Better leaders, better world

I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a primary school teacher. I gave little thought to my second and third choices on my college application form. So when I got the letter from the Teacher Training College saying that I hadn’t gotten a place, I was devastated. I’d just turned 17. The future had morphed overnight from a well-thought-out career/life path into a complete unknown.

Career guidance, as it was known then, consisted of government-issued leaflets on all sorts of jobs. Such was the guidance offered in my school that long-distance-trucking was once an option on my future board. I had no one to turn to. Life coaching wouldn’t come into fashion until years later. And self-help books didn’t quite cover last-minute decisions on career choices.

I ended up studying Accounting and Finance. A bad choice. I lasted just one year before bailing in favour of a paid, pensionable position that had the advantage of ready money but the disadvantage of a lifetime of drudgery.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in higher education, taking certificates, diplomas, and degrees in various disciplines from counselling and communications to safety management. I wasn’t studying with any great plan in mind – I was studying to stay engaged.

One of the most difficult things about living in a country where my ability to speak the language falls short is that I miss out on classes and courses offered only in Hungarian. Flower arranging, paper making, ballroom dancing – all toyed with and discarded. And while I might well be able to muddle my way through the instruction, when it comes to coaching (another subject of interest), fully understanding the language is a must.

beakepzesbemutatsavagottI came across Business Coach Kft recently and its 60-hour intensive SPARKLE coaching course (offered in English) certified by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). There’s quite the demand for an English-language coaching course apparently, as many international companies based in Hungary have non-Hungarian-speakers in their employ.

Competition for managerial and supervisory positions is such that being trained to support the development of others ranks high in the plus column when it comes to promotion. And indeed feedback from those who have completed the course confirms as much. They say they know themselves better (an oft-overlooked but extremely important facet of being a good manager). They have become more effective leaders by using the coaching methods and tools they were taught. Some start coaching within their own companies, a reflection of the modern ethos that a coaching-style leadership is effective as it promotes better communication and collaboration. Managers focus more on developing their people rather than simply telling them what to do. This style of leadership helps build trust and brings out the creativity in people.

Others see the certification as a stepping stone out of the corporate grind and choose to work independently as a coach, a particularly attractive option for anyone who wants a better work/life balance that can come with freelance work and being able to fit work around a hectic home schedule.

When it comes to training to be a coach, though, choose carefully. Be sure to get an internationally recognised certification. According to Laura Komócsin, owner of Business Coach Kft, 90% of coaches in China are expats who choose to stay in country when their corporate tenure finishes. [I once had a very successful coaching experience via Skype from Germany.] It’s definitely doable.

Coaching isn’t about offering solutions, but rather supporting others to find their own answers. Trainees learn to identify new alternatives, find resources, and trust that their client has all the required skills and resources to find their own solution.  Thankfully, in Hungary, learning these types of skills is no longer language-dependent. And as the Business Coach Kft’s tag line says: better leaders, better world.

First published in the Budapest Times 30 September 2016

Country remedies

I parked Ime on the grass inside the gate. I was basking in the glory of having off-street parking when my neighbour dropped by to warn me about the weavils. From what I gathered, they climb into the car, up into the engine, and do untold damage to the wiring. Sometimes, they even nest. A home from home, of sorts. At least this is how I translated the steady flow of Hungarian with the accompanying hand gestures.

careng4Her remedy appeared to involve water. I thought I understood but didn’t quite believe that she was suggesting putting two bowls of water in front of the car as this would magically deter them from moving in.

I googled weavils – they’re insects. So I revised my understanding and my translation to read weasels. That made more sense. I could see those furry animals looking for a warm place out of the cold (even though it was a lovely, sunny, 25 degrees in late September).

The next day, I awoke to find that she’d been a tad impatient or perhaps sensed that I (a) didn’t fully understand or (b) didn’t quite believe her remedy. Two 1.5-litre plastic bottles of water stood sentry in front of the car. Each to their own, I thought. I could humour her in the interests of good neighbourly relations.

Then, walking up the village later that day, I spotted another car parked in a garden, facing out to the street. It, too, had two bottles of water standing guard. And then I saw a third. It would seem that Hungarian weasels (into which I also read mice and other furry rodents) are afraid of bottled water. Interestingly, all bottles were the same brand. Perhaps the rodents can read.

