2016 Grateful 44

My grandfather had a chair by the fire that no one else sat in. My dad has one, too. I have my corner of the couch, the cushion perfectly moulded to me. I have my seat at the dining table, from which I hold court. When I lived in my cabin in Alaska, I’d alternate between the rocking chair and the recliner, depending on the mood, on what I was reading, on the time of day. I’ve had favourite park benches, rocks, and steps. I like to sit. I like chairs.

IMG_3329 (800x600)IMG_3332 (800x591)When it comes to monuments, I’ve been fascinated by the chair with the broken leg that sits outside the UN in Geneva.But this fascination paled when I was shown the chairs that sit in Plac Bohaterów Getta Square in the heart of the old ghetto in Kraków . My guide told me there were 65 in all, one for each 1000 Jews who died in the Holocaust. But I think she may have been confusing this with the monument in ulica Szeroka.  I didn’t count. But I did check it out and the memorial, designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak actually includes 70 chairs in total, one for each of the 1000 jews who lived in the ghetto. Who’s to say. And does it matter? There are 33 tall ones (1.4 m high) in the square itself and 37 smaller ones (1.2 m high) that sit around it. The larger ones are illuminated, which must make it pretty special to see at night. Passengers waiting to catch a bus or tram sit on the chairs as they wait a different transportation to that experienced by those jews deported from this very place. Eerie. I wonder how many stop to think or do they even see them any more?

IMG_3331 (800x600)As memorials go, these empty chairs are amongst the most poignant I’ve seen. A similar theme was used in the aftermath of the Oklahoma Bombing in the USA where 168 empty chairs stand witness to the 168 lives lost in that atrocity. I was in Oklahoma a few years ago and am raging I didn’t do my homework. Next time.

IMG_3339 (800x600)IMG_3342 (800x600)Still on the same side of the river in an area that has seen major redeveopments in recent years, sits Schindler’s factory, made famous by Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List  about Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, who saved the lives of over 1000 Jews by recruiting them to work in his factory. I stopped outside but didn’t go in. Sometimes it can all be too much. And it isn’t going anywhere. I think that when the Holocaust and its remembrance is crammed into a one-day tour of the city, it loses something. Yes, better remembered in any way than forgotten entirely but time is needed to reflect, to consider what happened, and to offer a prayer that nothing like it will ever happen again.

I challenge anyone to walk through the ghetto, sit on a chair, stand outside the factory door and not feel the urge to give thanks for simply being alive.

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Chewing the cholent

It was a flying visit. I didn’t have much time. In Wednesday evening, work Thursday, fly out Friday morning. I wasn’t there to sightsee but it’d be a cold day in hell before I’d visit somewhere and not get to see something.

IMG_3283 (800x600)IMG_3289 (600x800)It’s been years since I was last in Kraków. I was looking forward to seeing how much, if anything, I remembered of the city. I had vague recollections of a large central square edged with expensive cafés. That time, I had taken the train from Warsaw with the sole of aim of visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the salt mines. All three were quite something with the first two taking all of my energy and most of my will to live. There is something quite unsettling about seeing mounds of human hair, piles of unmatched shoes, heaps of suitcases and knowing the fate their owners met. I remember visiting the bookshop wanting to buy camp memoirs written by a man and by a woman, so that I’d get both perspectives. The lady in the shop wouldn’t let me go before I bought a third book – written by one of the SS guards.

IMG_3348 (600x800)Having done the tour of the Auschwitz, I was dazed, upset, and not a little shocked. I went on to Birkenau and as I walked down to the end of the camp, the three books getting heavier and heavier in my backpack, I heard myself complaining and cursing life. No sooner had I vented did I realise that the hundreds and thousands who had trodden this same path before me never had the chance to curse again. I was a sobering thought. This was back in 2004 (I think).

I recall overhearing a young Polish chap explain to a couple of English nurses on the train that Poland didn’t have  Jewish problem any more. And so this time, when I visited, I saw that the Jewish community is making a comeback of sorts.

