Who’s laughing?

Humour is very personal.  I might find something or someone hilariously funny, while you might have difficulty raising an eyebrow in reaction. It’s all very subjective. Which is why comedians the world over have their scores of supporters who exist alongside their droves of detractors. I’ve yet to come across a comic who fuels everyone’s fire.

I didn’t know much about Louis C.K. when I stumbled across an advertisement for a gig he did in Budapest recently. But he came highly recommended, so I got tickets. I had trouble accessing any sort of seating plan for the venue and the one I  found made it look like there might be 400 people max in the audience … a cosy little gig.

Tickets were sold by band, which was unusual I thought. I’d been to the venue before and had always had numbered tickets. We were promised somewhere in rows 11-17, on a first-come, first-served basis. It seemed as if the organisers were hedging their bets, seeing how he’d go down. He would speak in English, without surtitles or subtitles or simultaneous translation. Rumour had it that the Vienna gig sold out in 40 minutes … but whether that was a large arena or an intimate affair, I don’t know. We got there early – but so did everyone else. The line doubled back on itself twice at least, as about 3000 people queued for tickets to their actual seats. I can’t say I was all that impressed and the gig hadn’t even started.

Inside, the line for the bar snaked around non-existent corners. And the line for the men’s loo  and the surprising absence of a line for the ladies showed the 80/20 male/female ratio of attendance. It might even have been 90/10. There was a lot of testosterone in the room.

Large projected signs clearly stated the rules of the game. The whole concept of heckling could have done with some translation though. The man had brought along three of his favourite comedians and after each one had taken their 10-minute turn, I was beginning to question his own sense of humour.

louis ck2Joe Machi, of Last Comic Standing fame, had the hardest gig of the night – first on stage. Mind you, from what I saw around me, the audience was in the mood to laugh at anything … and nothing. They were funnier than he was. Please, please, please, Gang, can we come up with something more original that ‘Hello Budapest, how are you?’ as an opener?

louisck3Next up was Rachel Feinstein – who has her own special on Comedy Central – Only Whores Wear Purple. Some of the world’s best comics are women – Dawn French, Victoria Wood, Jennifer Saunders – and I was all set to give it up for the sister. But wow … not. I left with one memorable line – about how she didn’t really notice the age difference in a relationship until he started bathing her in the sink. Perhaps I should be happy I got that much.

Last up (anlouisck4d one could only assume that we were supposed to be getting better and better as we went on) was Joe List, who had five minutes on Conan recently and brought a lot of the same material with him.  And admittedly, the smirk that Rachel raised did break into a snicker at times – I could relate to the whole synonym thing and the thing about naked men and women in shoes worked… a little. I was warming up to a slow simmer.


Finally the man himself came on stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. I was amazed. Who’d have thought he was so well known in this corner of the world. He seemed a little amazed, too. Billed as the funniest man in America, Louis CK certainly has a way about him. He has the delivery. He has the timing. He has the impersonations. And he has the clever wit that makes a good comic great.

His story of his Hungarian ancestry was hilarious. His grandfather, one Géza Székely Schweiger, was a Hungarian Jew whose family immigrated to Mexico, where he met CK’s paternal grandmother, Rosario Sánchez, of Irish Catholic descent. Géza agreed to have his kids raised Catholic, but remained ‘quietly Jewish’. Louis’ coach had problems pronouncing Székely, so he dubbed him C.K. He tells a great story of the irony of it all – that here he was, back in Budapest all these years later taking our money 🙂

His observational humour is second to none. His take on Christianity and how we know the Christians have won by how the world dates their cheques was priceless. He dipped in and out of character with an ease that approached the surreal. He had me.

His account of an email argument vs a text argument was close to the bone. His observation that life is a choice and that the world is full of people who haven’t yet killed themselves, struck home. His account of Achilles and his heel was hilarious. And his equation of


made me laugh out loud. He’s clever, very clever.

