Real cutlery, personal pillows, and stray dogs

Emirates1Real cutlery. A real, stainless steel, knife, fork and spoon. And flying economy, too. I hadn’t realised how budget airlines have become my norm. RyanAir, Wizz Air, EasyJet – they’re my standard. So any airline that goes above and beyond is impressive. And Emirates is certainly that. The food was excellent – all of it. And I love the way they refer to the overhead bin as a hatrack – harking back to times gone by. Reminds me of a photo I saw on FB recently but didn’t save: one of a couple in the 1950s on a flight will full crockery and cutlery service, wondering how luxurious flights would be in the future… man, did they ever get that wrong. Oh, it’s still luxurious, if you can afford it… but I ain’t in that financial bracket. Still, it was nice to get real cutlery for a change…

Fast forward through Dubai to Bangalore and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Electronic City. A far cry from IBIS or the Mercure (not that there’s anything wrong with either of them). I could get used to being called Miss Mary. Everyone is so incredibly nice and friendly and helpful. And everyone smiles. What a concept! Even if it’s something that has been drummed into them during their customer service training (which I doubt), they’ve long since owned it and it’s become their own.

I like having my own iron and ironing board. I like the complimentary shoe shine and the daily papers. I like the bath (big enough for two) and the shower (big enough for four) and the bed (big enough for a small army). I like having a bathroom scales, a coffee dock, and a recliner. But most of all I like that I can have choice of five different pillows.


It’s been about seven years since I was last in Bangalore. It’s now called Bengaluru and has been since this time last year. Other cities have also changed their names: Bombay became Mumbai in 1995; Madras changed to Chennai in 1996; Calcutta to Kolkata in 2001; Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram in 1991; Pondicherry to Puducherry in 2006; Poona to Pune in 2008; and Orissa to Odisha in 2011. I’ve asked a number of people why and no one seems to know the answer. It’s just the way it is. Like so much in this part of the world.

Time goes slower here. People work on a different rhythm and cycle. No one is any great hurry. I was delighted to see that the traffic is still chaotic, that lanes are but wishful thinking – and that the old Banglo saying still holds: all is fair in love and war … and traffic.

When I was here last, I completely missed Electronics City. And I wonder how? It’s hard to get my head around the numbers. This one city is home to nearly three times the population of Ireland – just one city! When I turfed up for work this morning, I was just one of 40 000 clocking in to that one company. It takes up acres and acres of room and has no fewer than 16 different access gates, fully landscaped gardens, and its own amphitheatre.

Electronics City itself is home to some 200 IT companies housed in 1.3 sq. km (332 acres). It was first envisaged in the 1970s as the Silicon Valley of India. And it’s impressive. Very impressive. In the software industry  here (when it comes to developers and designers) there are more women entering the industry than men. Not quite the same picture as in Europe. This imbalance  is reversed as their careers progress, with just 10% of women in the boardroom. A shame.

But the numbers… the numbers…

The city is the third largest in India and one of the first to have electricity back in 1905/6. The ratio of stray dogs to humans is 1:37 = a lot of stray dogs with some 12 people bite by one every hour (who counts I wonder?)  It’s home to the highest number of cigarette smokers in India, the highest percentage of engineers in the world, and the highest number of suicides in the country. I’m drawing no correlations here.  Everything about it is massive. A Banglo friend tell me that it’s lost its heart – it’s not what it used to be. While it’s certainly bigger, is it better?

It’s my third visit and I’m mesmerised by it all.






2015 Grateful 5

There was a time in Ireland when every child of primary-school-going age had been to see Eugene Lambert’s puppet theatre. It was a mainstay on the school-tour circuit, something not to be missed. Located in Monkstown, Co Dublin, it was founded in 1972 by the man who would make puppetry an art in Ireland.  He was inspired after visiting the Prague Puppet Festival apparently. The family business is now being run by his son Liam.

Puppetry has come on in leaps and bounds since then. Joey, the War Horse, in the movie of the same name, is way down the puppetry evolutionary scale. His creator, Adrian Kohler, of the Handspring  Puppet Company, says that ‘puppets always have to try to be alive. ‘

Ubu1I had the opportunity recently to see the South-Africa-based Handspring in action. They are currently touring Europe with their play: Ubu and the Truth  Commission, a powerful commentary on the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa that was first performed 18 years ago. The puppeteers are in full view but the puppets are so life-like they take centre stage. The deep gouges in the wooden faces reflect the light in such a way that they seem to move – facial expressions become real. Most eerie.

