Lessons learned

Social media today has its share of videos looking back on 2016. In addition to the obvious detailing of the crap year it was in terms of the number of greats who shuffled off this mortal coil and in terms of national decisions with global consequences, other posts are detailing the good that happened. Child mortality is down, the number of tigers in the world is up.  Six million homes in California now have solar power, while in India, 50 million trees were planted in just 24 hours, and Portugal ran the country on renewable energy for four days in a row. The 800 Boko Harem hostages were released and a bank is picking up the tab for college tuition for the children of employees who died in 9/11.

The list goes on and on and there are plenty of lists out there. So it wasn’t all bad; we’re simply conditioned to focusing on the worst.

2017cLooking back on 2016, for me it was an instructive year. I learned some new things and was reminded of some lessons of old. And that’s always good.

I learned the importance of listening to my gut. If it feels right and won’t hurt anyone, go for it. Life is too short to dither.

I learned that voting doesn’t end when the ballot has been cast. A huge part of the process is accepting the right of the other side to have an opinion and realising that some people are so entrenched in their views that no amount of talking or reasoning will change how they think. Better to be an example of what you believe to be right. Goodness will out.  Don’t preach, show.

I’ve always known that the more I give, the more I get in return. But this year, I’ve realised that regular giving to those who do nothing but take creates a culture of expectation and dependency in them and unwanted resentment and frustration in me. It’s important to find the balance.

I’ve learned that constant negativity, something I once thought contagious, is now simply a pain in the proverbial. How we react to life is a choice.

I’ve learned that the secret to a good relationship lies in actively caring, in doing something nice for that person every day, every single day.

I’ve finally got the hang of the whole eat less/exercise more thing. Fad diets work – in the short-term. Long-term, it’s about changing habits.

I’ve learned that getting upset with people because they don’t behave as I expect them to behave is a waste of energy. If I can’t accept it, I can either adjust my expectations or see them less often.

I’ve learned that commutes are blessings in disguise as I rediscover the joys of driving and the music that goes with it.

I’ve learned that compromise isn’t nearly as painful as I’d thought. To get you have to give – something for something. Everything is negotiable if both parties are coming from a place where they want the best for the other person.

2017d

I’ve realised that without my faith in God, life would be a lot more difficult; without my eclectic set of friends, life would be a lot less fun; and without the dream of a better tomorrow, life would be a lot less meaningful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016 Grateful 1

As yet another year draws to a close, I find my reaction to 2016 summing itself up in three letters: WTF? Yes, I have a tendency to wish my life away at times and I’m working on valuing every day as it comes, but this is one year that I’ll be glad to see the back of. I’d been warned by some mystic or other that it would be a bad year for men – in that a lot of them would die. And they weren’t wrong there. I can’t speak for the figures but the number of famous lads who popped off the face of the Earth this year is a little staggering – Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen …. and the latest only the other day – Rick Parfitt. And we still have a week to go. Am glad I’m not male and famous.

It was a year of crazy decisions that will have consequences for years to come. Voters went a little mad methinks, revolting in their way against what they saw as the status quo. And while it would be a boring world indeed if we all agreed on everything, the foundations have been laid on which the future will be built – and right now, I can’t say I have a lot of faith in tomorrow.

Man’s inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds. Wars and atrocities continue unabated in Syria, Yemen, Israel, Palestine, the Philippines…. the value of human life seems to be spiraling downwards. Christmas shoppers in Berlin, concert-goers in Paris, a man in his 60s getting out of his car in Dublin – the last-day lottery. Personal safety is becoming thing of the past.

Homeless figures in Dublin are staggering. As they are in many other cities around the world. And this while buildings stand empty in the clutches of the receivers. If I had one wish for Christmas it would be that we’d have less of ‘We can’t do it because….’ and more of ‘We can do it, if….’ That would be some present for the world.