Which made his foray into smut so much more disappointing. Why is vulgarity so appealing? What is it about the human psyche that sees it as funny? Can we not have comedy without resorting to tired, clichéd obscenities? Perhaps he was feeling the language issue – that lack of complete understanding that had the audience laughing late and randomly? Perhaps he was playing to the testosterone? But then I watched some of his stuff on YouTube and it’s there, too.

He did an encore – something I’ve never seen a comedian do. And I wish he hadn’t. I wish he’d left well enough alone and kept his five minutes on fingering to himself.

But hey – that’s just my opinion. For another review, see this excellent take on the show. And Zsolt, if you’re reading – check out Dara O’Briain.

Facing reality

No matter how invincible I might think I am, no matter how determined I might be to do it all, there are times when I have to face reality and admit defeat.

Some years ago, over coffee, one of my besties GM put a question to me. If I’d paid €100 for a concert ticket and it was crap, would I stay to the end or leave half way through? €100 is a lot of money in my world. And that level of investment would warrant that I get a bang for my buck. So I said I’d stay.

Then she asked why I would throw good money after bad, compound my loss by further wasting my time? mmm… I hadn’t thought of that but it  made sense. So I resolved, if the occasion arose in the future, to cut my losses and leave.

But it’s easier said than done. As I learned this week.

Way stressedback in March I decided that I wanted to travel somewhere big to mark my 50th. We decided on Cuba. We booked the tickets to depart for Havana on 6 September. In the interim, life got busy. It’s always busy, but September began to morph into a manic month. We have visitors coming for the wine festival. They stress3leave Monday and we’re scheduled to fly Tuesday. Then the house finally came through (another story) and we need to close on that by the 25th. And then we’re off to Slovakia on a four-day train trip through the Tatras (a lovely b’day present from the even lovelier MI). And in the meantime, there are deadlines, lots of deadlines, way too many deadlines. And we’d be effectively offline for two weeks during it all.

The Cuban Embassy has been closed for a couple of months and doesn’t open till 1 September so we still have no visas. We have nothing planned or booked and no time or bandwidth to do any research.

When I added up what we’d spent so far on flights, factored in what we’d need to have in pocket to do Cuba justice, and what we’d not be earning by being out of work for two weeks, it didn’t make sense.

So the question – cut my losses or go regardless?

Cuba has always been high on my list of places to see. And it’s changing. The old Cuba will soon be but a distant memory. But we’ve made no preparations, done little by way of research, are clueless as to what to expect, and by all accounts the Communist system of organised chaos reigns supreme. How would my already fraught nerves cope with that, I wondered.

The last time I faced this problem was South Africa. The volcano in Iceland was playing havoc with flights and I was up to my tonsils in work, facing two weeks of being offline. I had decided that if my flight was cancelled, I’d be all the happier. It wasn’t. I coped with being offline. And I had one of the most memorable holidays ever beneath the African sky. Would Cuba be the same?

I made a coffee and sat myself down for a chat. I asked myself how disappointed I would be if I didn’t get to Cuba next week. On a scale from 1 to 10. I registered a 2. I then asked myself how far I’d have to push myself to do everything that needed to be done in the next 10 days and was shocked at how close I came to bawling. Sometimes, I really need a reality check.


2016 Grateful 18

It’s hard sometimes to look on the bright side of life. [Amazing how those five words, in any sentence, immediately cue the Monty Python tune in my head.] The daily deluge of atrocities, injustices, and calamities served up to us by the global media challenge the most optimistic of optimists, and the most positive of positive thinkers out there. I lay no claim to being either an optimist or a positive thinker, but I delight in the extraordinary, the quirky, the OTT stuff that brightens up my world.

Heading to Rosslare recently, I detoured through Piercetown following the big signs towards Johnstown Castle as instructed.

I did a double take when I came around the corner at Rathaspeck Manor and saw the gate lodge. Known locally as the doll’s house, this little gem warranted a stop and stare but traffic didn’t allow. So I had to go back the next day to investigate.

fate2Apparently, back in 1900, then owners, the Moody family, bought the house from the Paris Exhibition and had it dismantled. They shipped it to Ireland in pieces, where they put it back together as their gate lodge. It’s been lived in by a succession of families over the years and rumour has it that the lodge will soon be opened to the public.

