A surgery-free facelift

I’ve decided to age gracefully rather than resort to cosmetic help. Truth be told, I’m just not brave enough to go the Botox route – I can’t get my head around injecting bovine serum into my face. There’s something very unnatural about it all.  Yes, I thought about having my vision corrected but doubt there’s a hand in the world steady enough to allay my fear of a scalpel slipping. So a facelift or a chin tuck – they’re out. When I remember, I do some facial exercises. When I catch myself frowning, I knead my brow. And when I fear the winds might change, I smile.

But I may have found a way of reducing the odds, a way of delaying the whole looking older thing, without the pain that comes with knives and needles.  Enter Angéla Ragány.

Klaudia Kis Photography

Photo: Klaudia Kis Photography

Angela2 (715x593)Angéla is a personal stylist. Once an international lawyer with the Hungarian National Assembly, she decided to change career and do something she’s always loved doing – help people, like me, look better. A recent graduate from the Mod’Art  fashion school in Budapest, she has developed her own brand, ColourMyStyle.

When it comes to what we wear, it’s not about what looks good on someone else, she says. It’s not about our friends’ opinions. It’s not about guessing. Personal Colour Analysis helps us discover what looks good on us, what colours best suits our skin complexion, our eyes, and our hair colour. And when we have this down, we can emphasise all of our most attractive features by using the right clothing, accessories, and makeup. [Well, I won’t be going the make-up route, but the clothes and accessories I can handle.]

As I sat in front of the mirror in my bedroom (Angéla does home visits), I watched, fascinated, as she held the various colour swatches to my face. When she got it right, my skin looked smooth, polished, refreshed, and yes, rejuvenated. I actually looked younger. When she got it wrong, the imperfections, the shadows, and the wrinkles, stood out like a tan on an Irish beach. My skin looked positively grey, and I visibly aged. Trouble was, half my wardrobe was the wrong colour. The culling was painful [all that wasted money], but necessary. Now that I have my pocket swatches of the colours that suit me, I spend less time trying to figure out what to wear, shopping is much easier, and buyer’s remorse has become a thing of the past.

Klaudia Kis Photography

Phpto: Klaudia Kis Photography

I defy you to show me anyone, male or female, this side of 40 who doesn’t want to look younger. And my significant other is no exception. I asked Angéla to do a joint session, to analyse himself as well, hoping she’d desiccate his wardrobe, too. But the laugh was on me. I’d bought him a couple of shirts before Christmas and I could have chosen better – much better. He now has his swatches, too, so no more money down the drapery drain there either. We both know what to buy.

Angéla is happy to advise about what best suits your shape, too. I had this done a few years ago, but very little stuck with me. This time around, I have a few key points to keep in mind. Empire waists, hip-length tops, and straight jeans are the way to go. For him it’s slim-fit solids. It’s all a bit of an optical illusion really where the only thing going under a knife is the material. And after all that, if you’re still wallowing in uncertainty, Angéla will take you shopping.

A 90-minute color consultation will set you back 18 000 ft while a combined session with style advice costs 26 000 ft. Email Angéla at  [email protected] and start from there. She’s on  Facebook, too: https://www.facebook.com/colourmystyleblog/

First published in the Budapest Times 29 January 2016

India: a matter of opinion and I’m convinced

The most famous story I know that has its origins in India is that of the blind men and the elephant. It’s a parable that in various forms and tellings has been claimed by Bahá’I, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Sufis.

This story was made famous in Europe when 19th-century American poet John Godfrey Saxe wrote a poem about it, one that has been put to music and animated for use in corporate training workshops dealing with conflict resolution and negotiation. Apparently it’s also found its way into physics classrooms where it’s used as an analogy for wave-particle duality, and into biology labs where it helps explain polyclonal B cell response. Not bad going at all.

Each variation on the same theme cautions us regarding subjective experience and its failure to take all truth into account. Each of the six blind men is asked to describe an elephant. Each touches a particular part of the animal; none touches the whole. Not surprisingly, they each come up with a different answer and then fight amongst themselves to determine who is right.

