800x600)disconnect.

I was struck by how connected I think I need to be when I stupidly locked myself out of my phone and had to do without for day – not even a day – a night. I was so pissed off. And then I thought – those who need to know, know where I am and those who don’t could find me if they tried hard enough, so what was I worried about?

The network of cables visible in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár) is also on show in the villages, an ugly reminder of progress. An irritant. A blight on what would otherwise be a little slice of picturesque heaven. That said, after a while, like everything else, it sort of blends in. A shame though. And speaking of progress – I’d trade their BBQ for the best Webber has to offer any day.

IMG_0559 (800x600)*Hungarian names given in ( _)

2015 Grateful 19

Sometimes things just ain’t what they seem. Sometimes our expectations let us down. Sometimes, though,  we can be pleasantly surprised. So much of it depends on patience …

Cluj-Napoca (known to Hungarians as Koloszvár) has been on my list of places to visit for a number of years. And yet I never once thought to read up on it, check it out, or do any sort of research at all. I was just fascinated by the name and by the fact that it’s in Transylvania in Romania.

IMG_0402 (800x600)IMG_0397 (800x600)Some 7.5 hours by train from Budapest, the journey itself doesn’t help much. As we passed over the Hungarian-Romanian border, I woke periodically (it was a 5.30 am train) to see it alternate between heavy industry, rural poverty, and urban richness. I was particularly fascinated by the ornate tin roofs on some of the houses. Quite surreal. A little Vegas’y without the ding ding of the casinos. It all added to the mix of expectations that were being raised and dashed and dashed and raised to the point that I IMG_0403 (800x585)gave up and stopped wondering at all.

The city, which sits in Central Romania, is home to some 340 000 people and has been inhabited since 200 BC. Okay, so I was sort of expecting an old town wonderland – perhaps the best bits of Prague and Budapest combined – but when we arrived outside the train station, it was like stepping  into a  construction site. The first thing that struck me were the cables and the wires. Everywhere. It’s like the whole city is plugged into one socket. Mad. The juxtaposition of old and new is something I’ve come to expect so it didn’t phase me. But the lack of footpaths did. And the crazy driving.

IMG_0416 (800x600)We stayed in the Hotel Belvedere, a leftover from the days of Communism when the hoi polloi would stay on the hill overlooking the city. The 253-step climb  took some practice but we eventually got it down to 7 minutes. The hotel itself, a *** venue, was a delight. So like the Kyviec in Bratislava IMG_0481 (800x600)IMG_0411 (800x600)(or how it was before the renovation – I’ve not been back to see it since). The marble-floored massive open plan lobby complete with the regulatory six clocks showing various time zones over the elevators and the mad chandeliers just needed Brezhnev or one of the boys to walk across it to complete the feel. Wedding guests passing through decked in gold bow ties, purple suits and pink loafers (and that was just the men) lent it a move-set feel. And all for the princely sum of €45  a night, including breakfast.

IMG_0442 (600x800)We wandered downtown that evening, just to have a look-see, as you do. And once we’d navigated the rubble and made our way into the heart of the city itself, I was surprised. Shop windows had stuff I’d come back and buy. Bars were inviting. Menus were creative. And the Jazz Club was dead cool. The city has style.  Hearing Hungarian so widely spoken and yet being somewhere that is so not Hungarian was a little odd. Budapest has its charm but the bar/restaurant scene has a certain sameness once you get used to it. Cluj has variety. I was seriously impressed. So impressed that it now warrants a full weekend on its own instead of just one night. I’d need at least two lunches and three dinners to do it justice, there were that many places I wanted to visit.

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There are plenty of churches so I lit my share of candles and made my litany of wishes. There was a bit of a faff  back in 2013 about the number of new Orthodox churches being built (something like 10 a month) given how relatively poor the country is. And they’re still going up.

IMG_0510 (800x600)
IMG_0508 (600x800)My vote went to  the Reformed Church and its magnificent organ made all the more special by the simplicity of the Gothic interior. So far removed from the gilt and gold of the Cathedral or the iconic innards of the Orthodox Church. It is a lovely, lovely space. And, I wondered, as I’ve wondered before, how many more prayers are said without the distractions. I had to look up the religion though as I didn’t realise that Reformed mean Calvinist. Seems like I learn something new every day.

