Break for the border

I have an innate distrust of guide books, the well-known names in the travel world. I doubt if the authors have ever even been to the places they write about. I dislike their sameness. I prefer to find books written by locals, books that talk about the depth of a place rather than gloss over the superficial elements designed for photo opportunities and postcards.

Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. Sadly, I lent the book to a friend whose flat was burgled; the burglar was obviously planning on taking a trip there, too, as he made off with my mate’s laptop and my copy of this brilliant little book. I bought it because I was struck by the blurb: With everything from practical advice for aspiring Venetian lovers to hints at where to find the best bacaro, Scarpa waves the tourist in the right direction and, without naming a single restaurant, hotel or bar, relates the secret language needed to experience the real Venice. So ignore the street signs – why fight the labyrinth? Excellent.

A couple of weekends ago, on the second of my Border Dashes this year, we headed to Košice, a city in Eastern Slovakia known more familiarly in Hungary as Kassa. We caught the 6.30 am train from Keleti Station on Saturday morning and arrived at our destination around 10 am.

We’d booked into the lovely Penzión Hradbová, close to the Dominican Church. Newly refurbished it has a great little spa and offers a cooked breakfast in the morning. The staff are friendly, helpful, and on call 24/7. Recommended.

Bags dropped, we headed to the Tourist Information Office. With just 36 hours to see as much as possible, we thought a walking tour would be a good place to start. It was here that we found a gem: a bi-lingual guidebook. Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice. A sequel to Wanders in Košice, it focuses on the details that are so often overlooked. It tells story after story of the little things worth looking for.  We bought both and sat for an hour over coffee at the fabulous secessionist Hotel Slavia on the town’s main street, where we picked out what we’d like to see and plotted our route. Our picks were not included in the two-hour walking tour we had later that day so we really did get to see a lot.

IMG_4396 (1280x960)IMG_4292 (800x600)From the grandeur of St Elisabeth’s Cathedral to the barrenness of Miklus Prison, from the treasury of gold coins discovered in 1935 to the splendour of the botanical gardens, the city is made for walking. We tracked down the military shoe tree, the gargoyle of the ugly woman captured by the water goblin, and the stonework on the old Thalia theatre. We wandered the backstreets tracing the footsteps of the great poet Sándor Márai. We found craftsman’s row and promised ourselves to come back when everything was open. And we lucked out and got to see the heart-wrenching inscription preserved on the wall of the synagogue.

IMG_4458 (800x600)IMG_4461 (1280x960)Košice is home of the oldest marathon outside of Greece. It has a world-renowned opera house that attracts big names (the programme is worth keeping an eye on). And it has the best pizza this side of Naples. I kid you not: the pizza at ZaZza Pizza is worth the train ticket alone.

Sunday evening we were ready to head back to Budapest. According to Máv (both the website and the ticket agent) our train was to leave at 18.30. Remembering our near miss when in Subotica recently, I asked the Penzión to triple-check. Máv was wrong – again. Beware. The one train of the day leaves for Budapest at 18.02. Am sure there is nothing in any guidebook about that!

First published in the Budapest Times  29 April 2016

Sitting still

A good way of getting to know a city, without resorting to guide books, is to read a fictional novel that’s set there. Another way, is to find someone famous who was born there and then following their story. Banksy in Bristol is a good example of this. And in Košice recently, Sándor Márai  provided another ready-made treasure hunt.

Somewhat famous for being the first person to write reviews of Kafka’s work, Márai is probably better known for his 1948 novel, Embers, which published in English in 2000. It’s original Hungarian title is more fetching I think… A gyertyák csonkig égnek (candles burn until the end). It’s about an old general and his friend from the military academy who reunite over dinner after 41 years of not seeing each other.