Differences between the various versions stem from how the parts of the elephant are described. For example, the elephant’s trunk is described as the branch of a tree (Jain), a plough (Buddhist) and a water spout (Sufi). The stories also differ with regard to the degree of conflict between the blind men and how they resolve (or fail to resolve) their arguments.

I was reminded of this when in Hyderabad recently. At lunch one day, conversation turned to the world’s view of India and how so much depends on personal experience. Unlike Ireland or Hungary, in my experience India evokes an either/or response. Either you love it, or you don’t. Many people love/like, hate/dislike or are completely indifferent to Hungary and Ireland. But not so with India.

Those travelling there to do business might return full of enthusiasm for the myriad electronic and technology hubs that are sprouting up in cities such as Bangalore and Greater Noida. They might tout the development the country is undergoing as a commendable sign of progress and growth.

Others might just see the extreme poverty and inequality that breed in the shadows of the high-rise apartments built to house the growing middle class and at the foot of the glass-walled skyscraper complexes built in homage to new industry. They might return with such talk that it would turn others off going at all.

More still might never see the outside of their hotels, tour buses and the routes planned by their guided-tour operators, shielded from anything deemed unsavoury and exposed only to handpicked tourist sites, five-star restaurants  and government-approved vendors.

And, just as in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, to paraphrase Saxe, each one would be partly in the right but all would be in the wrong.

India is an elephant, a massive, glorious, multifaceted beast that takes the concept of extreme to a whole new level. A quick internet search reveals the village of Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra, a village that is so safe its houses have no doors, its bank has no locks and it has no need for a police station. The village of Pothanikkad in Kerala was the first in the country to reach 100% literacy. The village of Hiware Bazar, also in Maharashtra, boasts 60 millionaires. Imagine.

On the love/hate side, I’m definitely in love. Over the course of three separate visits in ten years, I’ve seen some massive changes and have come to appreciate the differences between north and south. My advice: give it a chance. See for yourself. Take an open mind and an open heart with you and you’ll come home all the richer. Go discover your truth about India.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 January 2016

2016 Grateful 49

Back at the turn of the century, a bunch of Irish friends were making semi-regular trips to France to purchase wine by the bootload. They’d make a weekend of it, stretch out the buying spree to include everything French. I was never invited for two reasons (a) I didn’t drink wine and (b) I didn’t like olives. The fact that I wasn’t living in the country then may also have had something to do with it.

Around the same time, in Oxford, the one and only RG, talked me into sharing a bottle of white wine with him one evening and the rest, as the man says, is history. But I’ve never quite mastered any sort of appreciation for red wine, partly due to an overindulgence in hot port in Anchorage one evening that has left me marked for life. I can’t sit beside an open bag of wine gums without feeling nauseous.

Early this month, I was in Castle Leslie with said same Irish friends. As we sat down to a five-course dinner in our private dining room, it was soon clear that everyone but me was drinking red wine.  What to do? Get a bottle of white for myself? I couldn’t be that obvious.

gin1I’d been a little late to dinner so missed the cocktail order. Instead, I chose one of the 88 gins from an extensive menu curated by Food and Beverages Manager John Matthews. No. 209. From the only distillery in the world that is ‘situated over water’. Based on Pier 50 in San Francisco, it’s quadruple distilled and gets its name from the fact that it’s the 209th distillery to be licensed in the states. And it was rather delicious.  [Note to anyone interested: I have a birthday coming up this year!]


Matthews dropped by to see how we were all doing (the service in CL is second to none) and asked if anyone was on the gin. Of course I was. And then he rocked my world by telling me that it’s his belief that gin can accompany a meal just was well as wine. Imagine. A different gin every course. Who needs wine, I thought to myself. I’d be happy to be a guinea pig for this little experiment.