Ubu2The victims are all played by puppets, the predators by humans. Much of the word play was lost in translation – which is unfortunate. She asks him to pass the salt. His guilty conscience kicks in and he answers: Who said it was assault? Confronting the general about his late nights and implied infidelities, she screams at him: Who owns your heart? This is just one of many questions asked during the play that got me thinking. Questions that I wouldn’t normally think twice about.  Such is the power of good theatre.

I was surprised to learn that the first TRC was not in South Africa, but in Chile. And although in theory, it works for me at some level, I was left wondering at the imbalance of it all. The victims, mostly parents whose children had been murdered by those ‘just doing their job’, got to face those who had robbed them of their futures. Complete disclosure was needed. And the actions had to be politically motivated. ‘No dirt could be left under the nails after such a complete manicure.’ But is there really such a thing as forgiveness without cost? Or is it a lofty ideal that so many strive for and fail to reach? The general commenting on the TRC notes that ‘my slice of old cheese and your loaf of fresh bread will make a tolerable meal.’ Worth thinking on.

For any parent to outlive their child is heartbreaking. What is left for them? Much like what was left for South Africa?

Video footage and photographs, alongside animations and music played in the background. Seeing photos of dead children and videos of assaults all added to the horror. As the victims testified in front of the Commission, interpreters translated. Closed off in a class cage, the neutral loneliness of the interpreters was intended to epitomise the neutrality of the  TRC.

Ubu as a character first appeared 130 years ago from the mind and pen of a 17-year-old french student, Alfred Jarry, in a play about his science teacher. Although it opened and closed on the same night, it would have far-reaching consequences for theatre worldwide.

Ubu Roi (Ubu the King or King Ubu) is a play by Alfred Jarry. It was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, causing a riotous response in the audience as it opened and closed on December 10, 1896. It is considered a wild, bizarre and comic play, significant for the way it overturns cultural rules, norms, and conventions. For those who were in the audience on that night to witness the response, including William Butler Yeats, it seemed an event of revolutionary importance. It is now seen by some to have opened the door for what became known as modernism in the twentieth century. It is a precursor to Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. It is the first of three stylised burlesques in which Jarry satirises power, greed, and their evil practices — in particular the propensity of the complacent bourgeoisie to abuse the authority engendered by success.

I sat through the performance with one question running through my mind: Do I have what it takes to forgive – completely forgive?  I wonder.

This week began in Budapest and ended up in Bangalore. Such is my world. Such is globalisation. With travel as easy as it is, alternative theatres like Traffo can bring companies like Handspring to Budapest who bring with them questions that broaden our world and get us thinking. That’s something to be grateful for.


Lessons from an Irish pub

We live in divisive times. Debates on social issues are polarising our communities. Families are being torn in two as differences in opinions on the refugee crisis and how to deal with terrorism run ramshod over familial allegiances. Facebook updates, Tweets, and blog posts reveal a side of friends that perhaps we never knew and now need to deal with. I’ve been thinking how nice it would be to get away from it all, but even if I spent a week in a hermitage cut off from the rest of the world, I’d still have to deal with my own company and my incessant questioning of life today. I need a break.

Last weekend, I wandered into Jack Doyle’s, a popular Irish pub and restaurant here in Budapest. I knew they’d have live music but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I got.


Traveller’s Company is the banner under which seven young Hungarian musicians, all in their early twenties, play their music. It took me a little time to get my head around hearing Whiskey in the Jar sung in Hungarian. Afterwards, they told me that they’d kept the music but that their bass player, Kisteleki Márton, had changed the lyrics – my Hungarian isn’t good enough to tell the difference so I was none the wiser. Their version involves a man, a woman, a pub, a broken heart, and a bottle whiskey. Meeting Captain Farrell on a trip over the Cork and Kerry mountains is but a vague and distant memory.

When I asked them why they chose traditional Irish music, being Hungarian and all that, they said that it fit. They’re into Hungarian folk music and gypsy music and traditional Irish fits right in. Talented musicians all, their repository of instruments includes banjo, guitar, mandolin, Irish bouzouki, flute, tin whistle, saxophone, bass guitar, cajón box drum, and violin.