In 2006, Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide played the stage version in the Duke of York in London. [Irons hadn’t been on stage in 18 years and his return was eagerly anticipated.] Its original run was extended by four weeks due to popular demand but the critics’ reviews were mixed.  Christopher Hampton’s stage adaptation of the novel was billed as one that explores ‘the eroticism of male friendship’. I’ve had the book on my shelf for years and have yet to open it.

IMG_4421 (800x600)IMG_4419 (800x600)Fascinating, isn’t it, how someone who has once found fame in their native language can, nearly half a century later, be famous all over again in another. And even more fascinating is the thought of all the books out there still to be translated into English. [I have my favourites of those that have been.]

IMG_4287 (800x600)IMG_4219 (800x600)IMG_4298 (800x600)IMG_4297 (800x590)IMG_4221 (800x600)Anyway, as I said, Márai’s years in his home town left a trail to follow and explore. From his birthplace on Bočná st to his studio in the old Thália Theatre, a lovely old frescoed building, to Maleter’s House whence he kidnapped his bride-to-be, the lovely Lola. Or the confectionary where he first met Lola during an ice-cream competition (am not sure if they were eating it or making it). Then there’s the Premonstratensians School he attended and the family home where the commemorative room is now housed.

I had to Google Premonstratensians. They’re known in Ireland as the White Canons (a new one on me) and are what’s called Canons Regular (another new one) – monks who live in the community under the order of St Augustine. Why didn’t I know that? But even more interestingly, they actually work for a living: they’ve created and operate small industrial activities such as printing (Averbode, Tongerlo, Berne), farming (Kinshasa, Ireland, Postel), cheese-making (Postel), running schools (Averbode, Berne, USA, Australia), agreements with breweries (Tongerlo, Postel, Park, Leffe, Grimbergen), retreat centres (nearly everywhere), astronomical observatories (Mira, Grimbergen), artistic bookbinding (Oosterhout), forestry (Schlägl, Geras, Slovakia) and pilgrimages (Conques). That’s a change.

And as we wandered looking for these landmarks, we saw the wealth of architecture the city has to offer. There IMG_4278 (800x600)really is a surprise around every corner. And the added attraction is that it’s all walkable.

What is a tad peculiar though, is the tram line on the main street. No longer in use, it creates a certain expectation that something might be coming at any IMG_4375 (800x600)IMG_4319 (800x600)minute. There’s a watchfulness about the place, a sense of anticipation, that feeling that just about anything could happen. Magical.

One of the many fanciful notions I have is that inside every statue is a real person, trapped for eternity in whatever position their maker has chosen for them. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about how I’d like to be immortalised in bronze. The idea of a full-sized me in a full-sized bed reading a full-sized book was high on my list for a while, but given that my IMG_4279 (600x800)back has been acting up lately, even that comfortable notion isn’t as attractive as it once was.

I quite like the relatively recent (2004) sculpture of Márai that is tucked away on a quiet square on the corner of Zbrojničná and Mäsiarska. It’s of him sitting on a chair, legs crossed, as if
in conversation with whomever chooses to sit in the empty chair opposite him.  It doesn’t look the most comfortable of poses, but think of the great conversations you could have with him, the best of listeners; thinkg of all the confessions he must have heard, a little like Jozef Attila in Budapest. Anyway, it’s been filed as an option. But first, I need to do something that will give the world reason to cast me in bronze and plonk me somewhere for eternity.

Where have I been?

CB5So I’m not the only one, eh? A few weeks ago, I apparently committed to taking part in a Write Like Bukowski night here in Budapest.  I don’t remember. But hey, it wouldn’t be the first time my memory has failed me in recent months. Anyway, last week I got around to borrowing a book written by the man whose style I am supposed to be stealing.

CBMonday, I got around to reading a few pages. And had my doubts. Yesterday, I checked out a poem or three and thought, well, mmmm. Last night, I wrote for two hours and wondered. When the reaction to my first reading was a tad  tepid, I figured I needed someone who was actually familiar with his work and hadn’t just read some other pages from the same borrowed book. Someone who wouldn’t be at the event tonight.