20161225_104221_resizedAnd speaking of presents, I got an amazing one this year from a very dear friend in California – a simple handmade paper star bearing the word, restoration. Naturally, there’s a story behind it, but there’s one ahead of it, too. This is the word that will guide me in 2017, a word that has already taken root inside me.

While the world was losing its marbles this year, my little world was tripping along rather nicely, thank you very much. It did a minor 180 degree spin with life taking on a momentum of its own. Quick decisions were made, the kind that have lasting consequences. I seem to have accumulated more material trappings (a house, a car, a hula hoop). And while I had thought I wanted travel and freedom and the excitement of never knowing where to next month,  I find myself craving the countryside, the quiet, the calm.

For the first time in living memory, I can think of somewhere I’d rather be this Christmas. The rather is marginal, mind you, but it’s there. I find myself reevaluating what I mean by home and where it is. Nancy Reagan said once that homes are really no more than the people who live in them. And while it’s really great to be back in Ireland, I’m looking forward to going home soon. Yes, it’s a home-in-the-making, but it’s one I’m extremely grateful for.  Who’d have thunk it, eh? Could I be growing up?

Nollaig shona agus athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

 

 

 

2016 Grateful 2

From posh cocktails on the Southside to garlic chips in an inner-city chipper – a night out in Dublin has it all. Especially if it’s with de wimmen – all frocked up.

20161215_175248_resizedAmbling up Dawson Street to meet the rest of de Wimmen at Peruke and Periwig, we stopped in at the Mansion House to see the live crib. Every morning, a farmer from north Dublin brings in a couple of sheep, a goat, and a donkey. He can’t believe that some kids in Dublin have never seen real animals up close and in person. The mind boggles. The grounds of the Mansion House, home to Dublin’s Lord Mayor, have been transformed into a winter wonderland. Perfect to set the mood.

In then to Peruke and Periwig, a rather posh stop-off on Dawson Street with three floors carefully kitted out to look like your great-grandmother’s living room, had your great-grandmother been part of the landed gentry of the day. They boast a very extensive cocktail menu with their original take on a lot of old classics. And they know their stuff. Last time we came to drink. This time we came to eat, too. And it was all rather lovely. We had three hours before our table was needed for the next shift so we couldn’t get too comfortable but a 6pm start meant we could still get mileage out of the sparkly tops.

As we paid the bill we talked about where to next. I mentioned an older old friend of ours whom we hadn’t seen since my birthday and said it would be good to catch up with him. A septuagenarian of regular habits, we knew he’d be in one of two pubs  – one in town, another in the ‘burbs – so we hopped it a taxi and went off in pursuit. The taxi driver was highly amused at the the thoughts of us moving from Dawson Street to Dorset Street but was happy enough to drive us around. He listened as we ran through various plays we’d seen and actors we liked and theatres we’d visited (which just happened to be the subject we landed on as he drove off) and told us we should do a vlog. YouTube, he said, would love us. We might even get more people going to the theatre and get ourselves free tickets.  He’d been highly entertained.

20161215_214917_resizedWe found our mate in what we all knew as Joxers but it’d been a while and it had now reverted to its original name – The Long Island. Another living room came to mind when I saw the altar-like effect in the back corner underneath the TV showing the darts. All a little mad. And while the boys in P&P had been full of information about their menu, the lads here were just full of chat. Service was great. And the banter was everything.

We stayed still those working the next day called a halt and when we ambled out on to the street to get a taxi, I was overcome by a craving for chips. And I wasn’t wanting for company. We descended on the local chippie – a Turkish place with one customer (from Transylvania) and a chap from Pakistan  behind the counter. The changing face of Ireland.

20161216_002739_resizedWe ordered two kebabs and garlic chips, which we devoured with far more gusto that we had the posh meal earlier at P&P, an irony that wasn’t lost on us. You can dress us up and take us out and we can do the posh restaurants and the fancy cocktails, but we get just as much pleasure from a few jars in the local followed by a bag of chips.