Vocalist Rózsa Márk has captured the soft Irish ‘t’ perfectly and his rendition of Hard Life, a song they wrote themselves, would stand up against the best of Irish ballads. For a few minutes, I was transported back home to a pub in Ireland, foot tapping, eyes smiling, enjoying that general feeling of bonhomie that comes with a good night out in the company of fine people. It’s a pleasure to listen to musicians who really enjoy playing rather than simply go through the motions. I was very taken with them, and I wasn’t the only one.

The audience was mixed – all ages, all nationalities. I asked Juan Orozco from Costa Rica why it worked for him – a Hungarian band singing Irish music. ‘Because both cultures have the same feeling in their music and in their partying’ he said. ‘They’re both energetic and make the listener want to party and feel good.’ He nailed it. The band’s mission is to sate those whose souls have a thirst for happiness.

There’s a pride that I feel when I see part of my Irish culture and heritage so richly embedded in that of another country. As I watched these young people in action, I was proud that they had adopted the best of Ireland as their own. It cheered me up. And they taught me a lesson or three. Instead of focusing on our differences, wouldn’t we be much better off discovering our similarities? Instead of being threatened by others taking what we have, wouldn’t it make more sense to share our riches and our talents? Instead of turning inwards and building fences to jealously guard all we’ve worked for, perhaps it’s time to open up those gates and let the winds of change work their magic. As French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne said back in the 1500s, the most universal quality is diversity. We should celebrate it, not fear it.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 November 2015.
Photo (c) Kiss Támas

2015 Grateful 6

Do you like his music?
No idea. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him sing anything.
So why are you here?
A fit of madness back in March coupled with a vague sense of recognition. I know the name Botticelli from somewhere.
mmmm… it’s Andrea Bocelli…

I’ve had that conversation or something similar many times in recent years. I’ve long since admitted to being musically illiterate. Oh I can name my country stars – a leftover from watching Country Music USA while living in Alaska – but to the rest of the post-1980s music world, I’m a stranger.

Last night, I stood in the cold as the crowds slowly filtered into Papp László Stadium. We have ISIS to thank for the new security measures that saw a 7pm concert kick off at 7.20 with people still taking their seats at 7.55. So be warned if you plan on going anytime soon. Go early. The searches were cursory at best – women simply unzipped their jackets – nothing like a little gender bias when the safety of the world is at stake. And while it was inconvenient and slapdash, considering what might be took the sting out of it. Have at it lads.

The place was packed. Fuller than I’ve ever seen it. And all for a 57-year-old blind tenor who spoke just six words all evening – He said ‘thank you’ three times. But man, can that chap sing.

Blessed is she who never expects anything, for she shall never be disappointed. It was like unwrapping the most amazing gift on a random Tuesday that wasn’t my birthday, or Christmas, or an anniversary. It’d been a busy week, and I was in dire need of some sort of spiritual resuscitation. Something to dispel the blues. And he delivered.

There is so much about the man that I hadn’t known.  He’s been nominated for every award going and with his album, Sacred Arias [the biggest-selling classical crossover album by a solo artist of all time], he made the Guinness Book of Records for holding the top three positions on the US Classical Albums charts. But not one to be boxed neatly into just one category, Bocelli’s pop album Romanza is the best-selling album by an Italian artist of any genre in history.

He was born with poor eyesight and a football accident at the age of 12 robbed him of what little he could see. He remembers colours though, and flowers. It was strange seeing him on stage with his eyes closed but then if he can’t see, why would he open them? I was struck by how beautiful he is – not in a front-page of GQ sort of way, but almost angelic. I can see why he was once named one of  People‍‍ ’​‍s 50 Most Beautiful People.

Accompanied by the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra  and the Budapest Opera Chorus conducted by Marcello Rota, there must have been close to 150 musicians on stage. Cuban soprano Maria Aleida Rodriguez made an appearance as did Hungary’s Szekeres Adrien and a woman in a horrendous blue dress who murdered Somewhere over the Rainbow [the only downside of the evening]. The guitar duo CARisMA took me back to my NIHE days with their rendition of Cavatina (the theme from the Deerhunter). 

ABThe concert tour was to promote his latest album Cinema. As a backdrop, we saw video footage of Bocelli in various roles and it all added to the ambience. I was mega impressed.