So I asked those friends I thought were eclectic enough in their taste to know him and like him and be in a position to say yay or nay … Was I in the ballpark? Had I even come close? To my surprise, I’m not the only one who’s clueless about the man. I always thought that he spelled his name with an R – BuRkowski.  Now, I know I don’t have to know everything about everyone who has ever been published, but this man is iconic – apparently.  He’s an inCB3stitution. And I couldn’t even spell his name right?*& FFS. Am mortified.

Born in Andernach, Germany, on August 16, 1920, Bukowski  was the only child of an American soldier and a German mother. They moved to the States when he was 3 and he grew up in Los Angeles. He spent some time at LA City College before moving to New York City to become a writer.He didn’t quite cut it and when the publishers ignored him, he took to drinking… for 10 years. It took a bleeding ulcer  for him to turn full circle. He published his first of 45 books of poetry and prose in 1959. He died in 1994.  And tonight, if he’s watching, he’s in for a right old laugh… Check him out. 





Tell me a story

I like a good story. I like facts and figures, too, but I’d prefer a good story any day. Give me something I will remember. Like the one about the miller’s daughter in Košice who fell in love with a man who didn’t love her back. Nothing new there, I hear you say. She was so upset that she decided life wasn’t worth living. She jumped into the water at the mill-race, determined to put an end to her misery.

IMG_4290 (600x800)Now in the mill-race lived a water goblin. He took a fancy to yer woman and pulled her deep into the waters. Her body never floated to the surface. A year later, a coach driver was passing by in an awful hurry. He was taking a midwife to assist in the birth of some local nobility. But as they approached the mill-race, the coach swung off course and drove down into the waters. Soon after, the Košice water babies were born. Today, the water goblin lives by the willows and only ever shows himself to children. What exactly all this has to do with the ugly face on the facade of a Secession style house opposite where the old mill-race used to be … that bit got lost in translation.

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While the town is awash with ugly gargoyles, it also has a few patron saints and protectors hidden away in niches. The theory behind these is that each of us has our own saint – presumably someone whom we are called after. I get two – Mary and Martha – which perhaps explains my split personality. Even if we’re orphaned, we still have someone looking out for us.  This statue of Our Lady is one of the few to survive 40 years of socialism and interestingly, sits atop a house that is currently up for sale… mmmm.

IMG_4426 (800x600)IMG_4275 (800x600)IMG_4302 (600x800)IMG_4304 (800x600)Elsewhere, throughout the town, there is plenty to look up at and look out for. So many nooks and crannies, so much going on. Košice is a gem of a town, one that’s made for walking around. The weather was cooperating and the coffee was good.

Another story we heard was that of the shoe tree in the park on Moyzesova Street. Back in the day, military service was part and parcel of life in Slovakia. Young men had to do their two years.   They would leave home, perhaps for the first time, at a young age. Families and girlfriends stayed behind as they went to do their duty. God only knows what met them. Hazing, bullying, lonely nights wondering what they’d done to deserve it all. Enlisting is one thing; conscription an other. On their last night in the barracks, with freedom just one sleep away, they’d hurl their military boots out the window, readying to don their civvies in the morning and return to the real world. If you look up, you can still see some shoes hanging from the lime trees.

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IMG_4329 (600x800)IMG_4305 (800x600)The bell tower, too, has its story. When the Germans were in town, the locals wanted rid of them. One local landowner from Perín rallied the masses. Groups of locals gathered secretly, plotting to overthrow their occupiers. One day, a couple of boys got into a serious fight. Punches were flailing and the two were going at it. As they were dragged apart by an onlooker, one of them turned to the other and taunted – you wait, you just wait till the farmer from Perín gets you; there’ll really be a war now.

Unfortunately for them, they were overheard and taken in for questioning.  They told all. The city gates were closed and the local fomenters rounded up and tasked with building a bell tower for Urban’s bell. The tower was built without scaffolding. Many prisoners died. There was only so high people were prepared (or able) to go. Today, on the northern side of the tower, you can see statues of two small children – a reminder of the two young lads who betrayed the town.