My 209 went rather nicely with venison starter. But for mains, I was torn between the beef and the pork (pork belly and pigs cheek). For the beef, he recommended an English gin from Birmingham’s Langley distillery  – Botanic (served with lime and juniper berries). Or was it the Scottish Botanist (served with thyme and lemon)?  And for the pork, it was another English  number, the single-distilled Hoxton gin. Made using only alcohol from French summer wheat (who knew?) its recipe includes coconut, grapefruit, juniper, iris, tarragon and ginger. This I had to try. So I went for the pork and savoured the gin. And while it was certainly different, the No. 209 was still winning.


I’m a great lover of cannoli and can’t pass it up on those rare occasions it makes a dessert menu. And for this, it was another American gin – Deaths Door (served with pear and cracked coriander. And while the spirit was willing, the body was weak. I was tired, too tired to appreciate another gin. Looking it up later, I see that it has had mixed reviews. And I also see that it’s in Wisconsin, a gin3part of the world I will be in pretty soon – so I might just have to visit in person.

It was a lovely experiment and one I could repeat. I’d have to eat slower though and take longer between courses. Gin isn’t something to be rushed.

It’s been a week crammed with fine dining and notable wines – a good week that included a Black Tie event, some good theatre, and plenty of socialising. Add this to lasting memories of Matthew’s Gin Menu (featuring gins from Ireland, Holland, Australia, Colombia, Spain, Germany, England, Scotland, France, Norway, and the USA) and I have plenty to be grateful for. He also tipped me off to the Ginvent calendar  from the Masters of Malt who can send a sample bottle of new gin for every day in Advent. Did I mention that I have a birthday coming up this year 🙂


Atilla the Hun’s descendants making good in Ireland

If you’re looking for a posh weekend away in Ireland, you’ll be spoiled for choice. There are any number of castles and country manors to choose from, depending on what you’re looking for. I believe the Monart in Wexford makes you check in your tablet/laptop at reception and only allows phones to be used in the bedrooms. I don’t know, I’ve not been there myself, and doubt I’d enjoy such a forcible unplugging.

The Lodge at Castle Leslie

The Lodge at Castle Leslie

Contrast that with a recent stay in the Lodge at Castle Leslie, where I spent a lovely few hours working away in one of the many drawing rooms dotted around the place. I was checked on regularly by various staff members who were quite happy to get me tea, coffee, or even a cheeky afternoon cider. Were I in the hospitality business, I’d be poaching these staff, or whomever picked and trained them. Gems, all of them.

There were nine of us in total – a lot of estrogen to pack for a weekend away. We were kicking off a year of noughty birthdays and while individual tastes and pleasures varied, Castle Leslie had something for us all.

It bills itself as being first and foremost a home. Second an equestrian centre. Third a hotel. And fourth a spa.

But let’s back up a little. Apparently the Leslies descended from Atilla the Hun and the first of note was a Hungarian nobleman, no less, a chap call Bartholomew Leslie (mmmm… not a name I’ve run into much in Budapest). The first of the clan to come to Ireland was a Bishop who built  Raphoe Castle in Co. Donegal back in the 1600s. Marrying at the ripe old age of 67, he managed to five children, and at the age of 90, rode from Chester to London in a day at the behest of the King. He bought the current Castle Leslie, then known as Glaslough Castle and Demense, and lived till he was a 100. That’s some ancestry.

His son Charles had an eventful life. A staunch defender of Catholic Ireland, he was arrested  by King William accused of treason and later pardoned by George I and sent home to Ireland to die. Friends included Dean Swift, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith.

Charles’s son Charles took over the estate in the mid-1700s. His claim to fame is the help he gave his impoverished nephew to get an education. An excellent investment given that the nephew – the Duke of Wellington – grew up to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

His son Charles died before the famine, during which time his wife Helen ran the estate. Her good deed was to build a famine wall around the estate to keep the locals in work and to run soup kitchens to keep starvation at bay.