He sang the classics:  Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera;  Nelle Tu Mani from Gladiator; and Brucia La Terra from the Godfather.  We also had White Christmas, Cheek to Cheek, Turandot – Nessun Dorma, Maria from West Side Story, and a host of other classics. It seemed to get better and better before gradually tailing off towards the end (that woman in the blue dress again) and then resurrecting itself for a grand finale. I was particularly impressed with The Lord’s Prayer, which he sang for the Pope in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.

AB1Those in the know reckoned that he’d close with  Time to Say Goodbye which he recorded as a duet with Sarah Brightman. The single went on to sell over twelve million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time. He sang it but then he gave three more encores and left to a standing ovation that must have lasted five minutes.
So with all these records, I’m left wondering how I could have confused him with an Italian painter? Sometimes I surprise myself. Nevertheless, I’ll be eternally grateful that I got to see the man live on stage and even more grateful for the infusion of wellbeing that came with the price of  the ticket.




It begins with me

Way back in 2001, when the events of 9/11 rocked the world, I was living in a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people, a microcosm of American society. I saw how suspicions prevailed. How the word choice of seemingly intelligent colleagues broadened to include pejorative terms like rag-heads. How the immediate reaction was to shore up and dig in, to close borders, and keep America for Americans. Fast forward and this is Europe today.

I’d grown up in an Ireland where bombs were regular occurrences and being a terrorist was a job that came with and without a uniform. I’d been taught from an early age that if their actions changed how I lived my life, they’d won. I remember writing to the top ranks of the company I worked for, explaining how curtailing flights, changing work patterns, and modifying company behaviour was encouraging the very change in behavior that would give the terrorists their win. I never received a reply.

Bombs, loss of life, man’s inhumanity to man – none of it was new. America was no stranger to terrorism back then. The Oklahoma bombing was proof of that. But, as was explained to me back then, McVeigh et al. were home-grown. The 9/11 perpetrators were different. They had breached the border, broken through the defence. America was no longer a safe place in which to live.

The day before the Paris bombings, many lives were lost in Beirut. I saw little, if any media coverage. And then Paris happened. And the world became red, white, and blue. I wondered aloud when we had become so selective in our condemnation, in our reactions, with our sympathy. And this was one answer I received:  ‘This is on our patch. What they do at home [i.e., Beirut], that’s their business. But when they come into our back yard, and kill us – that’s different.’

RWB3What happened in Paris, and in Beirut, are atrocities. ISIS, in claiming the action as their own, will continue to foment anger and terror. Reports are already circulating that they have infiltrated refugees fleeing to Europe with 4000 militants, armed and ready to kill. Who knows if it’s true. Their aim would appear to be to split the world in two. To change how we live our lives. To turn us into Muslim-hating citizens who live in fear. And I do live in fear … fear that they will succeed.

Two centuries ago, politicians were citing eternal vigilance as the price of liberty. Today, we want our governments to protect us. Yet when they mention surveillance and accessing social media in order to track these terrorists, we cling feverishly to our privacy and cry foul on human rights. We want our security organisations to filter out the bad guys but when we’re held up at airport security, we moan about the inconvenience. Can we have it all? I wonder.

Are those branded ‘conspiracy theorists’ right? Is this nothing but a corporate war for profit and power being financed by the West using others as puppets to do their dirty work? Is it an excuse for countries like Hungary to put armed police on the streets to further agitate the masses and shut their borders to those in need? Is it about religion and false ideologies?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that I have a choice. I can choose to live in fear. I can choose to treat each Muslim I meet as a potential terrorist. I can choose to join those who are damning the millions fleeing ISIS-strongholds like Syria because one bomber got through the net. Or I can refuse to hate. I can have faith in human decency and hold fast to the belief that good will triumph over evil. It’s my choice. It begins with me.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 November 2015

2015 Grateful 7

Who’s yer woman? The tall one. Three pairs of eyes vectored on the poor girl as we tried in vain to place her. Names were tossed out and discarded – too short, too tall, not the right accent. Between us we couldn’t figure her out. Given that we’d been to school with everyone in the room and had probably spent five years in her company, that was bad.

RU2Two years ago, the Class of ’83 had its 30th reunion. I missed it. While everyone else was rolling around the floor singing Rock the Boat, I was watching some Balkan friends being baptised in the River Jordan. Each to their own. By all accounts it was a great night, one that made great inroads into the next morning. I had to make do with the photographs. It felt a little voyeuristic  – or worse, looking at a mugshot book down the Garda Station asking myself if I knew this person or that.