This week, I’m grateful that my world isn’t segmented, that I’m not boxed in. I’m grateful that I have the wherewithal to ratchet up or down depending on what the occasion requires. And I’m grateful, too, that I have the type of friends willing to ratchet with me.

 

 

My travel tree

Many, many moons ago, in an effort to cure myself of the habit of buying touristy tat when I travelled, I hit on the idea of a travel tree (along the lines of my travel bracelet). Before I can buy anything else, I have to buy a silver charm and a Christmas tree ornament (a challenge in non-Christian countries). The search for both usually uses up all of my shopping energy and takes care of that on-holiday-need-to-buy affliction that hits when the plane lands or the train draws into the station.

I’ve been doing this for years but have never gotten around to getting said Christmas tree, the thoughts of taking it down always a lot worse, on balance, that the idea of putting it up. The one year I seriously flitted with the idea, BZs showed up for breakfast sans car and put paid to that. The closest I’ve come is a white metal stand with hooks for ornaments that resembles a tree. But it doesn’t smell.

20161210_150212_resized20161210_150240_resized20161211_192443_resizedThis year, though, with visitors due mid-holiday and himself the antithesis of my do-I-have-to-be-happier-just-because-it’s-Christmas Scrooginess, we got a tree. A real, live tree (well, now dying but you get the gist). And it comes from our part of the countryside, too. I hadn’t realised that there are so many different kinds but thankfully, it was cold, I was in pain, I didn’t have time to dither. I picked the first one that spoke to me. A tad ungainly but it has character.

I dug out my boxes of ornaments, all carefully catalogued over the years, and began to relive my travels. I had to think on some of them, finding it hard to remember whom I was with and why I was there and what had taken me to Smithfield, Virginia in the first place. But as we dressed the tree and swapped stories, it came alive. Admittedly, thoughts of the hassle I was going to have repacking everything threatened to intrude and ruin the moment,  but I managed to get through it.

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20161213_163613_resized20161213_163802_resized20161213_163742_resizedlori-001-800x552One of my all time favourite ornaments though, was one I got when I was in San Francisco shortly after my bestie Lori died. That brought back a wealth of memories. The day after I got the news, I’d planted a tree in her name at an orphanage outside Budapest. It all seemed somewhat fitting. As I revisited the trips I’d taken and the places I’d been, I was at home with thoughts of friendship and travel – two of a long list of what I value in life.

Life changes – all the time. Things simply don’t stay the same. Managing that change and making the most of what we’re dealt is our challenge. Putting up a tree – that’s a start.

A silver lining in a feathered cloud

Walking down Teréz körút today, I noticed that it was trying to snow. It was bitterly cold. I’d just gotten off the tram and was heading to meet a friend for lunch. I was well wrapped in my designer-labelled, black, knee-length down jacket that I’d bought in the States earlier this year. It’s just about the only thing I own that has a label label, mind you. And it’s warm. I love it.

Anyway, tiny flakes of snow were falling from the sky. I was humming some Christmas song or other and really getting into the festive spirit – unusual for me. The snow kept coming. And then I looked again – a double-take. It seemed like the flakes were blowing horizontally from behind me – as if someone had a snowblower on the go. How odd, I thought. How very odd.

I walked some more and noticed that the flakes were getting  bigger. Much bigger. A particularly big one looked very much like a large feather. Before I had time to process the notion of flying feathers, I heard a familiar voice behind me.

Hey Mary, your coat’s been cut.

I turned, my brain taking a while to compute as it went through everything that could possibly have been lost in translation.

You look like a snowman!

I reached behind and felt my back, disturbing a mound of feathers that went flying. Yes – my coat had been cut. I took it off to see a ten-inch horizontal slash. I’d only been on the bloody tram two stops and had stood just inside the door, facing outwards.

20161214_164727_resizedMy mate popped into the discount store and bought some tape to stick me back together. All the while I was seething. I’ve never been a victim of car keying but I now know what it feels like. I wondered why – why would someone do this? If it was it deliberate, then why? It if was an accident, then why not fess up? I was rightly pissed off, I can tell you.