I googled some more and there’s loads of stuff on the Net about home cures for wire-gnawing rodents. Everything from spraying the grass you park on with rat pee (and yes, you can buy this … in Germany anyway) to spraying the wires with hot pepper spray.

Another site suggested stretching chicken wire tightly over a frame and laying this under your car as apparently squirrels (and presumably other such animals) don’t like walking on mesh.

In the area of Southern Germany where I live the culprits are usual members of the marten family. Here some people solve the problem by placing a wooden frame covered in stretched chicken wire under the motor compartment of the car when its parked. Apparently the beast don’t like to walk on the chicken wire and so don’t climb into the engine compartment.

Marders are a particular problem in Switzerland apparently. There you can insure your car against marder damage. One contributor to a forum swears it works:

You can also insure your car against Marder damage. Since I have insured my car the Marder has never come back.

careng3Now, I’ve been driving for years. I’ve lived in some wild and wonderful places teeming with all sorts of wildlife and never once have I even heard of this phenomenon. But as sure as shinola, now that I know about it, it’ll happen. I’ve heard tell of devices you can fit to the front grid that emit a high-pitched noise that scares them away. But what if it drives all the dogs in the ‘hood mad? There’s another that has a strobe light. But that might scare away the fox and the deer. For the minute, I think I’ll stick to the water bottles. Unless anyone has any other bright ideas?

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When you go to Sunday mass in a small village where everyone knows everyone, you’re bound to stick out if you’re not a local. When you don’t plan ahead and pack your Sunday best, it’s difficult to adhere to the dress code. The men, for the most part, were all suited and booted with collars and ties. The women were all pressed and dressed giving their best handbags an airing. Dark, sombre colours were the order of the day.

His bright turquoise hoodie over a shirt and grey jeans glowed like a neon light on the approach and got the heads turning from a distance. As we walked to the door, three ladies standing sentry looked me up and down with the practiced eyes of mothers who’d sent an army of kids to school after a hands and nails check. My Hungarian isn’t what it should be but I know enough to know that my cropped pants were worthy of a comment and three sets of raised eyebrows as was the fact that I was wearing no socks. I had no argument. My mother would have said exactly the same in a look that would have creased the trousers, too. Okay for a weekday mass but definitely not what to wear on a Sunday.

But it wasn’t the clothes that did me in. ‘Twas the lipstick. Bright red. To match my scarf. I like a little colour. But it screamed HARLOT!!! I took solace in the fact that the village would have something to talk about for the week ahead.

Kneeling is part and parcel of the Sunday aerobics class that many non-Catholics view as mass. But in this particular church, the kneelers were so low that it I went into freefall when I took the plunge. Assuming (incorrectly) that mass the world over has the same kneeling points, I didn’t check what everyone else was doing before I sank to my knees, dropping from a height onto uncushioned slats. I managed to stifle my curse before it escaped and bounced off the walls. I looked around to see everyone else bending forward but not kneeling. Things are different in the countryside.

I usually leave mass then the priest leaves the altar. But having learned my lesson, I stopped and waited to see what everyone else did. No one moved. One old néni (auntie) pulled out her rosary beads as the choir sang on. To my shame, I thought ‘Oh no, not the rosary. We’ll be here till lunchtime.’ I looked around in something approaching a mild panic and thankfully hers was the only purse to open. But not until the last note had been sung did anyone make a move. The priest had vacated his spot a good three minutes earlier. No one was in a rush. Things are different in the countryside.

We were out in under 45 minutes. Budapest mass is closer to an hour or more (depending on where you go). My father is a firm believer in the 3-minute sermon and will just about tolerate a 40-minute mass. He’d have done okay. With years of research under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hungarian seminaries teach their seminarians that the minimum length of their sermons should be 10 minutes. And most oblige. As a minimum.

szodavizOutside, there were lots of friendly good mornings and plenty of interested looks but no approaches. We must have screamed NOT HUNGARIAN. We decided to walk up the village to the local bar/shop/tabac/café to check it out and get a bottle of szódaviz (soda water). You put a deposit on the spouted bottle and bring it back to be refilled. They’re hard to find in Budapest so I had been quite excited when I’d spotted a man leaving the premises the previous day with a box of six. I’m easily pleased.