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IMG_4273 (566x800)Of all the stories I heard though, my favourite has to be about the beggar’s house. There’s a story going about the town that there was once a beggar who begged his way to a fortune. Enough to buy him this house. And while this is a great story, it’s simply that – a story.

While I think of it – Back in 1980, Senegalese author Aminata Sow Fall won the Grand Prix de Litterature de l’Afrique Noire and was shortlisted for France’s Prix Goncourt for her book The Beggars’ Strike. A brilliant satire on giving alms.

But back to my beggar’s house in Košice. It was built in 1898 by the Jakabs, a well-to-do construction family. And if you look closely at the man he’s more like a merchant than a beggar – given the purseful of money on his belt. The harvest scene painted on the facade is also another nod to prosperity. I must admit, though, I prefer the man-made-good story.

And on stories, seventeenth-century Spanish playwright, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, had this to say: What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.  Enough said.


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Bloody brilliant. That’s it. Can’t think of anything that describes last night any  better than that. Bloody brilliant.

Booking tickets for a gig online is quite the challenge when your Hungarian is a good as mine. I never quite know what I’m getting so I hazard a guess. I booked platinum passes for this weekend’s Get Closer jazz festival figuring they were mid-range price-wise and should be okay.  I was sure we’d be standing by the stage. Instead we were upstairs, second row balcony.

We  went to the wrong venue (my bad) but had plenty of time in hand to find the right one (my good). A first time for me to be in the lovely mOmKult. We were in the first twenty or so to arrive shortly after 6 pm and when the first of four groupsn lined up took to the stage, I was a little dubious about how long I’d last before falling asleep. I’m not all that into improvisation and it seemed to my uneducated ear that the drummer in the Chris Devil Trio was just a tad too into what he was doing and the other two lads weren’t getting a look-in at all. Add that to the rig-out the guitarist was wearing… talk about a distraction! But hey, others were clapping so it was obviously just me.

Second up, after some delay, was Csaba Tóth Bagi and the Balkan Union. The crowd had gotten a little bigger and the atmosphere was starting to warm up.  Csaba was born in Serbia and looks a little Hawaiian. He has a voice that belongs to an old soul. Amazing. Reading up on him, it seems as if the world has been watching him for years. His name is bandied about in the same sentences as the likes of Ennio Morricone, Al Di Meola, and Butch Thomas. An impressive performance and one I’d happily see again, and again. Together, the four lads looked more like a country and western band than a jazz quartet – so much for appearances. Each one of them was as talented as the next. A stunning performance. Will definitely be keeping an eye out for them.

I commented to BF that if the line-up kept improving exponentially, we were in for a treat. We were running about 45 minutes late at this stage. Band No. 3 never appeared. But the place was filling up – still nowhere near full – but filling. It was later still before the headline trio made their appearance, the ones I’d come to see. The GFS Trio.

With Indian Trilok Gurtu on percussion, Italian Paolo Fresu on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Cuban Omar Sosa on piano – it was gobsmackingly brilliant to watch. Gurtu is simply amazing on percussion – what he does with a tin bucket of water defies belief. Fresu, looking like a cross between Ireland’s Eamon Dunphy and Seinfeld’s Cosmo, ties himself into fantastic contortions as he becomes one with his horns. And Sosa takes playing the piano to a whole new level – he had four keyboards in front of him and was playing two together most of the time. They seem to play Budapest every year so next year is already in the diary. 

This gig is the first of what promises to be a summer of gigs. Next up is a broadway celebration on Friday. Then May starts with  Manhattan Transfer at Mupa and ends with the musical Cabaret. June is US jazz great Stacey Kent playing outdoors down on Margit Sziget (Margaret Island). July is VeszprémFest with Lisa Stansfield on Friday and Jamie Cullum on Saturday, both outdoor gigs. Am also hoping we get to see Les Miserables down in Szeged. And then there’s Roisin Murphy and Kodaline playing Sziget on 13 August. I’ve never before been so organised.