Renovated a couple of years ago, it’s deceptively roomy with two bedrooms on the ground floor, alongside a sitting room, two porches, and a kitchen in the extension. Upstairs in the attic is another bedroom, with turrets accessed by a wooden stairs and four portholes giving an outlook in every direction. That’s the one I’d choose were it not for the constant stream of tourists pulling up outside to take photos.

In a world blighted by bleakness, it’s nice to revel in the whacky, the zany, the quirky. But on the world’s list of eccentric buildings, this wouldn’t even register. Have you seen the Basket Building in Newark? Or the Mushroom Tree House in Cincinnati? Mad. And brilliant. And guaranteed to make me smile. And that’s something to be grateful for.


Putting the kettle on

Back in the early 1900s, a Swiss baker and confectioner by the name of Frederick Belmont emigrated to England. He opened his first tea rooms in Harrogate, Yorkshire, in 1919. He called it Betty’s. No one knows who Betty was but today, the name Betty’s Tea Rooms is synonymous with craft baking and the quintessential English Afternoon Tea. It’s famous all over the world, with a mail order business that has customers as far away as Tokyo.

Afternoon tea was the furthest thing on my mind on a sunny August Balaton Sunday, and when my friends suggested we go visit their local tea rooms, I was a tad sceptical. The last thing I’d expect to find in the bucolic Hungarian village of Zalaszántó, or indeed anywhere in the Hungarian countryside, is an English tea room. While the topography might have a few Yorkshire nuances, I simply couldn’t imagine sipping Earl Grey from a china cup while eating homemade scones topped with strawberry jam and fresh cream. But an hour later, that’s exactly what I was doing.

12469444_788232327971164_7704246895881058254_oBack in 2007, Mancunian Ken Jones and Brighton-born Neil Stevens crossed the Austrian border to teach English in the Hungarian town of Mosonmagyaróvár. Stevens had worked as a speech therapist and Jones as a printer. But they reinvented themselves and went in search of an alternative life.

In 2011, they ventured deeper into the country and ended up in Zalaszántó, determined to live a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle, growing their own vegetables, raising their various animals, and living off the land. This mastered, they looked for a new challenge.

Neil’s grandmother, Dora, was a housekeeper. When she passed away, he inherited her collection of recipes. Ken’s grandmother, Florrie, used to work at Betty’s Tearooms in Harrogate. He, too, inherited her recipes. Both like to bake, make their own jams, and mix their own teas. Both like to chat, to meet new people, to live a stress free life. So, they thought, why not open an English Tea Room and call it Florridora’s Pantry.

They poured their first cuppa in December 2015. A write-up in the popular Hungarian magazine Meglepetés got the word out and now they open 11am-5pm five days a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) in summer and every weekend, year-round, with a largely Hungarian clientele.

13329477_872897272838002_6886031588714323125_oTheir little tea museum is educational. The old-fashioned English games set up in the garden, like hoops and hopscotch, give the kids something to do. And the 16-seat tea room with its backdrop of  Gatsby-era music is delightful. They’re reluctant to expand, although the demand is there; the small numbers make for a convivial atmosphere and gives them time to enjoy chatting with their guests. They really have this alternative lifestyle thing nailed.

The tea menu is extensive and includes such gems as hőlgyek teája (ladies tea), a cup of which will sooth those hot flushes; emésztést segítő keveréke (digestive blend) which will sort your indigestion; and csípõs fájdalomcsillapító (spicy pain relief) which will cure those aches and pains.  The cake selection changes regularly (I can highly recommend the Rocky Road). Everything is made fresh on the day from their own produce and it’s all very reasonably priced.

This year, the lads are moving into the Christmas market with aplomb. If you’re quick, you can order their homemade Christmas cakes (from one-portion cakes to 22 cm family numbers) and Christmas puddings. They’re slow-cooked over a wood stove and so need weeks of preparation. I’m sure if you ask nicely, they might even mail it to you. But then you’d miss out on the experience. Better to go pick it up yourself and sample the delights of this unlikely, but lovely, feature of the Hungarian countryside.