In we went for a coffee. It was just coming up to 9am. One chap was happily sipping on his pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) and another two were enjoying a beer outside.

Pálinka in small amounts is a medicine, in large amounts a remedy, so Hungarians say.. Our grandfathers liked to start the day with a small glass of good pálinka and were convinced that they owed their health to the benevolent effects of the distillate.

A fourth came in as we were there and ordered a bottle of Törley pezsgő (Hungarian sparkling wine). He was celebrating (a new grandchild, I think). He asked for four glasses and they all had their toast. A couple more turfed up. All on bikes. We moved outside to one of two tables to have a second espresso (great coffee am happy to say) and I noticed that I was on display: the sockless harlot in the red lipstick, a lone woman among all these men. Things are different in the countryside.

Next time I go to mass, I’ll wear socks and tone down the lippie. The hoodie will be replaced by a jacket but the suit and tie won’t be happening any time soon. It’s the earliest I’ve been up on a Sunday for a while. Been to mass. Been to the pub. And still home by 10 am.

As a new chapter unfolds, life is promising all sorts of interesting experiences. This week, I’m grateful for the nudge from JFW. I’m already going through the calendar to see when I can come back and for how long I can stay. Sunny days in late September, falling asleep to the sounds of ducks on water and waking at cock crow to the baa’ing of sheep. Restorative. Good for the soul. Practically a religious experience in itself.

The wait is nearly over

Art confuses me. I know what I like and what I don’t like, but when it comes to what period came when and which artist belonged to what movement, my ignorance is embarrassing. I couldn’t tell a Manet from a Monet were my life to depend on it.

In everyday speech, I use contemporary as a synonym for modern and only recently discovered that when it comes to Art (with a capital A), the two terms are a lifetime apart. Modern Art spans the period from the 1860s to the 1970s and would appear to be an umbrella term for more than forty different movements ranging from Impressionism to Art Nouveau to Cubism to Bauhaus to Surrealism – the mind boggles.

Post-modernism, as it implies, comes after Modernism. Being a sixties child living among contemporaries, I then naturally thought that post-modernism was synonymous with contemporary. But strictly speaking, it isn’t.  ‘It refers to a fixed period (say 50 years in length) beginning about 1970’. But wouldn’t that make it contemporary, I wondered? Yes and no. ‘Contemporary art refers to the moving 50-year period immediately before the present.’ So today, in 2016, they’re one and the same. But in a few years’ time, say in 2050 ‘post-modern art (1970–2020) will have been superceded by another era, while contemporary art will now cover the period 2000–2050. So the two will have diverged.’ It’s amazing where Google can take you.

But why am I obsessing?

The 25th Café Budapest Contemporary Arts Festival (formerly the Autumn Arts Festival) opens its curtains next month and I was curious what they meant by Contemporary Art. Now I know. The programme is chock full of theatre, concerts (classical and popular), dance performances, visual art exhibitions, and even a circus. Hungarian stars feature, of course, but alongside them are world class international performers, with a particular focus this year on Polish art and artists. Events are lined up for venues all over town from A38 and Akvárium to Müpa and Millenáris.

Maestro Ferenc Sapszon with the Cantate Chorus. Photo by Dahlan Foah

Maestro Ferenc Sapszon with the Cantate Chorus. Photo by Dahlan Foah

For me, the pick of the programme is the World Premiere of The Birth of Color, A Marriage of Darkness and Light™, a Frequency Opera™ based on ancient and new scientific ideas and images about the Creation of the universe. The Budapest Cantate Choir will be singing with Dr Sapszon Ferenc conducting. The hour-long performance features a male and female chorus, singing bowls and percussion, with light and projection.

The Creation is told as a love story, where the original oneness engenders longing and appreciation as it begins to split into all of the parts of the manifest world. The work is a reminder of the sheer beauty and wonder of creation and how the more we understand, the more mysterious and beautiful it becomes.