After last night’s performance, I’m grateful that Budapest attracts so many good musicians and that their gigs are affordable and often in spectacular settings. R0ll on the summer – this time, I’m ready.


Guns and altars

There’s something fascinating about seeing stuff made out of other stuff. Handbags made from bicycle tyres. Wallets made from plastic bags. Altars made from guns. Yep – I did a double-take and checked whether I’d heard that one right. An altar made from guns, indeed.

IMG_4225 (800x600)IMG_4248 (600x800)St Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice is the largest church in Slovakia. You could spend an entire morning or afternoon in there and still not see everything there is to see. The Gothic spiral staircase is a case in point. Built in 1425, two staircases wind upwards in opposite directions, meeting  four times. On Valentine’s Day, apparently, couples queue up to climb the stairs, kissing when they meet  on their ascent.  The stairs are used as a metaphor – parting lovers reuniting and parting again, but each time they meet rising higher IMG_4247 (598x800)perhaps in expectation and ideals. A nice twist on church fundraising.

The large balcony hosts a place for private prayer. The King’s Oratory is home to a 7 m crucifix with larger-than-life figures of Jesus, Our Lady, and St John. The balcony bears an inscription reminding all who can read it that Ladislaus the Posthumous is the rightful successor to the Hungarian throne. [Ladislaus was crowned king at the age of 12 weeks.]  It’s all quite something to look up at.

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The high altar of St Elizabeth is gobsmackingly gorgeous with its 48 pictures painted by unknown artists. It is the only preserved altar of its kind in Europe. The double-sided painted panels are open and closed depending on the Church calendar. It’s  very unusual, given the predominance of women depicted in the paintings; it’s certainly one for the sisters.

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IMG_4245 (800x600)IMG_4246 (800x600)The large, upside-down chandelier speaks of the arrival of electricity to the town. In 1913, the candles were replaced by lightbulbs. It also needed something to hang from. The powers that be at the time thought a replica of St Stephen’s Crown would do the trick as back then, Košice was still part of Hungary. How quickly things change.

There are all sort of murals and paintings on the walls. Some have been restored to their former glory; others are still in the process of being restored, the layers of time quite visible.

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For a while the Cathedral belonged to the Protestants and then to the Catholics. And naturally, when one or the other laid claim, quarrels ensued. Back on 4 September 1619, the Calvinists made a play for the Cathedral and the three Catholic priests in residence, one Polish (Melichar Grodiecki), one Hungarian (István Pongrác), one Croatian (Marek Krizin).  They promised to spare their lives if they recanted their Catholic beliefs. But they wouldn’t. Three days later, all three were killed. The martyrs were beatified nearly 300 years after their death. The altar to them was built in 1923. They were canonised by Pope John Paul II when he visited in 1995.

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The statue work is exquisite. I was  taken by this statue of Our Lady – one of the first I’ve seen of her in such a reflective mood. Another caught my eye. My old friend, Sára Salkaházi, the feisty, chain-smoking rebel who signed up to the Sisters of Social Service and met an early death at the hands of the Arrow Cross in Budapest on 27 December 1944. I’d forgotten she was from Kassa (Hungarian for Košice).  I hope she won’t have to wait as long for her canonisation.

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This is the altar though that is made from guns, guns melted down after WWI (I think it was that war… ).  A much better use, I’d say.

IMG_4234 (800x594)There is so much more to see in the church. And if you get a chance to hear the organ being played, so much the better. I was more than a little amused at the thoughts of candles by the minute. I suppose cost efficiencies are the way of the world and I shouldn’t be at all surprised that the old wax candles are being replaced by cleaner, more affordable lights. But it just ain’t the same  in my book. Thankfully, there are three churches in Budapest that I know of where you can still light an old-fashioned candle, even if the price of same is far outstripping inflation.