First published in the Budapest Times 26 August 2016

Upstairs or downstairs?

A friend of mine asked me for some advice recently. They want to have a big do in Ireland, in a castle and were wondering if I could recommend one. Given that there are some 30 000 castles in the country in various states of (dis)repair, that was a tough one to answer. My castle of choice has always been Cregg Castle in Galway but it’s no longer open for public residence 🙁 The one I’d like to be able to afford to stay in is Drumoland Castle in Co. Clare. And the one I’d buy, if I had the money do it up, is Johnstown Castle in Wexford.

First built by the Esmondes who settled in the area back in the late 1100s, it changed hands a few times after being confiscated during Cromwell’s reign in the 1600s. The Grogan family came by it in the late seventeenth century and stayed put until one of the descendants, Maurice Larkin, gifted it to the nation back in 1945. Upkeep must have been horrendous.

The 1000 acre estate has it all. The castle is jawdroppingly gorgeous, from every angle.


20160818_154231_resized20160818_154526_resized20160818_154429_resized20160818_154624_resizedAnd even if, like me, you’re not usually given to being fascinated by gardens, you can’t help but be carried back in time as you stroll the pathways. There are three lakes, complete with turreted towers and lily pads. There are 140 species of trees, 20 peacocks/peahens (I only saw one), and an extended 20160818_161325_resized (587x800)family of red squirrels who were in hiding. The grounds are immaculately kept.

An underground tunnel runs between the meat store and the basement of the castle, lit by glass skylights set in the ground (how novel is that?). This kept the servants out of sight of the family and their guests. (I think Metro 1 in Budapest was built to keep the riffraff out of sight of the hoi polloi on Andrassy – similar thinking?)

20160818_155056_resizedBut back to the trees. The Italian sunken garden is surrounded by Redwoods, a tree I’ve always associated with San Francisco. And there’s a Monterey Cypress which is a Champion Tree of Ireland. Yep – I had to look that up. Apparently some 10 000 trees in Ireland have been measured and of them, 1200 notable for their height, age, size, and girth have made it on to a registry of Champion Trees. Hugging each one of those would be a bucket list of a kind. The Cypress is by Statue Walk, a series of statues facing Castle Lake, each one more evocative than the next. There are plenty of benches to park yourself and your book and whole families had brought their picnics and their rugs. And still there was acres of space.

20160818_160219_resizedThe walled garden was set in the mid-1850s and shows signs of wear and tear. It’s still lovely though, beautiful even. And if the glasshouses were restored to their former glory, it would be spectacular.

Today Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority, owns the estate, which is home to their research facility. Until a few years ago, the castle was their offices. The EPA and the Department of Agriculture are also in residence. What a place to work. Am not sure what the plans are for it… but if there’s a lotto win in my future, I’d be happy to have a chat with someone.

As usual, time wasn’t on my side. So next trip, I’ll have to see the Irish Agricultural Museum and the family cemetery and the machicoulis on Rathlannon Castle. And maybe bring a picnic.

As is my wont when wandering around such fine estates, I found myself wishing I’d been born into that era. I had little trouble in imagining myself, Austen-style, walking the grounds. But then there’s always that niggling doubt… who’s to say I’d have been part of the upstairs crew? Pinnies simply don’t do it for me.

Open 9 am to 4.30 pm seven days a week. Worth dropping in if you’re in the vicinity.

2016 Grateful 19

I’m a great fan of public transport. Especially in Ireland. Not because there’s anything at all regular or dependable about it, but because of the conversations that just happen and the characters that use it.

On Friday, I was heading to the airport. I sat in beside an older blonde and paid little attention. I turned on my kindle and started to read. Three pages in, she spoke.

– Are you going the whole way?
– I am, I said. To the airport.
– I’m only going as far as the Red Cow myself. I’m on my holidays – over from the West of Ireland.
– Nice, I said. I hope you enjoy.

And I went back to my book. Two pages later, she piped up again.

– I suppose you can tell by me that I’m a crossdresser.