I first wrote about The Birth of Color nearly a year ago, after a chance meeting with Honora Foah, the creative mind behind the project (Budapest Times, 16 October 2015). She explained the concept of a frequency opera to me and I wrote: As far back as 10 000 years ago, the Vedas spoke of the world being made of vibration, so this isn’t new. But add the scientific discoveries of quantum physics to this ancient wisdom, and you have the makings of a frequency opera. Foah spoke then of her hopes to premiere the opera in Budapest at the Kiscelli and she’s made it happen.

The wires are buzzing. The curious are waiting. The planets are aligning for the world’s first Frequency Opera. So much so that art and music critics are coming to Budapest solely for the premiere. The composer Lucio Ivaldi will also be here as will Pulitzer-nominated poet David Brendan Hopes, lyricist for The Birth of Color.

Be it post-modernist or contemporary, this artistic performance promises something different. Come and bear witness.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 September 2016


After many delays, tickets for the Premiere of this amazing multi-media Frequency Opera are now available. Performances at the Kiscelli Museum, Budapest on 79 October: Unmissable! and

Upping the hormone levels

Hungarians puszi puszi. Americans hug. I did neither. My inner jury is out as to which took me longer to adjust to.

When I first moved to the States, the hugging thing really got to me. Everyone hugged. I’d grown up in an Ireland where any sort of display of affection drew a crooked look. Shaking hands was as close as we got to physicality (which, back then, wasn’t even a word). When the Catholic Church brought in the sign of peace, communities nationwide inhaled sharply and offered up their discomfort to free the holy souls from purgatory.

Leaving a friend’s relative’s house one day after visiting [another new concept for me – in Ireland, you took your chances and dropped by, unannounced. In the States, you rang (sorry, called) to make an appointment], someone went to hug me. I took a step back and said politely that I simply didn’t do hugs. They looked at me, paused, and then hugged me anyway, telling me that I’d better get used to it. I was in America now.

So now I hug. When I have to.

I’m not a great one for PDAs. I am a toucher though. And a rather indiscriminate one at that. If I speak to you and you’re standing within reach, I’ll punctuate by touch. Perhaps this is my way for making up for the lack of PDAs, my way of getting my daily dose of oxytocin,  aka the ‘cuddle hormone’. Oxytocin is known as nature’s antidepressant and apparently it takes a 20-second hug to release it.

According to psychologist Alex Korb, oxytocin generates a soothing feeling by reducing our emotional reactivity to negative and threatening elements in our environment. Korb argues that interpersonal touch is one of the most powerful ways of increasing oxytocin in the body.

Of course, contact with warm and soft objects also has a soothing and relaxing effect – which might explain my relationship with my hot water bottle.

hug3For those living in a hug-free world, he recommends a hot shower or wrapping up in a warm blanket holding a mug of hot tea. ‘Tis warmth and affection our body craves. And all too often, we underestimate how powerful human contact can be.


I’m getting better, but I’m still not great. I’ve gotten the hang of the puszi puszi thing, a kiss on either cheek, but even that comes with rules that defy me. If you don’t do it first time you meet, it’s hard to then start doing it next time you meet. And if you’re saying hello or goodbye to a group, that’s a lot of kissin’.

Years ago, after a week in Hungary, I went back to the UK. An Indian colleague dropped by unexpectedly and I got a call from reception to go meet him. We got on well but were bound up in that professional cultural work thing. He was there with his new boss and wanted me to meet him. After a week of kissing all and sundry in Budapest, I didn’t stop to think. I reached out, grabbed his hand, pulled him into an embrace and was inches from the first cheek landing when I realised that this was NOT what I should be doing with an Indian. But I’d gone too far to turn back.

His boss was watching open-mouthed as I continued and kissed both cheeks and then retreated into a mortified explanation. I’d be in Hungary. I was only back. They puszi puszi. I’d had a week of kissing strangers who would become friends. It was an automatic reaction. I was sooooooooooooooooooooo sorry to have embarrassed him. I’d never seen him blush before but blush he did.

That evening, I met the pair of them for a pint. When I got to the bar, his boss jumped up and gave me the puszi puszi. He blushed but he did it. I didn’t have the heart to point out that we weren’t in Hungary and that perhaps a handshake might be more British.

hug2But back to the hugs. I’ve seen people wandering round cities wearing signs that say ‘hug me’ or ‘free hugs here’. And I’ve wondered. But it would seem that it does make a difference. And not just when you’re sad. But anytime. They say you need four hugs a day to survive, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. Four is a lot, but I’m working on it. So don’t be surprised if I ask you for one. Am all for increasing my oxytocin levels. In the name of scientific research.