RU3This year, half of the class turned 50, so another reunion was in order [any excuse for a party, I hear you say and what’s wrong with that?] This time, I made sure that I’d be home for it. Not as many showed up apparently [some only got as far as the bar and hadn’t made it up the stairs by the time I left so the reunioning was going on everywhere]  but those that did were in fine fettle. Fifty seemed a state of mind rather than a reality. It was like being back in the prefab classrooms that were Scoil Mhuire, before the posh new school was built.

Mini biographies floated around the room, snapshot CVs that accounted for the missing 32 years. Like me, not everyone had made the last one, so for some of us it was a first get-together – and we had to do it without the benefit of name tags.

Conversations that strayed into the ‘I always thought you were… ‘ zone were perhaps the most revealing. It’s amazing how much time alters our perceptions and how, back then, as teenagers, our visions of ourselves came nowhere near to those that others had of us. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps those times might have been less difficult, less awkward, less traumatic. But hey – that’s all part of growing up.

RU1I’ve been battling bronchitis for three weeks and was on the water. I figured I had till midnight before it all came got to be too much. But  last I did. I was impressed with myself. And more than a little amused when someone told me that they didn’t recognise my voice – thankfully, that high-pitched squeak isn’t really me, no. Judging from the photos, everyone else lasted way longer. I missed the boat … again.

Some say reunions are twee. Passé. Excruciating painful. I disagree. Even without the anesthesia of alcohol, I had a blast. I caught up with people who have popped into my mind over the years as I wondered what became of them. I got to chat with those I see all too occasionally. And I got to hear what everyone has been up to in the last few lifetimes.

To those who took the time to organise it all – you know who ye are – a massive thanks for going to the all that effort.  I’m really glad I took the time to go. Appreciate the invitation.

PS. The tall girl? We finally figured it out.

A hidden gem

To say that Unicum is Hungary’s answer to Jägermeister might get me in trouble with the purists. But to this uneducated palate, they have way too much in common – they’re both dark, herbal, and come in weirdly shaped bottles – to not be at least cousins.

Back in my California days, I had a brief affair with Jägermeister.  It did wonders for my pool game, lending me a coordination that was otherwise completely absent. I believed that the reputedly opiate-based liqueur was banned in 13 US states as this added to its charm. Whether it was true or not was irrelevant.

When I first tasted Unicum, I enjoyed (?) that similar feeling of revulsion. I just can’t drink hard liquor, no matter how good its medicinal properties. Unicum Silva is a little easier on the tongue and could find its way into my medicine cabinet. But unlike its millions of devotees worldwide, I doubt I’ll ever be a true fan.

And yet, I am a fan of the Zwack family. I spent a couple of hours at the Zwack Unicum Heritage Visitors Centre over in District IX recently and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. It’s a gem.

One day, back in 1790, Joseph II of the Habsburg monarchy, was struck by indigestion. His royal physician, a certain Dr Zwack, treated him with an herbal concoction containing 40 different herbs from all around the world. The Monarch proclaimed: Dr Zwack, das ist ein Unikum! (that is unique) and so the name was born.

Today, just five people know how to make it. The recipe, that includes angel root, ginger, mustard seed, cardamom, orange peel, and other herbs from 15 countries around the world, is a closely guarded secret, handed down from father to son.

Zwack3What perhaps surprised me most as I toured the museum is that Zwack isn’t just Unicum. As far back as the late 1800s, it was producing over 200 liqueurs and spirits for worldwide export. And when things got tough in the 1930s and the market for luxury goods like liqueurs dried up, Zwack went into light bulbs and strip lighting. Imagine Budapest lit up with neon Unicum advertisements. Amazing.

Luck was in short supply though. Towards the end of the war, the distillery fell afoul of bombs and was destroyed. And just as the family had restored it, the Russians came and confiscated it.

In the 1960s, Peter Zwack (now in America) partnered with Jim Beam to produce and distribute gin, vodka and slivovica under the Zwack name. In the meantime, Unicum was being produced and distributed under licence in Italy. It wasn’t until the privatization process of the early 1990s that Zwack would successfully buy back the family company that had been confiscated so many years before. Today, the current Chairman of the Board, Sandor Zwack, is the sixth-generation Zwack to hold the position in a business that is an iconic part of Hungary’s history.