IMG_3363 (800x600) (2)
IMG_3371 (800x600)There’s a square (actually a street but it looks like a square) at the heart of it all:  ulica Szeroka. Ringed by restaurants and cafés, it’s also home to the Old Synagogue and the Remuh Synagogue. Today, it’s a hive of activity with plenty to do in the way of socialising.

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IMG_3355 (800x600)IMG_3374 (800x600)Tempted by the Hamsa restaurant that promised both happiness and humus, I couldn’t resist the Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (Once upon a time in Kazimierz), with its row of weathered shopfronts, its dark and its dark interior furnished as if it were someone’s living room. Billed as one of the most unusual restaurants in the world, I couldn’t pass it by. The menu was alien to me and yet familiar, a composite of foods that had featured in novels I’d read but had never eaten. Borsch  – a beetroot soup with kolduny (meat filling) or
uszka (mushoom filling). Gefilte fish (minced carp in jelly). Cholent (stew with beans beef, veg, potatoes and groats). There was even Israeli wine on the menu.  I ate well.

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IMG_3368 (800x600)Wandering around afterwards, I happened across a memorial to the
65 000 Polish Jews from Kraków who didn’t live to see the end of the War. It was cold that day – bitterly cold – and the streets were notably empty. I’d imagine though that in the summer, it would be heaving. How does it resonate with the partying masses enjoying their holidays? A thought.

I paid my respects. I stood a while until a recurring thought popped into my head about the millions of other lives lost in the Holocaust that go largely unmentioned. And then I wandered and I wondered.





Experts in expatting

Life is full of contradictions. For every scientific study published arguing one thing, another one publishes arguing the exact opposite. There’s no denying that we are living in the information age. Never before has so much knowledge been as accessible to so many. Never before have we had so many platforms from which to air our views, expound our beliefs, share our thoughts. We can post, tweet, and blog. We can video, record, and podcast. We can write tomes or thimbles of text. We can find an audience of one, of ten, of millions. And it’s doing my head in.

I don’t know where to turn. Too much choice and I’m likely not to make any choice at all. Or worse still, have someone make the choice for me. [I miss the days when my choice of coffee was limited to black or white.]

I have friends whose opinions I trust on certain topics. They’re not necessarily any smarter than me; they’re just more interested, more engaged. I use them as my guides. I listen to their recommendations. When it comes to making decisions that require some form of expertise, I go to those who have already done the research and made the call. It’s all so easy now. A quick email or an SMS might lead to a longer coffee or a lunch, and eventually, I’ll get the information I need to make my decision.

But I wasn’t always so careful.

When I decided to more or less make Hungary my base, I didn’t do any research at all. None. I’d visited twice, yes. But on neither occasion was I anything more than a tourist. I chose to ignore all the advice I was given. I visited a fortune teller (as was my wont back then) and even ignored his dire warnings of bad things to come if I persisted with the move. I didn’t listen to those Hungarians who quite accurately predicted the country’s current state of chassis. I had my mind made up.

But not everyone is as foolhardy as I. Others like to do their research, to plan, to weigh the pros and cons. Guide books will only tell you what to visit. Local news is often biased and subject to the vagaries of translation. Country nationals can’t tell you what life as an expat will really be like.  So where can a body go to get some decent, on-the-ground information about what it’s like to live as a foreigner in another country?  Any country?

xpEnter Expat.com. Billed as possibly the largest expat help and support network in the world, this brainchild of Julien Faliu was born in 2005 as a simple directory of expat websites and has now evolved into a real social network with over 250 000 members. Showcasing blogs from Algeria to Zimbabwe, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, from Anguilla to the Virgin Islands, from Albania to Wales, from Armenia to Yemen and everywhere in between, Expat.com is a wealth of information written by real people, living real lives, experiencing real challenges. All of them have one thing in common: a willingness to share.