IMG_3010 (800x600)IMG_3002 (800x600)Her son Charles was quite extravagant, loved to party, and had great plans for the estate that included a nine-story Gothic tower in the middle of the lake accessible by gondola. [I checked the boathouse. There is no tower and there are no gondolas.] He choked to death on a fish bone before he depleted the family coffers and his brother John took over. It was he who built the castle.

Castle Leslie

Castle Leslie

IMG_3033 (800x600)IMG_3025 (800x600)While I thoroughly enjoyed the grounds and loved the house itself, I’m a tad confused at what makes it a castle. There isn’t a turret to be seen. It is magnificent inside and I had little trouble imagining myself at home to guests or taking tea in the drawing-room. I was glad though, that we were
bedding in the Lodge as those I saw in the castle barely spoke above a whisper and took their handbags to breakfast. That said, as guests on the estate, we had access to the Castle, too. And its magnificent library and home theatre.

IMG_3032 (800x600)But back to John. Apparently, the older he got, the more his wife Constance grew to detest him. While dining, she hid him from view behind a massive flower arrangement  she called ‘un cache marie’ (hide husband).

Her son John, the 2nd Baronet, married the younger sister of  Lord Randolph Churchill’s wife, Jennie. And his son Shane was the one who converted to Catholicism and married an American whose family was great friends with Robert Louis Stevenson. [Can you just imagine the dinners, the guest lists, and the conversations that the castle has witnessed?]

IMG_3040 (600x800)Running the castle wasn’t for Shane though, who passed it on to his eldest son John (known to all and sundry as Jack). Jack, in turn, turned the estate over to his sister Anita and went to live in Rome. He returned to Ireland, to Glaslough, to the Castle, in 1994 and can still be seen taking tea in the Lodge.

Anita was awarded two Croixes de Guerre by French General de Gaulle for her work as an ambulance driver during the war. She married a submarine commander and moved to Galway in the 1960s, turning the estate over to her younger brother Desmond, coauthor of the best seller Flying Saucers Have Landed, which was, apparently, the first book to record human contact with an alien. No room for ordinary in this family. In the early 1990s, Desmond handed over the Estate to his five children, and it’s now run by his daughter Samantha, or Sammy, as she’s known.

IMG_3013 (800x600)A woman of vision, she started small. With tea rooms. Room by room, the castle was restored to its former glory. And when, in June 2002, Castle Leslie Estate,   Paul McCartney and Heather Mills got married there, over 800 million people worldwide now knew it existed.

IMG_3044 (800x600)IMG_3052 (800x600)In 2004, Sammy bought back the Equestrian Centre and Hunting Lodge, renovated them and opened to the public in 2007. It was in the Lodge that we stayed. Fair play to her. There’s nothing like having a vision and the will and determination to realise it. The stables, too, have been converted and as we walked the grounds, we came across all sorts of hidden gems, including gate lodges and the famous famine wall.IMG_3055 (800x592)

There’s lots more to the Leslie story. If you’re interested, check the website. As a weekend away, I can highly recommend it. I’d go back in a heartbeat. And again, I’d stay in the Lodge. As I said, something for everyone – horse riding, boating, fishing, cookery classes, spa treatments, and lots comfy armchairs, pots of tea and 88 types of gin – but more of that later.

2016 Grateful 50

I’m quite partial to a bit of posh. I’m convinced that in a previous life (or indeed, lives), I was loaded. To the manor born and all that. I feel remarkably at home in country estates and have little problem at all when it comes to imagining hosting a silver-crystal dinner for thirty of my bestest friends in the long hall in front of a roaring fire. I’ve been known to lose myself as I conjure up visions of horse-drawn carriages, calling cards, butlers, and parlour maids. But that was in a previous life, not the one I have now. And no, I’m not complaining. I’m just saying.

I was treated recently to a champagne afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. It’s a local institution that has been serving the hoi polloi of the city and oceans of international travellers since 1824. In fact, it’s founder, one Martin Burke from Tipperary, had exactly this in mind. He envisioned a hotel that would ‘woo genteel customers who wanted solid, comfortable and serviceable accommodation at a fashionable address’. He named the hotel after William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne [Burke added the o], and British Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783. [That I never knew.]