Call home

For years I lived too far from home to visit very often and had to make do with a three-week trip every 18 months or so. It wasn’t particularly hard. I was busy living my life and everyone at home was getting on with theirs. My life abroad was just what I did. I know couples here in Hungary who have all three kids living in another country. It’s become a norm,  part of twenty-first-century living.

One of the drawbacks of living in say, the States, or Canada, or Australia, is that you dread the call. The phone call that comes with bad news. Coming close to what would be the end of my time in Alaska, a couple of good friends had received one. I can’t begin to imagine what the trip home was like for them. Had it been me, a fair few miles would have been eaten up in self-recrimination. Should have called more, written more, visited more.

That was then, in the days when the Internet was in its infancy, when the postman still brought real letters and Christmas had to be mailed in November. Today, Skype has made it all a lot more manageable. The Internet has made it easier to catch up and stay up with what’s happening at home. Free phone call apps make it affordable to talk every day. For the most part, those I know who are living away from home are religious about staying in touch.


This picture was posted on Facebook during the week. When I looked, it had 348 comments, most of them from parents saying how their kids never call unless it’s to look for money or help. They were waiting for a call just to ask how they were doing. A sizeable portion were from kids who’d lost their parents and would give anything to have them back so that they could call and visit. A rare few told of daily telephone calls and visits.

Then I saw a video along the same vein, but this time the kids were calling, calling to make excuses as to why they didn’t have time to visit their parents, to chat, to fix a phone. It ends with the entreaty to stop neglecting, to make time for those we love. It had 216 comments and 27k+ shares. I scrolled down through the comments and began to realise how far removed I am from other people’s reality.

You only have one life, use your time wisely. My mom is still with us, my dad passed away at 48 yrs old. We love, and we lost. My baby sister was murdered at 15 yrs old. My son was murdered at 17 yrs old. My brother lost his baby girl at 7 days old. Life is not fair. I have learned the hard way that you treasure whoever you have in your life because you never know when you will lose them. Just sayin’.

With this though, more of the comments were about letting your kids go – realising that they have lives to live, too. Don’t expect, they said. Don’t wait. You’ve done your job. A lot of these comments came from India.

Yes, there are families where the parent-child relationship is toxic and visits end in arguments and tears and so are avoided altogether. Happy families for many are something they see on TV. Remember that German ad that ran last year about an old man faking his death just to get his kids home for Christmas?

I don’t have kids, so I don’t know whether I’d be in the disappointed camp, waiting for calls that never come and visits that never happen. I don’t call home every day – if I did, my mother would wonder what was up. We email, we chat, I visit every other month. And each time I go home, my dad thanks me for making the effort. None of us are getting any younger. The time we have left together is limited. Staying in touch is important.




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My first car was a Ford Fiesta. I had no say in the colour, the make, the size, the year, the price. I’d been talking about getting a car and was even taking driving lessons. I went home one weekend and the car was there. My dad had gone shopping for me. I got the car and the bill. It wouldn’t have been my pick and ungrateful wagon that I was back then (hey, I was young), I still remember feeling a tad peeved at not having had a say. But it was a car on a deferred payment scheme and it got me from A to B. I soon forgot any complaints I might have had.

My only car in California was a two-tone green monster of a Buick Regal. I mentioned wanting a car and someone knew someone selling this one so I bought it. No research. No shopping around. It was in my price range and he said it ran fine. The front seat was like a sofa. The first time I went to put gas in it, I had to leave the garage, embarrassed. I couldn’t find the tank. I circled and circled and circled the car but couldn’t find it. How was I to know that the tank was hidden behind the licence plate.

The next car I bought was a maroon Ford Mustang. A great little car. I drove it up the Alcan highway from Washington and took it on the ferry when I moved from Anchorage to Valdez. But it wasn’t built for snow. I was constantly getting stuck on snow berms in winter and would have to call the pub to see if someone could come tow me out of trouble.

Back in Ireland, I drove my mam’s old Starlet. And then my brother’s Santa Fe. It’s been years since I’ve had my own car and I’d forgotten what it was like.