Take the Hungary site as an example. It has job offers, forums, and ads for accommodation. You can ask questions of those already living the dream. You can meet new people, make new friends, and build new networks. If the information is out there, you’ll find it on Expat.com. And if it’s not there, there are hundreds of people you can ask. If you’re thinking of moving to Hungary, why not read accounts of life in Hungary written by those who are living it. And then make up your mind. And if you’re already here – I’m sure there’ll be something in it that surprises you.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 February 2015


There are no ugly women; just lazy ones

Helena Rubenstein, the world’s first self-made female millionaire, was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1872. She emigrated to Australia in 1902. With no money and little English, she packed a great complexion and jars of face cream in her luggage. When her supply ran out, she started making her own. With all the sheep in Australia, lanolin was in good supply.

By  1908, she was raking it in. She had plans for expansion. Again, on her own dime, in an era where women in business were not financed by banks, she moved to London. She married and had two sons.

In 1912, they all moved to Paris and she opened a salon. She set up a publishing company, too, the one that published Lady Chatterley’s Lover. All sorts of names and notables attended her salon, many of whose notoriety was still in the making. She was known for her dinner parties and her wit.

When WWI broke out, the family moved to New York where she opened her salon in 1915. This would mark the beginning of a lifelong rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, captured on film in The Powder and the Glory. She sold her US business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 for just over $7 million and bought it all back for less than $1 million when the Great Depression hit. From there, it was onwards and upwards.

Her second marriage was to a  Georgian aristocrat 23 years her junior. [That must have been some face cream!] She spent money on art and clothes but took her own lunch to work. She set up foundations, gave scholarships, and employed most of her relatives in the business. She was some woman.

IMG_3361 (800x600)In Kraków last week, I stood outside the house in which she was born. It’s in the Jewish District of Kazimierz and is now a restaurant. Or so I was told. There seems to be a little confusion about exactly where. Earlier in the week, I’d seen the Oscar-nominated Hungarian movie Saul és fia (Son of Saul) so senses were particularly heightened. But Helena Rubenstein escaped before the madness descended on this part of the world. Her reasons for emigrating were most likely economic. And it made me think  of the millions of souls of potential who perished – not just Jews, but Catholics, Roma, artists, intellectuals – millions of lives wasted because of one man’s ideal.

And this made me think about abortion and the screening tests for unborn children and the parents who for better or worse decide whether or not to carry to term babies who are less than perfect. I wonder what Hitler’s mum might have done with the benefit of hindsight. But then the same might be said for Henry Ford – given the number of lives lost to automobile accidents. And my mind took another leap and bounced to risk aversity and how many of us live our lives in fear of things that never happen. And that led to potential and the fulfilling thereof.  Parents reliving their own failed sports careers through their children? Is that right? And then I started on emancipation and the movie My Sister’s Keeper that I’d heard about. A story of a young girl of 12 who’d sued her parents for medical emancipation. They’d had her so that she could be a donor for her sibling. And from there to movies and how they no longer seem to imitate life but take on a life of their own. And what about our constant need to be entertained, and our low boredom thresholds. And why don’t we read any more? Surely a beautiful mind is light years again of a beautiful face – but then beautiful faces are there for the taking – as Rubenstein said – there are no ugly women; just lazy ones.  I wonder what she’d have made of me ….

PS – Son of Saul – worth seeing – a whole new take on life in concentration camps. Playing in Toldi with subtitles 8.45 Mondays and Tuesdays.



2016 Grateful 45

Two months in to the year and I’ve managed to get to Morocco, Ireland, Malta, Serbia, and Poland.  I head Stateside later this week, and plan on spending time in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Croatia, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia,  and the UK before the year is out.

travel as much as you canI’m not sure where I get it from. My dad has a thing about planes believing that what goes up, must come down, and not necessarily on schedule. My mum isn’t big on travel either. And they swear I wasn’t adopted.