Yup – I’d clocked the nails, the hair, the dress, the tights, the earrings and I’d also clocked the tufts of grey hair that did nothing for the decolletage.

– You’re looking well on it. Have you been at it long?
– A fair few years. Men weren’t built for trousers you know. The Scots and the old boys had it right. Skirts are far more comfortable.
– How do you manage the make-up?
– I had to get a few tips at the start, but today I’m only wearing the nail varnish and a bit of lippie, he said, brandishing his shocking pink nails.
– And the heels? Can you cope with the heels?
– I stay low. I leave the heels to the young ones, he said, showing me kitten-heeled sandals.
– What did your family have to say about it all?
– Sure the wife didn’t mind. She’s gone now though. And the in-laws don’t mind either. I don’t go out dressed up at home – just when I’m on my holidays. Ireland’s come a long way, though. We’re a lot more accepting and a lot more tolerant of those who’re a bit different. But sure, we’re doing no one any harm. And life is too short to be miserable. Far too many of us stay home, afraid.

crossdresserHe had to have been in his late 60s, tipping 70. A man from the west of Ireland, from a small town that might be less than charitable in its thinking if he felt he had to get away for a few days half a dozen times a year, to be anonymous, to be himself. But fair play, I thought, fair play. A lesser man would never have brought it up or gotten into conversation. It was good to hear that for the most part, the people he met reacted well and had the manners to tell him he was looking grand. That said, had he being going the whole way to the airport, I might just have suggested a wax, a scarf, or a higher neckline. I’m not sure how he’d have reacted. I’m grateful though that I didn’t get the chance to find out. I love being home.


Drive, pray, eat

I doubt there’s anyone who grew up in Ireland in the 70s and 80s who hasn’t been for a drive. In our house, it usually happened on a Sunday. After dinner. Dinner was served (and is still served) at 1pm sharp every day and when we were on dessert (Sundays only), I’d sit and wait to see if Boss was in the mood. The words I was waiting for? ‘Sure, we might go for a drive.’

There would be no plan. We’d just get in the car and drive. I’d try to guess where we were going depending on the right and left turns he’d take. Some days, we’d to go Kilkenny. Other days we’d head to Wicklow. On special days, we’d go to the airport and watch the planes land and take off. Half the joy was in not knowing where the Sunday drive would take us.

Now, a drive is subtly different from and not to be confused with a spin. A drive has the element of surprise; a spin has a destination in mind, as in: ‘Let’s take a spin over to see XYZ.’

Earlier this week, while visiting my cousin in Wexford, the weather wasn’t cooperating. She suggested we go for a drive. No plan. Just a drive.

The first signpost of interest was to Our Lady’s Island, a pilgrimage site that I’d never heard of – and I thought I knew my shrines. The village church has been described as ‘an ecclesiastical architectural gem unsurpassed by any other in the kingdom’ (E.Hore 1875). And it is rather lovely. But it wasn’t the church that caught my interest; it was the island and the pilgrim walk.

20160817_175327_resized20160817_180032_resized20160817_175558_resized20160817_175517_resized20160817_175202_resizedThere’s a pilgrimage season that runs from 15 August to 7 September with clear rules of engagement with nine circuits needed during the season.

  • The pilgrim begins with a visit to the Parish Church
  • The pilgrim now walks along the causeway to the Shrine at the entrance to the Island and prays there for a few moments.
  • Next the pilgrim follows the path to the left of the Island.
  • The Rosary with its fifteen decades (the Mysteries of Light are optional) is recited as the pilgrim walks around the Island.
  • A stop is made at the Shrine at the head of the Island, which is at the halfway point, for another quiet prayer.
  • The pilgrim continues the Rosary and walks back to the Shrine at the entrance to the Island.
    A final prayer of penance is said in the Church.

I had no idea this place existed. And surprises like this are all part of ‘going for a drive’.

We passed another signpost, this time for Kilmore Quay. I remember being mad about  chap from this part of Wexford back in my Banking days and was up for a visit, especially when I heard about the nineteenth-century, mud-walled thatched cottages. Not for the first time, I wondered how long you’d have to live in Ireland to know it all.