Some hours later, on calmer reflection, I realise that I’ve little to be worried about if that’s the extent of it. The coat is just a coat. I won’t be cold, or wet, or miserable without it. I won’t be homeless this Christmas, or hungry, or in fear for my life. I won’t lose my job. I won’t be dodging bombs or bullets. I won’t be living rough. I won’t be blackened with bruises or beaten senseless. And after this, I won’t be in danger of taking all this for granted.

The silver lining in the feathered cloud.

2016 Grateful 3

I’m gullible. I can be easily persuaded and often times find myself committing to stuff I really don’t want to do. Take last week, for instance. I had something to do and some place to go on Friday but I let myself be talked into going to a gig on A38 as well … for two reasons. (1) I’d never been and (2) my crush of 2016 was playing.

a38On the night, we ran around like the proverbial blue-arsed flies trying to do all we had to do and still make it to the ship at a reasonable hour. Yes, A38 is a boat, anchored by Petőfi híd, in the Danube.

On stage tbdhat night were the magnificent Braindogs. The collection formed to play a tribute night to Tom Waits back in 2004 and have been doing gigs together every so often ever since, and always on Tom Waits’s birthday. What a line up. London-based Soul-blues singer Ian Siegel (whom Tom Waits seemingly holds in very high regard, ranking him up as one of the best around); the brilliant Ripoff Raskolnikov from Graz (who some say could have been one of the greats worldwide had he had the ambition – now there’s a man who has mastered the meaning of ‘enough’); the ever-so gorgeous and talented Kiss Tibor from the Hungarian band Quimby and a regular with the Budapest Bár; Varga Livius, who also plays with Quimby; the mad pianist Nagy Szabolcs; and of course, my man Frenk, who this time left down his guitar and took up his drumsticks – so talented that man, so talented. It was a great night, despite my misgivings. And to think that I’d nearly cried off and given my ticket away. What I’d have missed!

A little into the gig, the penny dropped. We had tickets to another gig on Sunday night at Muzikum Klub to see a blues guy I’d never heard of (no surprise there, given how musically illiterate I am) – and it turns out that it was the very same Ian Siegel.

1060Word has it that had Siegel been born into a different generation and been gigging in the 60s, we’d be talking about him in the same breath as Van the Man and Joe Cocker. But the 70s were his playground.  Two years after he was asked unexpectedly to sing with this cousin’s band one night (he was a roadie with them at the age of 16) he picked up a guitar.  He was bitten. After  dropping out of art school and busking in Berlin, he started doing the circuit. His was a slow burner. Opening for Bill Wyman in 2003 finally got him the attention he deserved. He toured with Muddy Waters’s son Big Bill Morganfield and finally made it to the states in 2006 after topping the Soul/Blues/Jazz charts in Holland the previous year.

Of all the gigs he’s played, it was his guest appearance with 92-year-old jazz pianist Pinetop Perkins and some of the other remaining members of Muddy Waters’s band at London’s Jazz Café in 2005 that stands out. Later, at a festival in Norway, the boys returned the favour and joined him, unplanned, on stage. That I’d have loved to see.

This week, I’m grateful for the music – again. Last weekend it was Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and Bártok. This weekend it was The Braindogs, and Ian Siegal. You can’t say I’m not doing my homework. I’m grateful, too, that it’s all so affordable, so plentiful, and so much fun.

And, as an early resolution for 2017, I’m going to continue experimenting and call on my music-heads in Budapest (you know who you are) to keep me posted on stuff I might find interesting.

PS Ripoff Raskolnikov plays Muzikum on 22 December and I’m RAGING I’m missing it

 

The gift of music

I’m easily confused. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers or anyone who knows me. But in my defence, I try hard to replace that confusion with a modicum of certainty, if possible. If not, I simple give up and relax into the confusion. Life is short.

My latest effort to make sense of things involves orchestras. Chamber, philharmonic, symphony, festival, all words that go in the same descriptive phrase, but is there a difference, and if so, what is it?