When the search began, I had a budget. And for that money I wanted the newest car with the lowest mileage in the best condition. Not a tall order, I thought. A pretty reasonable ask. Clueless, I asked a mate, TZ, who knows cars for advice.

'Tell us again why we need three hundred horsepower to get groceries.'

‘Tell us again why we need three hundred horsepower to get groceries.’

He asked some questions: projected mileage (I way overestimated); preferred capacity (a boot that would fit two large suitcases and a back seat that would take three people comfortable); trips envisaged – frequency, length, etc. (I definitely exaggerated); parking; total budget; degree of urgency. He then sent a list of cars (models/makes) to avoid as it’d be parked on the street and these were prone to theft. This isn’t something I’d have thought about, ever. He then discounted various other makes/models for a number of reasons. Third generation of this car had a design flaw in backseat placement. Second generation of that car had an engine fault and so on. His knowledge of cars is encyclopedic.

We went shopping on Saturday. Three cars to see. The first, a Ford Focus, I’d have taken in a heartbeat. Low mileage, good nick (or so I thought), and well within budget. An import, from Germany. And so the education began.

Mileage was suspiciously low. It had been crashed at least once (the bonnet didn’t align quite exactly !*&S! – like I’d have noticed that). The tyres were old (check the four digit number). And the upholstery screamed valet job rather than regular upkeep. (So there was a hole … wouldn’t have bothered me.)

The next place had two cars on offer. Both Toyota Avensis – one a 5-door liftback, the other an estate. Both looked great, if a little big. Both were in budget. The five-door was gold though… I wasn’t mad about driving around in a bling car but I wasn’t going to be a girl about it. If it worked, it worked. I checked the bonnet – it seemed to align. I checked the tyres for the week/year and they seemed okay. But I missed that the wear on the steering wheel and gear knob were too much for the mileage done, even though the rest of the car was in great shape. The oil around the oil pan was went rather than dry flaky dirt-like stuff (another new one). All an education. The other was too big for me – I’d never parallel park it.

Sunday we saw Ime. A silver Toyota Avensis. She’s had one careful owner who has babied her for years. Lots of years. She’s in great condition and looks way younger than she is. She’s immaculately kept. Records of each and every service in its own plastic sleeve. Serviced religiously every 10 000 km. In budget, silver, good to go.

She’s my first grown-up car. The type of car my dad might have had. It took me a while to come around to the fact that I am grown up, too. When I mentioned to TZ that I thought she might be too big, car1too grown-up for me, he said, in all seriousness, referring back to my original list of wants: Mary, you can’t have sex and still remain a virgin.

I took her home today. And tomorrow the bureaucratic nightmare begins with the help of another of Hungary’s wonders, CM. The chassis test (to verify that she is just one car and not a mutation of many parts and that all parts are her own). Then it’s to the Halls of Hell to transfer registration and pay my ‘wealth acquisition tax’ (oops – capital transfer tax – a tax on transforming cash to steel) and get my car papers sorted. And then to another office to get my parking permit for district. The NCT/MOT is due in November when she gets a new clutch and a complete fluid transfusion. You see, when it comes to looking after her, I’m going to be more Hungarian than Irish. I’m going to do it by the book. I need her to live a long, healthy life. I need her to keep going.

This week in 2007, I came to Budapest. Nine years later to the day life seems to be motoring along in a direction I’d not have planned (were I a planner). But hey, the scenery is great; the route’s full of twists and turns, never boring; and there’s plenty of miles left on the clock. This week, I’m so glad I met the embodiment of the used-car classified ad classic: one careful owner. And for mates like TZ and CM, who willingly donate their days to help, I’m truly grateful.



Making it happen

Back in 2007, someone told me that there were 23 000 flats in Budapest owned by absentee Irish landlords. I had no idea how realistic that number was, whether it even came close to reality or whether it was so far removed from it that it was laughable. Then the crash came and the number, whichever number, was decimated as people started offloading flats here to bail themselves out of trouble at home. It wasn’t pretty.

Last week, I overheard two Italians talking to their Hungarian real estate agent. They’d just signed on their fourth flat. The week before, I overheard a German talking about signing on his third. This week a Hungarian friend told me of how they were offered HUF 40 million for a flat they’d paid 18 million for a few years ago. Things are on the up. People are coming to town looking for places to buy and then rent.