20160817_184003_resized 20160817_184424_resized20160817_184138_resized20160817_184429_resized20160817_184529_resized20160817_191535_resized 20160817_194650_resizedI had a vague notion that the village was noted for its fishing and its seafood. And when you have the trawlers landing within a salt-chuck of a local chipper, there’s no question about where you’d choose to eat. The Saltee Chipper is an institution. Famous the length and breadth of the county for its fish and chips, it’s a very unassuming place with a menu that goes above and beyond your usual chipper fare. I had scallops and black pudding to start with. And then beer-battered haddock, chips, and mushy peas for my main. I like my fish and chips. I like my mushy peas. And my eyes were bigger than my belly. This was Wednesday evening. It was Friday before I needed to eat again.

The chipper is named after the Saltee Islands, a pair of privately owned islands that sit some 3-5km in the distance. I must have missed my geography class the day we did Wexford, because I’d never heard of them. The bigger of the two, the Great Saltee, is home to the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland. The islands have been around forever. Back as far as 3500 BC, people lived there – from Neolithic man to hermits, from Vikings and Normans to medieval monks.

The islands had their heyday from 1500 to 1800 AD.

The Saltees were in the path of one of the world’s most important sea trading routes – between Britain and the American continent. They were used as a base for pirates, wreckers and smugglers. Pirates from Spain, France, North Africa and America plundered the busy merchant ships within sight of the islands. And in the days of sail the waters around the islands became known as ” the graveyard of a thousand ships” and the islands their tombstones, so dangerous was the area to shipping. The gains of the wreckers and smugglers could very well be hidden in the many caves which have mysterious and romantic names – Lady Walker’s Cave, Happy Hole, Otter’s Cave and Hell Hole, enough for any Treasure Island.

Back in  1798 (I was in school when we did the 1798 Rebellion but this story didn’t make the history books), two  of the leaders hid out in a cave on the islands planning their escape to France. Rumour has it that when the boys took a bath in the cave, the soldiers spotted the soapy water running out and their hideaway was blown. They were hanged for their trouble.

But stranger still, is the story of Prince Michael the First. The Saltees are a micronation – a principality. Purchased by Prince Neale in 1943, Prince crowned himself Prince Michael the First, fulfilling a childhood promise to his mother that one day, he’d own and rule the Saltees.

This chair is erected in memory of my Mother to whom I made a vow when I was 10 years old that one day I would own the Saltee Islands and become the First Prince of the Saltees.

Henceforth my heirs and successors can only proclaim themselves Prince of these Islands by sitting in this chair fully garbed in the Robes and Crown of the Islands and take the Oath of Succession.

Michael the First

It’s amazing what you learn when you go for a drive.








2016 Grateful 20

Back in 2001, when I had a feeling that my time in the USA might be coming to a close, I took a road trip with the inimitable RosaB. On our way from somewhere to somewhere in the State of Alabama, we passed a billboard for the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. Then we passed a second. By the time we hit upon the third, the advertising had done its job and we left the highway to see what the fuss was about.

Built by a Bavarian Benedictine monk, he himself a little on the small side, too, the four acres is known far and wide as Jerusalem in Miniature. Not far into the twentieth century, Br Joseph’s job was to man the pumps and watch the oil gauges at the Abbey’s pump house, a mind-numbing task he did for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. To keep himself sane, he started to build little grottos around tiny statues. He made tiny copies of the Holy sites in Jerusalem and eventually had enough to put together a miniature of the city. The monk had rarely travelled so he built his pieces from images on postcards. [I still send postcards – maybe somewhere, someone might put them to use. You know who you are.]