Apparently, and I’m open to correction here, orchestras are ensembles of musicians that feature stringed instruments. Chamber orchestras are smaller, with fewer than 50 musicians, all of which may or may not be strings. They tend, as the name suggests, to play chamber music. Think Vivaldi, perhaps, and Mozart.  Symphony orchestras can have up to 100 musicians so they’re like the big sister. If there’s enough musicians and instruments to play a symphony (think brass, percussion, strings, and woodwind), you have a symphony orchestra. Beethoven immediately comes to mind.

Philharmonic orchestras are pretty much the same as symphony orchestras, both in their make-up and in what they play. From what I gather, the term is used to distinguish multiple orchestras in cities that are culturally big enough to support two major ensembles.  [Mind you, I see that London has five major orchestras and Tokyo seven!]

Here in Budapest, we have many orchestras. The two major ones are the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As I understand, a festival orchestra is a symphony orchestra by another name. And it was to the BFO that I was drawn last weekend.

6xx4525-270x270I’d heard tell of Iván Fischer, founder and conductor of the BFO. I’d read about the altercations over funding during the summer. And I’d been pretty impressed with stories of the BFO being the people’s orchestra. Classical musical is often perceived as the purview of the rich and cultured, those a rung or three higher up the social ladder. But Fischer and his orchestra are doing their damnedest to make sure that everyone gets to enjoy the music.

They regularly give free concerts around the country, playing in nursing homes, churches, abandoned synagogues, and child-care institutions. In addition to their autism-friendly Cocoa Concerts for younger kids and their Choose Your Instrument programme for primary-school children, their Midnight Music series is attracting lots of teens and young adults. The BFO doesn’t wait for people to come see them, they take their music to the people.

The orchestra has come a long way since it gave its first concert on 26 December 1983. In a matter of 33 short years, it made the list of Top 10 orchestras in the world with a multi-awarded international reputation. I simply had to see it for myself.

bfpThe programme meant nothing to me. To my uneducated eye, it was simply a musical sandwich of Schubert and Bartók. Anyway, I was more interested in seeing Fischer in action and getting a peek at the renovated Liszt Ferenc Music Academy. But what a treat it was.

We had two surprises. Before the official programme began, the orchestra played Bartók’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3. But search though I might, I couldn’t see anyone playing the piano. It turned out that this was a piece dedicated to the late Zoltan Kocsis, co-founder of the BFO. And the piano we heard was a recording of him playing. He was there in spirit. Just as we thought the programme was finished, the orchestra swapped their instruments for song sheets and treated us to their rendition of Schubert’s Sound of Angels.

Christmas is coming. If you want to give someone a gift that will last a lifetime, a memory that can be replayed again and again, what about tickets to a 2017 BFO concert? And yes, if you’re asking, that’s what I’d like.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 December 2016

2016 Grateful 4

Sometimes, life gets a little overwhelming. Twenty-four-hour days aren’t nearly long enough to do everything that needs to get done. And when my to-do list spirals out of control and spills over onto a third page, I have a tendency to sing my theme tune more often than usual.

Until this past weekend, I didn’t even know I had a theme tune, an utterance that has been popping out of my mouth with little bidding for years, usually when things are in danger of getting on top of me. Mine is simple – it goes something like this: oi, oi, oi-oi-oi. The inflection and the tone might vary but the words never change.

During the week, I took myself off to Kuplung (a great little venue on Király utca) to see Frenk – a Hungarian singer I’m particularly fond of. I first saw him play with Budapest Bár at Sziget a few years ago and have been a fan ever since.

One of my favourites of his is a duet he does  – Where the Wild Roses Grow – it’s guaranteed to improve my mood, no matter what state things are in. But the song on his playlist that is a tonic for all my woes is his version of Iggy Pop’s Tonight.