IMG_0437 (800x600)Outside sits the somewhat famous statue of St George killing the Dragon. I came across something similar in a painting in Bulgaria a couple of weeks go – and this after years of never happening upon the boy at all. Am just waiting for him to show up a third time sometime soon.

We ate, we saw, we wandered. The wine isn’t much to write home about, but if that’s the sum total of my whinge, it’s not half bad. Will definitely be back.

This week, I’m grateful for so many things. For new beginnings, new discoveries, and new experiences. What’s not to like about my world?

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Wedding lessons

I love a good speech. And I love a good wedding. And it doesn’t get much better when you have both together. One of the lucky ones who got to see the gorgeous Dora Nyiregyhazki marry the equally gorgeous  Edward Quinlan in Budapest yesterday, I was struck, not for the first time, by the wonder that is marriage.

IMG_0352 (800x600)Gone are the days when marriage was something you did once. It’s commonplace, for myriad reasons, for people to try it and try it again. And all with the best of intentions. The Big Day. The dress, the hair, the makeup. The invitations. The seating plan. The Music. The breakfast. The speeches. The effort that goes in to make the big day one to remember is monumental. And this wedding ran like clockwork, oiled by a room full of genuine warmth and feeling. They’re a popular pair. And they both looked every inch of their gorgeous selves. There’s something wonderful about seeing two people so obviously in love. It helps restore, replenish, rejuvenate. It brings a little more light into a world that can sometimes be too dark. That sense of newness that comes with weddings is one to be savoured. It’s almost as if, on the day, anything is possible.

IMG_0341 (800x600)IMG_0369 (600x800)All the speeches were laugh-out-loud tributes to the couple with plenty of anecdotes. Each very entertaining. For my money, though, Dori’s mum gave the speech of the night, one that got me thinking. She asked the pair what the most important requirement is for a happy marriage. Not surprisingly they answered ‘love’. But no, she said. It’s patience. And the second most important requirement? Patience.  And the third most important requirement? Patience. How right she is. For with patience, anything can be overcome. And for someone who could do with a little more of that particular virtue, it was something  I needed to hear. Thank you, Ildikó. My first lesson of the day.

As she married them, the Registrar quoted from a poem by Jozsef Attila:

The train is taking me,
I am going
perhaps I may even find you today.
My burning face may then cool down,
and perhaps you will softly say:

The water is running, take a bath.
Here is a towel for you to dry.
The meat is cooking appease your hunger,
this is your bed, where I lie.

A second lesson. It’s too easy to forget that it’s the little things that matter. Those random acts of kindness. Those little considerations. Those seemingly insignificant acts that say so much about what we feel. That’s love. Real love. The sort of love that lasts.

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At the end of the ceremony, Ed and Dorí were asked to each pour a glass of coloured sand into a bowl. This they were then to take home, and every year, on their anniversary, they’re to take it out and look at it and remember the committment they made in front of us all. A third lesson for me: take nothing for granted.  Relationships take work. A lot of work. It’s when we start taking each other for granted, that’s when they founder.

It was a great day, a lovely evening, a brilliant night. We danced, we laughed, we partied. And as the fireworks went off in the city beneath us, there was something special in the air, something tangible. And that something was hope.

Here’s to you both, Mr and Mrs Quinlan.

May the light of friendship guide your paths together.
May the laughter of children grace the halls of your home.
May the joy of living for one another trip a smile from your lips, a twinkle from your eye.


What’s biting me?

I brought more than fond memories home from Bulgaria. At least that’s how it seems. When I left, I counted 17 bites. I posted the score. Them 17. Me 0. I had just one on the back of my left thigh. On Saturday it became two. On Sunday I counted three. On Monday I was distracted and forgot to count. On Tuesday there were four.  And today, there’s a dozen if not more, all clustered around the original. The itch has been increasing exponentially and in a fit of distraction I rang for a doctor’s appointment, claiming medical emergency.