I’m lucky enough to have a job that facilitates this need and luckier still that those closest to me understand it and recognise the signs. I’ve noticed myself that if I’ve been too long in one place, I start to get antsy. My tolerance levels, never high to begin with, sink lower still. I find it hard to concentrate. My mind makes the journeys for me. I worry what life would be like were something to happen that would anchor me to one place. How would I cope if I had but two weeks a year in which to explore, or worse still, not be physically able to venture abroad. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I’m currently rereading Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series set in Alaska. I’m more than half-way through and find myself envying her life … again. She’s a five-foot 30-something Aleut who does what she needs to do to get by in the Bush. She hunts. She fishes. She investigates. She lives on a 160-acre homestead in The Park. She’s a force to be reckoned with. And she hates leaving her world and venturing outside. And ’tis there that our paths diverge. I reckon if put to the pin of my collar I could do all the other stuff… but staying put in one place no matter how jaw-droppingly gorgeous it was? Not me.

travelMany years ago, a good mate of mine who lives on the big island of Hawaii was talking about buying a place on another island – just to get away from it all. I remember laughing at the good of it. There they were living in the place to which the world escaped and they were feeling the need to escape, too.
It got me thinking. Do I travel to escape, to get away? Do I travel because I need a change of scenery? Do I travel just to say I’ve been?  And, as usually happens when I start talking to the universe, it sends me an answer. This time it sent me John Hope Franklin. A man I’d never heard of before. Had I studied history or grown up in America, I might have come across him sooner. But I didn’t and I haven’t. But his message was clear:

We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.

And therein lay my answer: I travel to share. An old friend, an inveterate explorer back in the day but now confined to closer quarters, thanked me once for taking them with me on my trips, for showing them places they’d never been, and introducing them to stuff that would otherwise have passed them by. I liked that.

A mate in Australia told me recently how much their postman enjoys my postcards and how he wishes I’d write clearer so he could read them. I liked that too.

This week, as I unpack, do laundry, and repack my bags, I’m grateful, yet again, that I love to travel and I’m grateful, too, for those who travel with me.

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When the border beckons

One of the best things about living in Hungary is that it’s within easy access of fascinating destinations that make exploring the wider neighbourhood very appealing.  When I have a rare free weekend with no plans whatsoever, my feet start to itch. I could stay home and file. Or sort my socks. Or colour code my library. But if the borders beckon, I can’t resist. I don’t even try.

One of my favourite 36-hour getaways is to cross the Serbian border into Subotica (Szabadka to Hungarians). We caught the 8.05 train from Keleti Station on Saturday morning having booked into the cute little Hotel Gloria in the middle of the city. It’s within walking distance from the station and has its own modest spa that I usually have to myself: a Jacuzzi, steam room, and sauna with complimentary robes, slippers, and towels.  The staff there are marvellous: friendly, helpful, and very professional.

Exiting the train station, the view of the art nouveau Raichle House is stunning and but it’s just a taste of what’s to come. The Town Hall and the Synagogue are even more amazing, both built in the same style by Budapest architects Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab. They’re gobsmackingly gorgeous by day, but even more impressive by night. Sadly, the Zsolnay tile fountain is under wraps for winter. It, too, is magnificent.
IMG_3090 (600x800)Both the Franciscan Monastery and the Serbian Orthodox Church are worth some time. Both are beautiful.  In marked contrast, the Roman Catholic Cathedral has an alarming crack down the façade that conjures up all sorts of terrifying images as to what might happen one day.

IMG_3080 (800x600)IMG_3082 (800x600)We took the bus out to Palic Lake late afternoon, travelling back in time to days when women in long dresses and parasols strolled around this great expanse of now frozen water. We stopped off at a local pub to the amusement of the Hungarian-speaking locals who were fascinated by an Irish woman (badly) speaking their language in Serbia. And, as always, the warmth of Serbian hospitality melted my bones.