Get Shorty!

When I lived in London, I felt like a tourist on a permanent holiday. Yes, I had a job that got me out of bed each morning. And I had a commute to suffer through. And I had to deal the mania that is the London rush hour. Yet it never felt like home. In the eighteen months I lived there, I moved flat four times. I just couldn’t settle. And while it certainly doesn’t rank up there in terms of favourite places to live, London has one huge advantage over anywhere else I’ve ever lived, including Budapest … its theatre.

My key worker friends – nurses, doctors, and teachers – had access to reduced-price theatre tickets. And as I didn’t have much of a life really, I could always be relied on to accompany them at the last minute. I got to see some stellar performances. I was a regular at the half-price ticket booth and knew of every offer and deal going. I would go as often as three times a week. I once took two days off work to see back-to-back performances of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials.

I didn’t just limit myself to the big theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue and the West End. I hit the fringe, too. From the Tricycle in Kilburn to Ovalhouse and the Hackney Empire, I saw some memorable performances for next to nothing. Pay-what-you-can is a fabulous concept that makes theatre affordable for everyone.

While English-language theatre in Budapest is definitely affordable, it’s not nearly as plentiful as it is in London. I’ve had to wean myself off my addiction to live performance and settle instead for cinema. And although I might have been a little more discerning in London, considering all the choice I had, in Budapest I’d watch pretty much anything. And I’ve seen some doozies.

Given the artistic vibe in the city, and the number of English-speakers (both Hungarian and ex-pat), there is a marked lack of decent theatre companies that cater to the English-language market. Budapest English Theatre is one to be noted. Led by Australian director Virginia Proud, this international collaboration of theatre artists was established in 2012 to develop quality English-language performances in Budapest. BET’s recent entry into the world of dramatic readings has certainly raised the performance bar in the city.

MOHDLate last year, I went to see a dramatic reading of the Master of His Domain. It’d been a long time since I’d seen a theatrical performance that the audience was still talking about three hours after it was all over. There we were, glasses in hand, heatedly debating our futures and how we envisioned our old age. The stark reality that our children (if we had any) might stick us in a nursing home and leave us to the mercy of random strangers was a sobering thought.  At times introspective, at times hilarious, at times reflective, the Master of His Domain really lends itself to the dramatic reading format. And when art becomes reality (or reality becomes art) and gives us something interesting to talk about, it’s done its job.

It’s not often enough that English-language theatre in Budapest offers up intelligent entertainment that makes us laugh and gets us thinking. For two dates in May (Friday 6th and Tuesday 31st), BET will stage another reading of this original script from the pen of Virginia Proud. It features the inimitable Rupert Slade as Shorty, Beth Spisljak as Nurse Gloria, Declan Hannigan as Shorty’s son Paul, and Virginia Proud as Nurse Angela. Curtains go up at 19.30 on the night at Vallai Kert, Rumbach Sebestyen ut 10. Tickets are a steal at 2500 ft and can be booked online at Don’t dither. Tickets will go quickly. This is one to be seen.

First published in the Budapest Times  22 April 2016

The writing on the wall

For some inexplicable reason, I have a strange fascination with the Holocaust. I can’t quite get my head around so many people being systematically put to death. I can’t even begin to fathom how others could stand by and let it happen. And deep down, there’s the ever-present question: What would I have done had I been around then?

Oh, of course, I’d like to think that I’d have been fighting on the side of righteousness, aiding and abetting Jews in their escape. I’d like to think that I’d have been so incensed by the wrong that was being done that all thoughts of personal safety would dissipate as the need to do something took hold. I’d like to think all that but I don’t know.

A recent study on anti-Semitism in Hungary Anti-Semitic Prejudice in Present Hungarian Society (Antiszemita előítéletesség a mai magyar társadalomban) notes that 32% of Hungarians participating in the survey have strong or moderate anti-Semitic views and somewhat scarily, one of five of those surveyed believe that Hungarian Jews should leave the country.