It was here that the country’s first Constitution was drafted back in 1922 and over the years, it’s become a landmark and an institution. In the Horseshoe Bar one night many years ago, I turned  with G&T in hand and ran into Nicholas Cage – or rather he ran in to me. That same evening, as I waited outside for a mate to arrive, Martin Sheen stepped out of a taxi and said hello. I’d imagine that a read through the old hotel registers that can be checked out from the hotel’s lobby museum would be an interesting way to pass a wet afternoon.

But I was there for afternoon tea, with champers, in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge. And at €57 per person, I was expecting great things. But times have changed.

We had a 5pm sitting. All that was available. And every seat was taken. I was told on booking that we would have 90 minutes and had this filed away somewhere in the back of my mind, figuring we’d have loads of time.

SB6 (800x468)First up, the champagne, a choice of pink or white. Real stuff, too. Lovely. Then the sambos. One each of a choice of four. While they were tasty, I was surprised at how uninspiring they were. And open, too. I know I spend a lot of time in Hungary, home of the open sandwich, but still, I like my breads to meet. I like a traditional sambo. But they were tasty.

Next up, the three-tiered cake dish with scones, cakes, and desserts (working from the bottom up). It was the scones I’d come for, really. Those and the clotted cream. [It’s the only time I eat jam. And in living memory, no matter how full I have been, I have never turned down a cream tea. Even now I can taste the clotted Cornish cream I had last summer.] I have very fond memories of afternoon teas, including one at the Parsonage in Oxford, or the Ritz in London, or the Empress on Vacouver Island. I’d been salivating since morning at the thoughts of a repeat. But the scones were small and the cream wasn’t clotted. But they were tasty.

SB2 (800x600)The macaroons, those multi-coloured pastel things that took the world by storm a couple of years ago, were very very sweet. All the cakes were very sweet. Too sweet. But they looked amazing. I was particularly taken with the eggshell, its sweet centre and shortbread soldiers for SB1 (800x599)dipping. But it was far too sweet.

All the while we chatted, drank tea, then switched to coffee. We looked around, took in the sights, caught the occasional waft of another conversation as it wound its away around the living room. All very pleasant. It was tipping on 6.30 and our 90 minutes were up, but there were tables vacant and no one waiting to come in. We had just arrived at the top-tier when our waiter came over and asked, politely, if we’d like to box it up and take it home. We were getting the bum’s rush!! This I certainly didn’t expect. Another 10 minutes wouldn’t have killed them. A little put out, we boxed and left.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and great to see how the other half live. Some of our fellow afternoon-teaers looked like regulars. Must be nice. The decor, the ambiance, the setting all took me back to that previous life when the hotel might have been my home from home in the city. That said, I wonder if the Shelbourne has become a tad complacent? Is it resting a little on its laurels? As posh afternoon teas go, I’ve had better. In my book, substance trumps appearance every time.

Still, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to add another memory to the memory bank of well-spent afternoons. I’m grateful that we got to kick off M’s birthday week in style. And I’m grateful to the inimitable Mr N for treating me to a taste of times past. Lovely. Lovely indeed.

Recommended without reservation

I love my food. I’ve always loved my food. I love the way it looks, the way it tastes, the way it complements a mood. I have a list of my top ten most memorable meals, a list that is constantly changing: a five-hour dinner in Italy at the Monte Cristo in Rome, where I discovered for the first time that, for Italians, pasta isn’t a main dish; a five-course dinner in Glaslough, Ireland, where I was introduced to the notion of accompanying my meal with gin rather than wine, choosing a new one for each course; a five-minute snack in Marrakesh that brought a whole new meaning to Moroccan street food.

Sometimes it’s the ambience. Sometimes it’s the food. Sometimes it’s the company. But to make the list, it takes all three.