This creates a demand for people like Lena Lehoczky, the creative talent behind Lenoushka, an interior design studio in the city specialising in handmade soft furnishings.


Photo by Kovács Tamás

Lena inherited her passion for beautiful, creative fabrics from her mother and her grandmother, both of whom were born in St Petersburg, Russia. As a child, the three of them would visit fabric shops. They taught her to knit and to sew. All three would design their own clothes and knit their own sweaters. Her childhood reading was more Burda than Bunty [a girl’s comic I grew up with that had cut-out clothes for paper dolls on the back cover].

At the age of 5, Lena designed her first collection: dresses for her dolls. When she got married, her mum gave her the ultimate wedding gift:  a wedding dress she had made for her based on Lena’s own design.


Photo by Kovács Tamás


Photo by Zoltán Fábián

Smart enough to realise that having a creative talent often isn’t enough, Lena studied economics and business management. Reality meant that she needed to make money before she could realise her dream. She earned her keep as a brand manager at several multinational consumer-goods companies in Hungary. As a hobby she’d decorate apartments, designing her own cushions, curtains, and bed linen. And life was good.


Photo by Zoltán Fábián

Married, a mother to three beautiful children, Lena had a job that paid a decent wage, and a hobby that kept the creative side of her alive. And then the day came when her ever-patient and heretofore supportive husband finally had enough.

His loud No! to her latest attempt to redecorate their apartment still resonates, she says. She had to choose, to admit that design really was her calling. So she enrolled in an interior design course and finished a UK-based professional home textile decorating course. Smart enough also to know that in the interior design business, currency is everything and that trends dictate, she regularly attends design workshops and is currently studying with a New-York-based design school.


Photo by Zoltán Fábián

Today, Lena works out of a small studio in Buda from where she’s involved in several residential interior design projects, creating bespoke curtains and cushions for private and commercial clients. She has redefined her career and is fulfilling a childhood dream. In her family, she’s known as Lenoushka. So her company of the same name is more than the fulfillment of her childhood dream: it’s also a tribute to those who helped make her the woman she is today. Check her out at

It’s stories like Lena’s and that of Terry V, of whom I wrote last week, that keep me believing in Budapest. Both born outside the country, both now living here. Both have found the energy, the space, and the opportunity to make it happen in this city. And while many, for their own reasons, are choosing to leave Hungary, it’s nice to hear of those who are choosing to stay.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 September 2016

Sing Street

I spent a couple of glorious hours this evening reveling in 1980s Ireland. It was like stepping into a time machine and going back 30 years. I wore those clothes. I had those hair-dos. I listened to that music. I could even identify with the carriage clock on the mantelpiece, the orange curtains in the living room, and the standard lamp complete with tasselled lampshade. As for the mohair jumpers and the massive-framed glasses that would lead you to believe it was your cheeks that were shortsighted. Cue nostalgia. Deep sigh.

singstreet1Set in Dublin in 1985, it’s a familiar story. Boy wants to impress girl. Tells her he has a band. Asks her to star in a video they’re making. Then has to go put a band together. John Carney, the mind behind the multi-awarding winning Once, is in his element. He’s on record somewhere as saying that this film fulfills all his childhood dreams. Through Cosmo, he gets the girl, has the band, and gets to tell the teachers to go screw themselves. It’s a low-budget flick that stars real people, people I could have been in school with back then, or lived beside, or gone down the disco with on a Saturday night (had I gone to a boys school in Dublin and been let out!)

The one actor I recognised, Aidan Gillan, (of Love/Hate, Game of Thrones, and The Wire fame), was disappointing and the least real of them all. But then, it wasn’t about him, I suppose. And movies don’t have to be real.

sing-street-b 2016-03-18_ent_17760407_i1The lead, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, is just 16, from Co. Wicklow. After the film was shown at Sundance, he and co-star Mark McKenna, performed live. [Any Northbrook heads reading: Isn’t McKenna the image of Jacko?] I saw him interviewed on the Late, Late Show [long-running Friday-night chat show in Ireland] and thought he was a tad full of himself. That was before I saw the movie. And in fairness, he has something to be full of himself for. A great performance. I swear Cosmo blushed when he got to kiss Raphina, played by British actress Lucy Boynton.