Let’s go back in time a little, to the Slovakian town of Košice (Hungarian Kassa). Košice was ceded to Hungary, by the First Vienna Award, from 1938 until early 1945. Of course, the German occupation of Hungary filtered down, and between 16 May and 3 June in 1944 the town’s Jewish population was forcibly removed. One in five residents were Jewish: 12 000 of the 60 000 living in Košice. Rounded up, detained, and then transported to the Auschwitz, fewer than 600 would return. Just one in twenty made their way back.

I’ve heard the heartstone beat in Salaspils near Riga. I’ve visited the artists colony of Terezín outside Prague that Jews believed was a gift from Hitler. I’ve been to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau. I’ve seen the memorials – the crystal chandelier in Skopje, the chairs in Kraków, the children’s memorial in Győr. I’ve partaken in the March of the Living in Budapest, heard stories of survivors, and wondered at the other five million also wiped off the face of the earth during that bleak period in history. But what I saw in Košice affected me like nothing else.

IMG_4439 (800x600)IMG_4440 (600x800)Looming over Puškinova ulica, the relatively new synagogue (1927) looks remarkably unused.  The side gates were locked, the doors closed tight. We asked someone who said it was never used these days. Always closed.  It was Sunday, so I’d hoped it would be open. A notice in Slovakian mentioned something about something happening at 2pm on a Sunday… that very day. We hung around and waited. I really wanted to see inside – to see the writing on the wall. We were in luck. That day, they were giving two tours  – in Slovakian.

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We paid our €2 and sat through an hour of history that we couldn’t understand. When the others looked up or to the side, our eyes followed suit, but we had no idea what we were being ask to look at. It was cold. I felt myself wandering. I had little trouble imagining 2000 Jews imprisoned here in a space built for 800. No toilets, no food. Crammed together awaiting an uncertain future. Down the road, in a large steel arena, thousands more awaited the same fate. 

IMG_4448 (800x600)IMG_4450 (800x600)And on 21 April, 1944, Tibi, one of the 2000 incarcerated in the house of prayer, scribbled a note on the wall in pencil: We are here. I don’t know where they are taking us (Itt vagyunk. Nem tudom hova visznek.) This message came to light during the renovation of 1970. For 63 years, it had gone unnoticed. No one knows who Tibi is. Was he one of the 600 who returned? How old was he? A man, a boy, a child? But somehow, the handwritten note makes it all very real. It personalises the huge numbers – 12000 – and gives one of them life. Weeks have passed and I’m still thinking about Tibi. IMG_4441 (600x800)There are about 250 Jews left in the town – just 0.1% of the population. One local resident, Ladislav Rovinský, is determined to make sure that the town gets a proper memorial. A plaque was erected outside the synagogue in 2004 but it’s easily overlooked and hardly seems fitting, given the thousands who died so needlessly. Rovinský isn’t Jewish himself, but he’s hell-bent on ensuring that no one forgets what happened. Written up in the Tablet a couple of years ago, the article is worth a read.

Perhaps the most frightening element of it all is the danger that this might all be forgotten.

Later Rovinský acknowledged he could likely obtain foreign funding far more easily than he can at home, where the struggle to get the memorial off the ground reflects the awkward realities of “the Jewish issue” in today’s Slovakia, where more than a quarter of the population agreed in a January poll that it is time to stop discussing the deportations and mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust.

Interestingly, back to the Hungarian survey, when asked if they’d agree to having X move next door, 33% said they wouldn’t want Americans! Now, that’s a new one on me.







2016 Grateful 37

Sometimes, we journeystay in relationships for the good of others and to the detriment of ourselves We put up with situations for a quiet life, not caring about the damage we are doing to our souls. We sacrifice, we struggle, we stay, thinking we are doing the right thing. And slowly, we die. Alone in our misery. Unhappy.