That night, having secured a reservation at Boss Caffe, we ate in style. Zang, their Chinese chef, has been doing great things for Chinese cuisine in the region for about seven years. Most of the menu is Italian, but I’d been dreaming of his eggplant chips and beef fillet with spicy zucchini since my last visit. The restaurant is at the high end of the local market but it’s relatively inexpensive, with service that is unmatched in my experience. Someone should poach Felix and have him set up a training school for wait staff in the rest of the world.

IMG_3084 (600x800)Serbians love their coffee and know how to serve it. The Hausbrandt Caffe does a great trade in imported Italian coffees served with good conversation and a smile and they saw a lot of us. Best Food, a Serbian fast food restaurant that would make a small fortune in franchise, enticed us back twice for their mouth-watering sandwiches and local meats cooked to order by … yes … friendly, efficient staff that negotiated the language barrier with both ease and interest.

We caught the 15.22 train back to Budapest on Sunday having had a lazy morning searching for the new monument to a favourite Hungarian poet, Kosztolányi Dezső. And as had happened on the way in, the train sat for 45 minutes about 100 m out of the station while passports were checked. Then, across the border in Hungary, some 10 km later, we sat for another 45 minutes while passports were checked again and customs did their bit. Disturbingly, this time, the hotel had given us a stamped form that we had to surrender on exit showing that we’d be registered as foreign visitors. A dark patch on an otherwise glorious 36 hours.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 February 2016

2016 Grateful 46

‘Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’

I think William James had something there. He was a major contributor to the Pragmatism Movement a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.

I’ve been giving this some thought lately, having nothing better to do and wanting a distraction from the everyday stuff that normally occupies my mind. And I am wondering whether Murphy – you know Murphy? The Optimist? As in Murphy was an optimist? –  was also a pragmatist.
toastI got this in my inbox last week (ta much JF) and just had to wonder:

Murphy drops some buttered toast on the kitchen floor and it lands butter-side-up. He looks down in astonishment, for he knows it’s a law of the universe that buttered toast always falls butter-down. So he rushes round to the presbytery to fetch Father Flanagan.

He tells the priest that a miracle has occurred in his kitchen. He won’t say what it is, but asks Fr. Flanagan to come and see it with his own eyes.

He leads Fr. Flanagan into the kitchen and asks him what he sees on the floor.

“Well,” says the priest, “it’s pretty obvious. Someone has dropped some buttered toast on the floor and then, for some reason, they flipped it over so that the butter was on top.”

“No, Father, I dropped it and it landed like that!” exclaimed Murphy.

“Oh my Lord,” says Fr. Flanagan, “Dropped toast never falls with the butter side up. It’s a mir…. Wait… it’s not for me to say it’s a miracle. I’ll have to report this matter to the Bishop and he’ll have to deal with it. He’ll send some people round; to interview you, take photos, etc.”

A thorough investigation is conducted, not only by the archdiocese but by scientists sent over  from the Curia in Rome. No expense is spared. There is great excitement in the town as  everyone knows that a miracle will bring in much-needed tourism revenue.

Then, after 8 long weeks and with great fanfare, the Bishop announces the final ruling.

“It is certain that some kind of an extraordinary event took place in Murphy’s kitchen, quite outside the natural laws of the universe. Yet the Holy See must be very cautious before ruling a miracle. All other explanations must be ruled out. “

“Unfortunately, in this case, it has been declared ‘No Miracle’ because they think Murphy may have buttered the toast on the wrong side!”

toast3I am grateful this week that I still wonder why, that I still ask questions, that I still want to know. Because life without wonder, without question, without curiosity would be very boring indeed. I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t need all the answers. I don’t want all the answers. Sometimes, it’s just enough to wonder why.

Beer and other matters of distinction

If I needed affirmation that I’d picked the best district in which to live in Budapest (something I’ve long since known), I got it recently when Vogue described Budapest’s District VIII as ‘delightfully shabby’ and named it ‘Budapest’s new must-visit spot’. Duh. Where have ye been, people? I’ve been banging on about this for years!