Visitors to theZwack5 museum get to watch a video account of the company’s history (and indeed that of the family, so closely are the two intertwined), narrated by the late Peter Zwack, a man I’d loved to have met. The museum itself, with its collection of 17000 miniature bottles, is fascinating and is home to all sorts of oddities, including poems by Ady Endre written to Mylitta, Zwack’s aunt, and a passport issued to Zwack by Raoul Wallenberg.

If you register to arrive at 2pm, you’ll also be treated to a tour of the old distillery where it all began. You’ll finish in the cellar, alongside about 500 oak barrels in which the liqueur is aged for six months before being bottled. And, of course, you’ll get to have a shot straight from the barrel. It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

First published in the Budapest Times  13 November 2015


2015 Grateful 8

My life is bursting with good intentions. I am forever making notes to myself to see, do, go, call, write, ask… and a good 7 times out of 10, I never get around to doing anything but rebuking myself weeks later for not having seen, done, gone, called, written, asked …

museum-applied-arts-budapest1For weeks now, I’ve been reminding myself to go see the Home Sweet Home exhibition at the Iparművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Applied Arts), which, incidentally, is the third oldest applied arts museum in the world (or one of the oldest at least, depending on what you read). It runs until November 15 and time was running out. So late this afternoon, I went. And was dutifully impressed. 

I was with three American friends, all of whom qualified for a concessionary ticket. Am not sure I agree with stuff costing more to be young(er). But hey – at less than €10 for a full-priced combination ticket that gets you into everything, it’s nothing to be sneezed at.

The Home Sweet Home exhibition is actually three exhibitions in one. Tickets also  include  admission to  the BID – Collective Imagination (Imaginación Collectiva) and the Hungarian Design Awards and Design Management Awards exhibitions.

I was particularly impressed with a range of clothing designed for those with autism, based on studies of behavioural habits and favourite poses/relaxed positions. There was also a set of black-and-white ceramic tableware designed for those who are partially sighted; shopping bags made from fishing line and wire; and shoes that can be worn on either foot and so are only sold in ones.

I love design shops. I love seeing how creative people can take thoughts and turn them into something tangible. I love the possibility of it all.

Globalization, technological revolution, environmental issues, sharing economy – concepts that have shaped our mindset in recent years. But how does an abstract concept take form? How does the world leak into our homes, how does our micro-environment transform into a mirror of the society, and how are designers inspired by the big changes of history? HOME SWEET HOME exhibition tries to answer these questions – mainly through items by Hungarian designers, in an inspiring way for both general public and professionals.


The second exhibition runs a little longer. Lifting the Curtain presents the birth of modern architecture in Central Europe from a rather different perspective. [PF and CM – thought of you both – you’d have loved it.] It’s not about architects or styles, but more about  the networks of modern architecture and the influences that transcend borders. I hadn’t known, for instance, that back in 1944, as the Russians were getting closer and closer to Budapest, an entire class from the Technical University (including students, professors, and admin staff – some 1600 in all) were put on trains and shipped out of the country. The idea was to save a generation of engineers and architects who would return to rebuild the country once the war was over. Most ended up in Denmark as POWs before eventually returning to Budapest where the architects among them brought back some influences of Danish modernism. Who’d have thunk it?

Stolen wallet aside, it’s been a good week, one that ended in fond reminiscences. It’s not often I get to sit people who don’t know each other around a table and listen to them discover (and marvel at) how they all have Alaska in common. Or get to visit a home on Csepel Island that might have been transplanted from Valdez. Or actually get to do something before the window of time snaps shut on me. Yep – lots to be grateful for.

And Rex, you’re here with us in spirit – we know. 


11:11 on the 11th

Before moving to Hungary, I thought I was pretty well-versed in my Catholic feast days. I knew enough to be a tad peeved when the Holy See decided to allow Bishops to move most Holy Days of Obligation (those days other than Sunday on which Catholics are obliged to go to mass) to the nearest Sunday. They said it was to accommodate our increasingly busy lifestyles. I’m still struggling to get my head around Ascension Thursday being on Sunday.

marton3In the past few years, 11 November has become one of my new favourite feast days – that of St Martin or Márton nap as it’s known in Hungary. Of course, it’s not exclusive to Hungary but I’m quite taken with how it’s celebrated here. The idea of having to eat goose at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November to avoid going hungry for a year is one I can live with. What I hadn’t realised though, is that it’s also a day for tasting new wines – those just opened after the grape harvest. What a perfect pairing.