Selflessness can be over-rated. People can give so much of themselves that they have nothing left to give to themselves. We can accomplish so much more if we are strong, sorted, sensible. And yet all too often we fail to prioritise our own health and wellbeing. We put others before ourselves. Understandable, yes. Especially for those with children and dependants. But what happens to our dependants when we break down, when we have neither the physical nor the emotional energy to care? What then?

Last week, I was grateful that I had shared an inaccurate post that led to the discovery of a wonderful poem, one that has stayed with me all week. This week, I’m grateful that a comment on that post led to the discovery of yet another one I think worth sharing.

The Journey, by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – –
determined to save the only life you could save.


Of art and uprisings

Some years ago, seeing off an Irish friend on her return flight to Dublin, we sat in Budapest Airport having a coffee in the company of an American friend. A bunch of lads was sitting way out of hearing distance. Much to the amusement of my American friend, we pegged them immediately as being Irish. We then went around the room pointing out the other Irish to him. Not believing us, he took a walk to check for himself. We, of course, were right. There’s something about the Irish that makes it easy to pick us out in a crowd.

But I never thought this would apply to artists and paintings.

There’s a lovely little exhibition in two parts currently running in the Pintér Gallery at Falk Miksa utca 10. The first, Parallel Uprisings 1916/1956, features photographs of  the Irish Uprising of 1916 alongside photos from the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, both of which had high costs in terms of civilian deaths and widespread destruction. Both would change the tenor of political and public opinion at home and abroad.

Alongside the photos from Ireland is a bilingual extract from the W.B. Yeats poem Easter 1916, in which he talks of a terrible beauty being born. Alongside the Hungarian photos is a bilingual extract from the Sándor Márai poem Mennyből az Angyal (Angel from Heaven), in which he reminds us that: ‘People born free in their native land falter because they cannot understand the fact that we will always recall: freedom is the greatest gift of all.’

Poignant words indeed. It’s a telling snapshot of two important times in the histories of the two countries.

But it was the paintings of one Ferenc Martyn (born Kaposvár, 1899; died Pécs, 1986) that really wowed me, in particular the five that screamed IRISH! And no wonder. Peter Martyn, his great-great-grandfather, was born in 1772 in Castlebar, County Mayo. He emigrated from Ireland in 1790 to join the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army. When he retired, he settled in Hungary.

Among his Irish kinsmen, Martyn gets credit for novelist, playwright and first president of Sinn Féin Edward Martyn, and one of the founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Richard Martin.

As Ferenc Martyn painted his way into the annals of Hungarian art history, others also picked up on the influence of his Irish heritage on his work. In 1946, Hungarian art critic Ernő Kállai had this to say: ‘The origin of memories and associations poured into abstract forms of painting […] is not difficult to determine, knowing that Ferenc Martyn descended on his father’s side, from Irish mariners.’

I’ve said before that I’m no art critic but I know what I like and what I don’t like. And I didn’t need Kállai to point this out.

Ulysses by Ferenc Martyn

Ulysses by Ferenc Martyn

The angular shapes and lines of his 1955 painting Ulysses form a rather iconic representation of the famous book that Martyn illustrated [24 of his 27 Ulysses illustrations are in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin].  The browns and greens of his 1943 triptych Brown Crusaders are reminiscent of a wet shoreline after a storm when the seaweed lies stodgy in the sand.

And the muted colours of Celtic imagery in his 1954 Two Ewers took me back to the Round Towers and the High Crosses. Together, they line one wall of the exhibition and, seen as a collection within a collection, they are particularly stunning.

The exhibition was opened by His Excellency Pat Kelly, Ambassador of Ireland to Hungary, and Mr Lorand Horvathy, vice-mayor of Tata, where the paintings are on permanent exhibition. Both exhibitions run for two weeks. If you’re in the vicinity, pop by.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 April 2015