In Budapest, I’m spoiled. Unlike Dublin or London or other cities in which I’ve lived, eating out here is affordable. I have particular restaurants I go to if I’m craving a particular food. Huszár Étterem at II. János Pál pápa tér 22 in the VIIIth district is a favourite for goose and red cabbage and a bableves (bean soup) that has yet to be bettered. It’s a quiet, unassuming place that never disappoints. If it’s fish I’m after and want to stay in the city, then I head for Trattoria Toscana in the Vth district at Belgrad Rakpart 13. The salt-encrusted sea bass is mouth-wateringly good, especially when accompanied by buttered spinach and a simple pasta dish. And if it’s pork I want, I wander around the corner from my place in District VIII to Kompót Bisztró on  Corvin Sétány 1 1/B for the spicy pork tenderloin with sour cream lángos. My cravings never go unsatisfied.

But for those days when I can’t make a decision to save my life, when I have no idea what I want to eat, or am in company and have no clue what they’d like to eat either, I head for the VIIth district to Fricska on Dob Utca 56-58. For my money, it’s the best restaurant in the city today. And I’ve eaten in plenty.

fricska-gasztropubThey bill themselves as a gastropub, something I can’t quite figure out because it’s the least-likely looking pub you’ll ever find. The cellar space is just that, a cellar space, but a classy one. The tables are far enough apart to work with the acoustics and afford a modicum of privacy, which is always important. I hate having good food spoiled by an adjacent conversation that’s too inane, too loud, or too interesting to be ignored.

The lunch menu is simple: three starters, three mains, three desserts to choose from. Even with wine and coffee, you’ll easily get change from 5000 ft. I’ve had goat stew. I’ve had roast quail. I’ve had delectable lamb. There’s always something interesting to try, and in all the lunches I’ve had, I’ve yet to be disappointed. The dinner menu is more extensive and when there’s fresh tuna on the menu, that’s what I go for. I like that they always bring out the fish so that I can see it first.

When asked, they say they’re reviving the bourgeois cuisine of the early twentieth century. Take Italian cuisine, add a little French to it, and then update it with a modern Hungarian twist, and you have Fricska. The menu changes daily depending on what’s available in the market. With their chefs’ fresh ingredients and mindful creativity, eating there is a joy. The sommelier is evidently proud of the wine they offer from small Hungarian wineries, and is happy to share his knowledge, making every lunch or dinner an education in itself.

If you haven’t yet been, do yourself a favour and make a reservation. I’ll most likely see you there.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 January 2016


2016 Grateful 51

It’s been a long time since anyone scrubbed me down and washed me. The last time was most likely during a hospital stay in Cherry Orchard some 20 years ago. But, as is more usual that not, I hadn’t done my research and had little idea what to expect from a Hammam. I had some vague notion of a steam room followed by a massage, but didn’t think much beyond that.

Do I bring a swimsuit? Would they care? Surely there’ll be towels involved? Using various sign language she made it clear that I could strip to my birthday suit but men needed to be suitably clothed. Then it was in to the steam room where I was doused in water and told to sit and wait. So sit and wait I did.

Now, for someone for whom the thought of a long bath is far more enjoyable that the bath itself, I was soon getting antsy. I find it very difficult to sit and relax unless there’s a couch or a bed or some sort of wait involved. Just to sit for the sake of sitting with nothing to sit for – that does my head in.

After about 20 minutes, she returns with some black soap and proceeds to exfoliate me thoroughly. It was dark. I don’t know if I blushed. It was all very clinical anyway. Then I had to sit some more. Wait some more.

And then I was rinsed again, and oiled. And instructed to lie on my stomach to be massaged. It was grand though I’d have liked it a little stronger. But it was good. Then I had to lie and wait some more, while the steam room steamed and my pores opened and the magic hammam stuff happened. And I got even more antsy. I couldn’t lie so I sat up and even that was tedious.

Back again for more rinsing and oiling, I was then handed a bath robe and  told it was over. An hour all told. For about €20. No complaints there. And yes, I slept well afterwards and felt good.