My little corner of the neighbourhood has been undergoing huge change, change that I document reasonably frequently. It needs to be done. Stuff opens up here almost overnight. I go away for a couple of weeks or so and come back to find yet another little gem on my doorstep.

sor5Right next door to what has to be my favourite wine bar/shop in the city, Vino és Wonka (which translates as ‘wine and chocolate’ – what’s not to like?) is the new Serfőző. This Czech beer pub also stocks beer from Hungary and Germany, both on draught and by the bottle. While its wine choice is limited (it favours wine from the cannot-go-wrong region of Szekszárd) and more of a nod to the non-beer drinkers who might be dragged inside that for serious wine drinkers, I had no complaints. It’s small, cosy, and serves up a variety of good beer to those lucky enough to get a seat.

sor2An offshoot of the successful Serfőző brand, which is perhaps better known for its involvement in Budapest’s regular summer craft beer festival (also in District VIII), partner László Kóczián didn’t waste much time moving in. He first spotted the vacant premises during a beer festival they organised in Corvin Sétány back in May and by 8 December, the doors were open and the beer was flowing.
sor4Kóczián is no stranger to running a pub. His mother ran a small pub down on Csepel Island and he more or less grew up in the trade. A graduate in Event Management, this 30-year-old typifies the talent and initiative that underlies the Hungarian start-up culture. He saw a gap in the market – this particular part of District VIII needed a pub that sold decent beer – and he went for it. He joined forces with a beer importer who gets the beer to Hungary and then he, Kóczián, sells it on. A match made in brew-heaven. I was nearly tempted by a green kiwi beer but resisted. Given the recent anti-Uber demonstrations in the city, I had to smile at the display of Taxis beers.

sor1Not content though with having a foothold in the beer business in the form of a licensed premises, Kóczián and his crew are going one better – a winter, indoor beer festival. Who says festivals have to be outside? No need to wait for summer to indulge as Serfőző has teamed up with the Gellert Hotel to host the city’s first Winter Beer Festival on the weekend of 19-21 February. The three-day event will focus on English beers on Friday, German beers on Saturday, and Czech beers on Sunday.

sor3I can’t say that beer floats my oats, but even I was just a tad impressed by the line-up. The festival will feature Hungarian breweries Bigfoot, Franzberger, and Sümegi alongside the Bavarian Maisel Brewery and the Czech Nymburk Brewery home of the famous (as in even I’ve heard of it) Postřižinské [it gets its name from Bohumil Hrabal’s book Postřižiny (translated as Cutting It Short) and immortalised in film in Jiří Menzel’s famous comedy of the same name]. They reckon they’ll have more than a 100 all told. The festival will also have music, food, and an exhibition of beer collectors’ curiosities. Whatever tickles your taste buds.

Check their Facebook event for details.  Tickets are available from the usual outlets and from the pub on Corvin Sétány – as if you needed an excuse to drop by.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 February 2016

Do we choose our lives or do our lives choose us?

Colm Tóbín wrote the book. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. John Crowley directed the film. If you’ve not seen it, Brooklyn opened in Budapest last night and is well worth an afternoon or evening.

I wanted to see the Hungarian film Saul Fia (Son of Saul) but couldn’t find it subtitled anywhere. So we headed back to the 1950s to Brooklyn via Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, and joined Eilis Lacey as she emigrates.

It wouldn’t be good if I didn’t bawl and I cried a few times. [Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said: If my films has made one more person miserable, then I’ve done my job?]

The scene at Christmas, when Eilis helps  feed about a hundred or so immigrant Irish men who’d come to the country to build the tunnels and the skyscrapers, leaving Ireland and that part of their lives behind, hit me hard. There was nothing left for them at home and most would never see their families again. As in the UK, there are hundreds if not thousands (or millions?) of aging Irish navvies in the States, a forgotten minority whose dreams of Ireland have most likely elevated it to utopia status and yet their accents never fade.