The Abbot of the monastery would have made Walt Disney proud. He soon cottoned on to the winner he had within his walls. He had great plans for an OTT religious grotto, carefully landscaped, meticulously made. Work began in 1932 in an abandoned quarry in the Abbey’s grounds and today, it’s visited by millions. It was one of the highlights of a memorable trip. Well worth a look if you’re in the vicinity.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in the UK. I’d gone to meet my then boyfriend who was on leave from the QEII. We ended up in Wimborne with its 1/10th scale model town. An idea that incubated during the 1940s, it opened to visitors in 1951. The buildings are made from concrete with beech windows. I still remember feeling like Gulliver as I wandered through the tiny streets, afraid to put a foot wrong lest I step on something or a little someone. All very real it was.  Another lovely memory. Another one worth a visit.

In Portugal recently, we happened across a third such marvel in the village of Sobreiro. Aldeia Tipicia (typical village) was a the brainchild of potter José Franco who began work on this masterpiece in 1960. Driven to preserve the customs and crafts of Portugal, he wanted to replicate the old workshops and stores, the houses, and the communities that were all in danger of being swallowed up by progress. He also wanted a miniature village for kids, with working windmills and all sorts. Later he added a third part – an interactive children’s agricultural centre inside some castle-like walls. Franco died in 2009 leaving a legacy that,  like the others, and indeed like Miniversum here in Budapest, is still working its magic.

Because no matter what adult worries and concerns you might have going in, when you happen upon these miniature places, you can’t help but revert back to being a child. Rediscovering the open-mouthed child-like awe often jaded by cynicism is quite the experience. I found myself pointing and exclaiming like a kid on Christmas morning.

None of the visits were planned. But all happened when I needed some perspective. Someone up there is looking out for me. For this, and for the artists like Br Joseph and José Franco who made them possible, I’m truly grateful. Cost of entry: free. Recalibration: priceless.

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No match for old women

I was brought up to respect my elders. It was drilled into me from the minute I was old enough to talk. Over the years, it’s been difficult at times, given that some of the elders who crossed my path were complete plonkers, devoid of reason, and lacking any semblance of a moral code. So I made an allowance. I reinterpreted the edict to read: Respect the elders you don’t know; apply discretion to the ones you do. But now, that rule, too, has been challenged.

Let me give you some context.

My nephew is in town. My other nephew. The one who was here last year. He’s a special kid with a special take on the world. And he’s 15. He alternates between a monosyllabic yes/no and a stream of consciousness rhetoric that runs the gamut from Donal Trump to ISIS to GMO to the effect of magnets on credit cards. There is no limit to where his conversation might take us. There are no boundaries.

IMG_7045 (800x600)Rather than offer choices, I’ve been dictating what we do. On Wednesday, Plácido Domingo was playing a free gig in Papp László. About 6000 tickets were there for the taking. We knew we’d have to queue for a couple of hours but hey – it was an opportunity too good to pass up. The kid posse went ahead. Five of them. The message filtered back – we were about 250 from the front and the line was growing. I arrived shortly afterwards and all looked well. An orderly line.

Then the brazen began to jump the queue and the orderly got restless. And the heavens opened and it milled down. We had thunder, too. The crowd surged forward trying to get to the two tents before the barrier. People behind me shoved and poked and prodded. Calls that went out to security to open the venue were met with entreaties not to start a stampede. It was all quite exciting.

Some ten minutes later, the rain stopped and the jostling stopped.  And all was well. We were well. We were wet. But we were well. And we were singing.

More people skipped the queue and others got angry. But for the most part, the line remained intact. It rained again. And umbrellas were useless. While they might protect the head, shoulders, backs, and necks were getting soaked by the rivulets flowing from the umbrellas beside you. The rain stopped. The body heat switched on and the steam rose from the crowd. Some of the cold dissipated. But the smell was bad. But again, all was well. A little less well, but well nonetheless.

Two hours later, the doors opened. And then those cute little old dears in their heels and their pearls, turned into ninjas. They barreled forward, regardless.  Their age had suddenly became their right to behave badly. I tried to hold steady, to push back, but up against a 60+ year old armed with a brolly, brandishing her time spent on Earth like a bayonet, I was useless. It was that deep, abiding urge to respect my elders that did me in. But I, too, have my limits.