BUT… and isn’t there always a but…

I discovered later that there were public Hammams (separate bathing for males and females, of course) where you can rent a bucket and buy some black soap and a mitt and even hire a woman to rub you down. But you also get to watch everyone else, listen to the gossip, and experience what it’s like to be Moroccan. Apparently everyone goes once a week – it’s a ritual. And they can spend up to three hours there (mad).

IMG_2566 (600x800)IMG_2570 (600x800)When we were up in the High Atlas, I saw a home hammam – and it reminded me a little of an American Indian sweat lodge made from clay. While I get the idea of detoxing and appreciate the need to relax every so often, for me it will take work.

I’m grateful, though, on two counts: that I got to finally experience a hammam, even if it was not quite the real thing; and that I now have a note to self to add ‘learn to relax’ to my list of things to do this year. It’s time. I’m old enough. I’m ready.

A New Year’s Prayer

For many, 2015 might be a year they’d prefer to forget. One that brought all sorts of travesties to the world, resulting in the deaths of many and the maiming of more. One that unpeeled the facets of human nature to reveal a selfish, hardened core, offensive to some, frighteningly acceptable to others. One that pitted friends against friends as politics and policies introduced a whole new level of divisiveness. Yes, for many, 2016 couldn’t have come too soon.

While the world at large may not have fared well, individual worlds trundled along quite nicely, untouched to any great extent by the global happenings and perhaps a steadfast refusal to get involved. A case in point was last year’s refugee crisis at Keleti Station in Budapest. If you had no reason to go to that part of the city, you could have happily ignored what was going on.  The recent flooding in Ireland and the north of England is another. If you lived far from a river, lake or sea, you could watch in detached horror as others have all they’ve worked for destroyed by rising waters.  The bombings in Paris and Beirut and the shootings in San Bernadino and Roseberg could be viewed as if part of a Hollywood movie. These and other catastrophes likely had most of us offering thanks to whatever higher being we turn to in times of crisis: thanks that we were not there, not involved, not affected.

When the world goes so off kilter, the whole ‘God question’ hovers as those who don’t believe question why any god would allow such chaos to prevail. Those who believe in one exclusive God dig in and proclaim that theirs offers access to the one and only pathway to true salvation. And of such blinkeredness, fundamentalism is born.

My uncle told a joke over Christmas dinner. God (whichever god), was giving a new entrant a tour of heaven. As they looked down over the vast expanse, he pointed out the Jewish section, the Muslim section, the Hindu section, the various Protestant sections, and those sections belonging to the other world religions until finally he pointed to the Catholic section. With it came a warning: Walk quietly past that gate, he said, as they believe they’re the only ones up here. Move the words around at will and there’s something in that.

I have my own views on religion. I subscribe to being a pick’n’mix Catholic with a belief that different religions see their version(s) of the one God. I don’t argue about it. I don’t debate the finer theistic points. I know that I need to believe and that it is my faith in a higher power whom I call God that keeps me sane. But as the world continues to spiral out of control, what are the odds that my God will continue to hear my prayers to spare me and mine hardship? I thought perhaps that I needed a new perspective on prayer and then I read this:

May God make your year a happy one.
Not by shielding you from all sorrows and pain,
But by strengthening you to bear it as it comes;
Not by making your path easy,
But by making you sturdy to travel any path;
Not by taking hardships from you,
But by taking fear from your heart;
Not by granting you unbroken sunshine,
But by keeping your face bright;
Not by making your life always pleasant,
But by showing you when people and their causes need you most,
And by making you anxious to be there to help.

So, no matter what you believe, may your God’s love, peace, hope, and joy stay with you for the year ahead.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 January 2016

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Opened or closed?

The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live. So said Flora Whittemore, an American woman who lived till 103 and so no doubt knew a thing or three about life.  I have had a fascination with doors for as long as I can remember. At various stages in my life I’ve wanted them open, always open, even into the bathroom. At other stages, I’ve wanted them closed. More times I didn’t care much one way or another. I never stop long enough to wonder why. I just accept. I go through phases.