In New York, many of them worked with the Sandhogs, the legendary urban miners who dug the subway tunnels. Some made it to settle in the city, raise families, and while never leaving the Irish in them behind, they made good. Others foundered, their fellow drinkers became their families, the pub their home. Alcoholism went hand and hand with the maudlin melancholy for which the Irish are known. [Newstalk aired a documentary on this last year: http://www.newstalk.com/player/embed.php?mediaType=podcast&id=103374]

Emory Cohen brilliantly plays Tony, an Italian boy with a thing for Irish girls. And as I watched the story unfold, my own life hovered in the background. Some truths came home, some questions were answered. I left Ireland for the first time in the 1990s but I knew I’d be back. I was never leaving for good. I flew. I didn’t have to take the boat. The world has shrunk a lot since the 1950s and while it still happens that emigrants leave their homes without much hope of ever returning, there is still hope.

While the final boat scene is the heart of the film, where it all comes full circle, the entire thing speaks volumes to anyone who has ever had to choose. Her sister, Rose, who stays home to mind the widowed mother, opens another door on the choice so many make and the fate so many others have thrust upon them.

The film and the book differ, as to be expected. Perhaps the greatest difference though is that Tóbín talks of how our lives choose us while Hornby focuses on how we choose our lives.  Which one is right? That’s the 64 million forint question.



2016 Grateful 47

‘Ouch’, she cried.
‘What’s happened?’, I asked the group in general, as a rather large hairy man was blocking my view.
‘He’s just dropped his penis on her head’, someone said.
‘And it was nearly the end of me,’ she moaned.

IMG_3204 (800x600)Not exactly your usual Sunday afternoon pub conversation but then again, it wasn’t just any Sunday afternoon. We were in Mohács for the annual Busójárás festival, one acknowledged by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. It’s been the locals’ way of saying ‘goodbye winter’ and ‘hello spring’ since the eighteenth century. Revellers parade through the town wearing hideous busós (masks), sporting wooden penises in all shapes and sizes. It’s not for the fainthearted.

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IMG_3164 (800x600)Some 80 000 people had rocked up for Sunday’s festivities and the place was jammed. Add that to the fact that Wales and Ireland were playing their first Six Nations match of the year and finding free wifi to stream the game was a priority. We got the kick-off time wrong but did manage to catch the second half on instant feed and over the radio in bar of the Szent Janós hotel. The 16-16 draw was a nice bonus given that we had both countries represented around the table.

With the wine flowing and palinka making miraculous apparitions, it didn’t take long to get into the belly of it all.

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IMG_3189 (800x600)IMG_3193 (800x600)Our bus of 23 split up into more manageable smaller groups when we parked up after a and wandered around the town. I wanted to see the coffin being thrown into the river at 4.30 and while the crowd standing on the banks was 3 and 4 deep in places, I did IMG_3196 (800x600)manage to get a view of sorts. I’d missed this when I was there in 2013 and have to admit to the whole thing being a little anti-climactic. I expected a little more fanfare. Still, the crowd seemed to be into it all so it was probably just me. And I was pleased to see the tip to neighbouring Croatia as one side of the coffin read Poklade (Croatian for Winter).

It was all little surreal, with the Busó popping up
everywhere. And as the day wore on, they became even more amorous. And daring. As I said, not for the IMG_3200 (800x600)fainthearted. The town was bopping with folks dancers, folk singers, traditional bands, musicians of all sorts. And even the spectators did their part turning out in national costumes and weird and wonderful fancy dress.

IMG_3267 (800x600)P1020750 (800x600)I met a lot of interesting people this week – from all over the world. At a workshop in Malta we shared interesting facts about our respective countries and learned to appreciate our differences.

I’m grateful for  the never-ending list of things to do in Hungary, for the diversity it serves up alongside the wealth of culture it offers. And I’m grateful, too, for the company I keep. The sing-song on the bus on the way home did Ireland proud. What’s not to love about life?

PS – Thanks to the irrepressible Mr Fulop for organising it all. And for counting so well.