And it would seem that his mood determines how he sings it, too. I like it best when it’s just him and his guitar. There’s not much to the lyrics but there’s a verse that resonates and speaks of a quiet that is all too elusive.

No one moves
No one talks
No one thinks
No one walks, Tonight

There’s lots to be grateful for in Budapest – and one that ranks up there is the sheer variety of things to do in the city. On any given night of the week, there’s someone (many someones) singing or playing music somewhere. The gigs are affordable (often free) and can be found in all sorts of weird and wonderful places. Last week, too, I finally got to see Tchaikovsky’s Nutcraker at the Opera House and for the first time heard Bartók Béla performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra in the fabulously restored Lizst Ferenc Music Academy.

Wasn’t it Plato who said music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul? No matter – I had a mad week last week and this coming one looks even worse. The few hours I spent in good company with great music were restorative… and Lord knows, I’m in need of restoration.

 

Taste among the tat

Walking through the city in late October, I spotted my first Christmas tree. I tried to block it out, to pretend it wasn’t there. But the minute November arrived, there were too many to ignore. Even the city’s Christmas Markets seem to be ahead of schedule this year – didn’t they usually open the first weekend of Advent or am I losing my mind completely? Whatever happened to saving Christmas till December? Why are we in such a rush to make it all happen?

It’s getting increasingly difficult to field the effects of global consumerism. While Americans might save Christmas until they’ve dealt with Thanksgiving, their retail habits have made it across the pond. This year we had Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two traditional mammoth shopping days that I’ve always associated with America. Perhaps I missed something, but it seems that this is the first year I’ve seen such sales in Hungary. I could be mistaken though. Anyway, I shouldn’t as upset as I am at the tide of consumerism that is sweeping my corner of the world. But it saddens me.

And if fast-forwarding the Christmas spend and adopting US retail sale practices weren’t bad enough, we’re also drowning in a sea of cheap oriental tat. Try finding a decoration or a piece of garland that hasn’t been made in China – there’s a challenge. Consumerism has married sameness and the couple are thriving.

In search for something a little different this Christmas, I revisited Arioso at Király utca 9. What began as a flower shop back in 2002 has expanded to include a café and a gift and home décor range that embodies good taste.

b5Swiss couple Katja Schläfli and Martin Aeschlimann came to Budapest back in 2000 to visit some friends. They noticed the plethora of florists in the city and rightly understood how much Hungarians love their flowers. Back then, Swiss knowledge of the region stopped short at Vienna so Budapest wasn’t on anyone’s radar. They liked what they saw and decided to open a Swiss-style florist on Király utca. They chucked in their jobs and moved east, knowing just four people and nothing of the language or what was in store.

b4Even with both having a background in the business, it took time to find the right suppliers, to build up relationships with them, to develop a client list, and to gain people’s trust. They quietly went about the business of producing floral works of art and slowly word-of-mouth endorsements began to pay off. Today, with more than 25 trained staff on board, they’re responsible for the floral creations in places like the Four Seasons and the Kempinksi, where they’ve just opened a small gift shop.

When they opened on Király in 2002, the majority of their clients were foreigners. Today, 80 per cent are Hungarian, testament indeed to how much of an inroad they’ve made in the market. Their workshops are in demand and their interior design advice much sought-after.

b2Back in 2011, they opened a café (and in summer, a lovely courtyard), giving people extra time to enjoy the atmosphere that is exclusively Arioso. They serve their coffee accompanied by a flower. A lovely touch, an attention to detail that you quickly come to expect from the pair whose philosophy is very much entwined with beauty and quality. They don’t simply sell flowers and home accessories from Holland, Sweden, Iceland, and Germany – they sell feelings. And if I had to choose one word to describe their offer, it would be elegant.

A second shop followed in MOM Park to cater for clients on the Buda side and, with a web shop offering the convenience of online shopping, Arioso definitely caters to consumer needs while eschewing the sameness too often found elsewhere. Their Christmas range is just in and worth checking out. www.arioso.hu

First published in the Budapest Times 2 December 2016