Lucy is 22. Ferdia is 16. In the movie, she’s 15, he’s 14. But there’s an argument that 14 in 1985 would be the equivalent of 18 today…still I struggled with it. That said though, she did well. A class act. Remember her from Miss Potter, where she played the young Beatrix? Me neither. But she’s one to watch.

It was the brother, Brendan, though, who made the film for me. Jack Reynor, another Wicklow man, was great, simply great. He had me bawling by the end.

singstreet3I liked the music, I liked the gear. I liked the Adam Ant make-up. Brilliant. To see the lads morph from dweebs into supercool, confident stars as the film goes is heartwarming.  It’s worth going just to see their wardrobes evolve. And I think even if you didn’t grow up in 1980s Ireland, you’d find a lot to like about it. It’s still playing in various cinemas in the city so catch it while you can (Art+, Művész, and Puskin). And it’s also available on iTunes. I’d happily see it again, with a pen, so I could note some of the lines and get the little details that I might well have missed. There’s a lot going on.

If you don’t believe me, Rotten Tomatoes gives it 97%

Critics Consensus: Sing Street is a feel-good musical with huge heart and irresistible optimism, and its charming cast and hummable tunes help to elevate its familiar plotting.

[An aside: In English with Hungarian subtitles, I was amused to see that the subtitlers didn’t have a word for golliwog and used néger (negro) instead. I ran across an interesting article on how the golliwog went from innocent children’s hero to a symbol of racial controversy. It started with Enid Blyton they say, and her characters in Noddy, who were the antithesis of what Florence Kate Upton had envisaged back in 1895 and the start of the rocky road to aspersion.]


P*&&*d off

I count. Obsessively. Steps. Station stops. Train carriages. Luggage coming off the carousel. Don’t know where it comes from, or why I do it. I just do it. Nothing to worry about.

But now I’ve gotten into timing. In fairness, I’m not timing everything. Just how long it takes my neighbour to pee.

For those of you not familiar with the structure of the old udvar flats (flats built around a courtyard) in Hungary, flats share ventilation shafts. It runs floor to rooftop and often sits between buildings (as in my case). Most of the rooms with windows facing the shaft are loos, bathrooms, offices and in my case, all three.

I keep the window open. And for years, life has been great. Okay, so a couple of years ago, during the summer (queue open windows) someone in the next building got a girlfriend/boyfriend and were at it day and night but the relationship was short-lived. It only lasted a couple of weeks. And I wasn’t timing things then.

But about three weeks ago, someone new moved next door, kitty corner across the shaft (a whole 3 meters window to window, if that). Oftentimes I can only hear him talking. Occasionally I get a glimmer that there might be a second person living there. I think he spends a lot of time on the phone or on Skype. He’s Asian. And man does he have a problem.

peeHe pees often, and for ages, with great sound effects that bounce around the shaft like a cat on speed. [His longest sigh of relief clocked in at 7.5 seconds.] I’ve been noting the times. Automatically. No clue why.  Perhaps I see a court appearance in the future when one of the old nénis (aunties) in the building has had enough and gets her nephew to sort him out.

Today, a relatively short pee culminated in a screaming kung-fu body grunt that sounded like AIYEEEE HUFU GANGEEEEEE, whatever that might mean. It’s maddening. Frustrating. And just a tad too personal for my liking. And because he’s in the building next door, I don’t even get to glare at him. I feel cheated. Maybe I could turn it around though, and record him, and then sell it to a website that collects such sound effects – yes, there is one.

When he has to sit on the loo, he takes his phone with him and scrolls through the ring tones, catches up on his videos, and laughs at the good of it all. At least that’s what I imagine he’s doing – I’m tempted to buy a mirror on a stick. [BTW his long sitting was 17.8 minutes.]

When I happened across the Bertrand Russell’s interview from 1959 that I mentioned in a previous post, I so wanted to take his moral advice to heart.

The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

I wonder though if he had any idea back then just how closely interconnected we would be. But I take his point. My ability to tolerate  my peeing neighbour is vital to the continuation of his life.