Some ten meters from the door, where the channel narrowed, I stood my ground. Elbows splayed, knees braced, I dropped my umbrella behind me and stopped. Dead. They cursed. They pushed. They poked. They berated me. They shouted at me. But I held steady. For all of 8 seconds. But it felt like a victory. For in those 8 seconds, I revised my rule:  Become the elder that others will respect.

Inside, we pulled out our homemade pizza, my second birthday cake, a bottle of bubbly for the adults and some kids’ champers for the kids complete with the ever-so-stylish plastic cups. And we ate brazenly. Just let the security guards come wrestle with us for eating stuff not bought on the premises. I’d gone 8 seconds with the oldies. There was nothing they could do to me.

Five old dears in the next row pulled out their bottle of palinka and their plastic medicine dispensers and started to do shots. Now they were my kind of elderly.

An hour later, just past 8.30, Plácido Domingo made his appearance. We had good seats. From where we sat, he looked like a young Tom Jones. He was in fine form. And he had the magnificent Angel Blue, defender of beauty pageants and soprano extraordinaire, to keep him company.

My boy was having trouble sitting still. Probably because he said he didn’t eat cold pizza and needed extra cake because he was hungry. I don’t think Verdi did it for him. He perked up a little at the fabulous Meditation by Jules Massenet featuring the young talent of Váradi Gyula. But didn’t really get into it until Domingo left the classics behind and went to Broadway duetting with Angel Blu. A number from West Side Story, another from My Fair Lady, and a third from South Pacific saved the evening in his eyes.

We got home tired. And wet. And cold. But he has something to remember – he did his first wet queuing. That’ll stand him in good stead in years to come, when the memory of it all will morph those two wet hours into five as he tries to impress some young one with his youthful acquaintance with Plácido Domingo. Me? I was happy I finally got to see the man live.


2016 Grateful 21

I’ve been dreading turning 50. Not because I see it as the onset of old age but because of the math. There is far more of my life behind me that there is ahead of me and I worry that I mightn’t get to do everything I want to do before my allotted time on this Earth is up.

Time is going a lot quicker these days. It’s accelerating. Weeks and months are morphing into years at a rapid rate. And while the outside me is showing signs of aging (can you believe that my toes have wrinkles!), the inside me is still stuck on 37.

My neighbour told me recently that I didn’t dress 50. I took that as a compliment and recalled shopping for shoes with my mum not long ago. I was putting her in sensible black heels, much to her disgust. She went for some vertiginous silver ones instead. I learned something that day.

Now that I’m on the home stretch, instead of accumulating more stuff, I’m getting rid. Paring back. I’m far more interested in experiences that in accoutrements.

Antique Limo Tour of BudapestOn Saturday, the birthday, after a late lunch/early dinner, the lovely BZs had organised for a vintage car to come pick us up and take us on a tour of the city. Sitting in the back seat of this Ford Model A, Bramwith Limousine Elite, I felt a little like royalty. I couldn’t make eye contact with the hordes of tourists taking photos of us. I was afraid I’d succumb to giving the royal wave. Seeing the city from that vantage point was lovely – I saw stuff I’d never noticed before. I even found myself vaguely considering whether I’d have a driver, if I ever had that sort of money. It’s a life I could get used to.

Later that evening, I was serenaded in front of friends who had gathered to help celebrate the big day. Some I hadn’t seen in years. As I blew out my candles on my wonderful RM birthday cake, I had only one wish: that my blessed life would continue to be so blessed.

While the flowers will fade, the booze will be drunk, and the chocolates will see a quick end, the next few months will see me at art exhibitions, classical concerts, and early breakfasts. I’ll also get to enjoy massages, being pampered, and go completely gaga with the mad money. Massive thanks to everyone. But really, it’s the memory of it all that I will cherish. Being 50 is something that should be celebrated. If yours is approaching and you’re in doubt about what to do… go for it. Make it an occasion. Celebrate. Celebrate what’s already gone and what’s yet to come. Celebrate the friendship and the love. Party like you’re still a young one. Life is way too short to have regrets. It was a long but lovely evening – I got to bed about 7.30am. And yes, even at 50, if it needs swinging, I can still get it swung.