20150819_173504_resized-1Apparently I’m not the only one suffering. Lots of people who were at the Sziget  festival were bitten, too. But I’m not sure if we were bitten by the same thing. Do bugs travel? I know it wasn’t a mozzie as I didn’t hear a thing. It wasn’t a spider as I can spot those in the dark. I only felt one bite as it happened and when I looked there was nothing to see. So I’m clueless. I’ve no idea what’s biting me. But I wish these funny Bulgarian bugs would stop.  Or at least have the decency to show their faces and let me know who they are. Am so not impressed. I did notice other bodies on the beaches of Bulgaria with similar bites so I took solace in the fact that I wasn’t alone in my misery.

Anyway, one intraveous steroid treatment  later, and laden with more oral steroids and topical steroid creams, I’m back at home, resisting the urge to Google. It would be way too easy to work myself up to high doh comparing pictures. Scabies? Shingles? Poison Oak? It’s bad enough that the suspicion that I might have some foreign bodies roaming around under my skin is already enough to guarantee a sleepless night. Before I saw the photo and just felt the ridge, I was sure it was a worm. That’s what I get for having an imagination. And what if they spread again? Multiply even more? What if I wake up tomorrow and they’re everywhere?  I have a wedding to go to!

I know, a First World problem. I have access to medical care and the wherewithal to avail of it. I have treatment. I should quit my bitchin’ and let the itchin’ run its course. And I will. Right after I come to terms with the indisputable fact that I’m a lousy patient. And when I’ve been running on far less slumber than my much-needed 8-hours-a-night, I’m even worse than usual. I’m way too suggestible (is that even a word?) The slightest itch or skin crawl has taken on gigantic proportions. I can feel bumps everywhere. I’m so annoyingly pathetic that I can only just about bear living with myself. Lord help the man who will share my space.

But in the midst of all this angst, I solved something else that was biting me. I finally figured out what the long strange green strings were that decorated every dish I ate in Bourgas: cucumber peel.





2015 Grateful 20

Many years ago, while dancing with some chap in the Dinn Rí nightclub in Carlow, he turned and paid me what I can only suppose was his idea of a compliment: ‘I can see by ya’, says he, ‘that ya like a bit of chocolate.’ When I finally found the positive in this, the song was over, the dance was over, and we were over, having never even started.

But he was right. I like my chocolate. I like my food. Eating is a joy. One of the simplest pleasures in life. And for those who don’t share my love of all things culinary, I feel for you.

Food7Bulgarian cuisine was  like one massive fish’n’meat menu with variations on the same theme. There were definite staples shared by most restaurants, with some doing them better than others. There were fish I’d never heard of – and didn’t fancy trying. And there were Food6versions of things I orderd that didn’t come close to what I had in my head. A roasted pepper, tomato, garlic, and olive dish that I expected to be a salad turned up as a pureé. A spinach, mushroom and cheese dish showed up as mush, and I was never Food3Food5curious enough to order the popular dish ‘Mish Mash’.

As in most cities, TripAdvisor has taken over. There’s a restaurant here in Budapest – Zeller Bistro – that is booked up days in advance because it’s rated  in the top 3 in the city. And
yes, it’s good. But there are plenty better that don’t get a look in. We ate in Vodenisata twice before we noticed it listed by Lonely Planet. And it was good. Good Eastern European cooking. And it’s not rated by Trip Advisor at all. But then, it was mainly Food 2locals. Which is always a plus.

One night, we stayed in the ‘hood and wandered through the maze of back streets overlooked by towering apartment blocks. About a mile away, on the edge of a park, beside a kids’ Food1playground, sits Teniova Kashta – a family-run institution that has been serving massive helpings to the local populace for what seems like centuries. It’s all over the place. Inside takes about 150. Outside, on all levels, takes another 120. The size of the tables and food8the size of the portions speak to the tradition in Bulgaria of big groups eating out. You could get a whole stuffed roasted lamb for €150. A piglet for €135. A rabbit for €25. And then there’s the offal – livers, gizzards, tongue, tripe, even pigs ears. There are over 300 items on the menu – more choice that I usually like to have – but it made for fascinating reading. I was particularly taken with them calling a Baked Alaska dessert an omlette 🙂

I found myself imagining winning the lottery and bringing 12 of my nearest and dearest meat-eating friends to the table. What a night that would be. And isn’t that what meals were made for? None of this eating in front of the TV, or from your  lap on the sofa. If you’re in company, a meal is an occasion. And indeed, even if dining alone, they can still be occasions. Think Trond Sander, in Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. Or my visit to Croatia a while back when I dined each night with Jack Reacher. [I was quite delighted today to see that Lidl has some one-glass cans of prosecco on offer. Nothing like a few bubbles to spruce up a dinner table.]