One phase that has been pretty constant though is wanting to know what lies behind the various doors I’ve wandered past, down various streets, in various villages, towns, cities, and countries. And for a door lover, Morocco is door heaven, the town of Essaouira in particular.

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The mosaic tiling. The carved stone. The metal studs. The doors, in various stages of repair or disrepair, all lead to other worlds, to God knows what. The blue that is somewhat universally associated with Morocco is vibrant no matter how faded it is.

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And even when you add the ubiquitous graffiti, they still leave so much to the imagination. Perhaps it’s the colours that I’m so taken with. Or the sturdiness. Or the fact that they suggest former days of glory. Perhaps they’re some sort of analogy for aging gracefully, of shabby chic, of a slow but beautiful wearing away of glitz and glam. Even doors that aren’t doors at all front a story. I have no clue why they fascinate me so.  But fascinate me they do.

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Morocco wasn’t ever really on my list of places to go. Well, not high up there, anyway. And I still have a smidgin of trouble getting my head around the fact that it’s in Africa. And while I have often thought I could never live in an Islamic society – and still could never, ever, live anywhere that enforced Sharia law – a door, once shut, has now opened. Morocco changed my mind.

PS. Check out Steve McCurrry’s photos of doors – spectacular

Sleepy or stormy?

After the hustle that was the souks of Marrakesh, it was a refreshing change to wander about the souks in the medina in Essaouira where ‘no thanks’ was accepted as a polite rebuke, only occasionally met with eyes thrown to heaven or mutterings underbreath about what I assume was the equivalent of ‘bloody foreigners’. And in Essaouira, the mix was surreal: carcasses of meat hanging between the latest designer knockoffs.

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IMG_2731 (600x800)Sunshine during the day was lovely. Lots of cafés to stop off in and watch the world go by. Plenty of mosques to create a cacophony five times daily, including one just across the street from our blue-shuttered flat. The couple of days I spent in bed, sick, were interesting to say the least. I really should have paid more attention to the list of restaurants the landlady left for us. Her note beside one saying it was okay to eat the salads there should have rung an alarm bell and made me realise that it might not be okay to eat the salads elsewhere. Add that to taking over-the-counter antibiotics and overdosing on the paracetamol and it was a recipe for disaster.

IMG_2796 (800x600)IMG_2750 (800x600)IMG_2752 (800x600)Moroccan flats are bloody cold in winter. No heating systems. Twenty-four degrees outside and four degrees inside. I had plenty of time to wonder what I’d do were I to move over and I’m still none the wiser. That said, I think I still want to give it a go.

The view from the flat looked down over a
row of shops, one of which was kept going into the small hours of the morning, whatever it was he was selling.  The rooftops are covered with satellite dishes. Internet is cheap – just €2 for 400 MB and about €12 for a data card to IMG_2737 (800x600)make your own home wifi. It’s all a little at odds with the other-worldly feeling that permeates the place.

And much and all as I like to drive, being in a world within walls where no cars are allowed was very IMG_2736 (800x600)therapeutic. The whole place is a Unesco Heritage Site and so well it should be protected. A bolthole from the madness that lives just over the parapets.

My wish for 2016 is that I somehow find the money to buy a flat somewhere, just so that I can come back to Essaouira and furnish it. The carpets. The sconces. The leather. The pottery. The bedspreads. The choices. Truly a shopping heaven and so very very different from the proliferation of sameness that has beset the highstreets of Europe.

IMG_2785 (800x578) (2)But outside the walls that enclose this sleepy haven, the tides push and pull, fighting to make themselves heard. The surf rages. The seagulls compete with the muezzins come prayer time. It’s all in such stark contrast and from the inside looking out, quite spectacular. A fitting place indeed for Jimmy Hendrix to have written When the wind cries Mary.

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