What I also hadn’t realised is that St Martin, the son of a Roman tribune, was born centuries ago in Savaria, which is near Szombathely, Hungary (famous in my mind for being the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Anyway, as the story goes, one night when Martin was soldiering for the Roman emperor in France, he saw a homeless guy and offered him half his cloak to keep warm. That night, in his dreams, Jesus appeared to him dressed in his cloak, thus sealing Martin’s faith and future. He left the army and turned instead to serve God. His good deeds earned him a reputation for compassion towards the poor. As his popularity grew, the powers that be decided to make him Bishop of Tours. Now, Martin wasn’t at all keen on the idea so hid in a barn full of geese when they came to collect him. But the traitorous geese gave him up which is why we eat them. And in 371 AD, Martin became Bishop of Tours.

There are lots of stories doing the rounds about geese on Márton nap. Geese once saved Rome from attack and were known to Romans as the sacred bird of Mars – and it’s not a goose step from that to Martin’s bird. Or, perhaps a more sensible explanation is that it falls at the end of the harvest season when workers received their annual wages (imagine that!) plus a goose (as a bonus).

marton4His goose connection having been safely established, St Martin as the appointed ‘judge of new wine’ is a later belief, and perhaps has more to do with timing than taste buds. Still, to his credit, the man has been busy and is now considered Patron Saint of France, horses, riders, soldiers, geese, and vintners.

Goose is a year-round staple on the Hungarian menu and my particular favourite place to eat it is a little restaurant called Huszár Étterem up near Második János Pál pápa tér. I go there reasonably often and the only time I don’t have the goose leg is when they’re out of it. And then I pout.

I’m a creature of cravings and when I crave goose, I want roasted goose leg with steamed red cabbage and roast potatoes. There are even days when goose crackling wins over chocolate.

But perhaps this year, we should look to Martin’s selflessness in sharing his cloak with a beggar. As well as thinking about how to avoid going hungry ourselves, we could think about sharing what we have with those who don’t have as much. Winter is coming and for many, life on the streets is about to get a lot worse. Just a thought.

First published in the Budapest Times 6 November 2015

Listening to that inner voice

When will I learn? When will I stop and listen to my inner voice when it’s practically shouting at me? When will I realise that I need to be mentally in the real world if I’m physically out in it, too?

On the tram this morning, on the way to work, I had to go three stops. I had my backpack on my back – a neat, tidy, affair that doesn’t take up room and holds nothing but my laptop. I’d put my phone in one pocket and my wallet in another. And before I left, I put 20 000 ft in cash in so that I could go to the supermarket on the way home.

When I got on the tram, I had a feeling. A niggling feeling. A feeling that I should take off by pack and carry it. But there was room. It wasn’t that crammed. Not as much as usual. The chap behind me seemed a little jittery, moving around a lot. About my age, reasonably well dressed, looked like he was on his way to work, too. But I thought he was just a little ansy. The niggle was drowned out by thoughts of the workshop I was about to deliver. So I stood, lost in my own little world. I did move towards the driver’s door though and had my back against a wall for the last two stops. But not soon enough.

pickpocketWhen I got off the tram, a girl told me, in Hungarian, that my pack was open. I took it off and sure enough, both zips had been fully unzipped. But my phone was still there – as were my glasses. But my wallet was gone. My wallet, with three debit/credit cards, my driver’s licence, my Ikea card, my post office card, and my organ donor card.

I rang my Hungarian bank – yes, they could stop the cards. For a total of 12 500 ft – about € 38 or $41. Good to see that someone is profiting. I should have new cards in 10 days.  My Irish bank isn’t going to charge me – and as luck  would have it, they’re moving from Visa to Mastercard so there should be a new card waiting for me when I get home.

The cash is unfortunate – and yes, I could do without losing  20 000 ft this week of all weeks, but hey – it’s not the end of the world. What’s annoying me more is that my inner voice was telling me that something was wrong – and I ignored it. It told me when  I was putting my wallet into the backpack while still in my flat. It told me again as I walked to the tram. And it told me for the third time when I first got on the tram. And stupid, stupid, stupid me didn’t bloody listen.