This week though, as I land again in Budapest and read of the countless thousands flooding in to the country, thousands who have had little in the way of fine dining (or any sort of dining) for quite a while, eating has taken on a whole new perspective. And, if anything, is o be even more appreciated. This blessing came to mind:

In a world where so many are hungry,
may we eat this food with humble hearts;
in a world where so many are lonely,
May we share this friendship with joyful hearts.

Yep, this week, I grateful that I can find such pleasure in the simple act of eating.

The sea is greener on the other side

Jack Reacher, star of the Lee Child novels, has rules for living, like if in doubt, turn left and when in doubt, drink coffee. Gibbs, from the TV series, NCIS, has a list of rules, too, rules by which he lives his life. I like No. 8 – never take anything for granted. I have rules, too. One of them is to go local when on holiday and if possible, avoid the tourists (having made my peace with the fact that I am one of them, too).

In an effort to see a little more of Bulgaria than the beach at Bourgas, and having had such a lovely time up north in Nessebar, we took a bus in the opposite direction, and went south to Sozopol. Another 40-minute bus ride for the even cheaper price of 4.50 BGN (€2.50). A 15-minute taxi to the bus station set us back 4 BGN (€2) – with tip. And the gas prices are the same as Ireland and Hungary. What gives?

IMG_0275 (800x600)IMG_0268 (800x600)Sozopol is built on an early Bronze Age settlement and the current town dates back to the 7th century. The stone/timber houses are typical of the Black Sea region and streets of them divided as they are by strips of cobblestone and paving give it a little other worldly feel. I know I’ve used that term before, when talking about Bulgaria, but it just about sums it up. There’s a life-size version of an Alamana, a wooden fishing boat that was used for fishing off the Black Sea Coast from the 18th to 20th centuries. Usually 12 m long by 2 m wide, it was home to a Captain, a Coxswain and eight rowers. A beautiful piece of work. Some workplace.


IMG_0271 (800x600)IMG_0277 (800x600)Unlike Nessebar, the churches here are fully functioning Orthodox and equally stunning. I’ve been to a few Orthodox services and the lack of an obvious pattern upsets my Catholic soul. I’m so used to sitting, kneeling and standing pretty much on command that the random walking around and queuing and going in and out is confusing. But I’m quite partial to the icons and the candles and when I add the candles to my wishes, it doesn’t get much better.

IMG_0280 (600x800)There are all sorts of shops and stalls and stands most of which are selling upmarket tat and some real stuff, too, a lot of which is made in Bulgaria. Always a plus in my book.  The streets wander around the port, opening out onto large squares – ideal open air concert venues. In August there’s jazz and in September there’s the Apollonia art and film festival and all summer there is plenty going on down by the beach – one of two main beaches in town. There’s one on the way in, a smaller one by the marina which doesn’t rate as a beach, beach IMG_0301 (800x600)apparently, and then the ‘pleasure’ beach, with its row boats, its paddle boats, its parasailing. And in August, an additional feature – the carpet of green algae that floats in on the tide. It looks a little suspicious but the locals didn’t seem in any way put
out by it and once you get IMG_0291 (800x600)used to the feel – a little like embroidery thread – it’s grand.

As beaches go, it was hot. Very hot. Very, very hot. And the most expensive so far in terms of umbrella and bed rental, but it did comes with mattresses, which was just as well as three days of lounging around on plastic beds were taking their toll. Still though, a fiver a day for the pleasure of lolling around on pleasure beach, with the occasional dip in the Black Sea, is cheap at twice the price. And Bulgarian gin ain’t bad either.

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