2017 Grateful 48

Another week over with me sitting here on a Monday evening wondering where it all went to. It’s the end of January already. And it’s been a mad opening to what promises to be a mental year.

There is so much to be grateful for after the full week I had last week and there’s more to come on that when I get my head around it all. But for now, after a long, long series of disbelieving cries and loud exclamations of incredulity, I am ever so grateful to MK for drawing my attention to Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator speech, one apparently he penned himself. It’s a timely reminder of what we should be striving towards: a world of reason.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. …..

Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Final speech from The Great Dictator Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. All rights reserved

 

2017 Grateful 49

While out on Friday night, a Hungarian friend mentioned that the Monk of the Gulag had died earlier this week (January 15th), aged 100. As I’d never heard of him, I asked her to tell me some more.

He was born Károly (Charles) Olofsson on 23 December 1916 in Rákosszentmihály  in Budapest’s XVIth district. When he was 16, he entered the Benedictine Order and when ordained, took the name Placid. He studied in Pannonhalma and later in Munich. During WWII, he served his time as a military chaplain and spent some time at Komárom, in the military hospital there. During his 11-month term there, he was demoted for speaking out from the pulpit against officers’ mistreatment of enlisted men. After the army, he went back to school, this time to head one in Budapest. His post-war activism drew some media (and other, unwanted) attention and to remove him from the public eye, the outspoken priest was called back to the Abbey in Pannonhalma, where he was arrested in June of 1946 by the ÁVH, Hungary’s then Secret Police.  

Despite their best efforts, they failed to extract a confession from him but this didn’t stop them. [1946/2016 – have we come any further at all?] Fr Placid was sentenced to 10 years in a Gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges.  He served his time in a camp about 900 km outside Moscow, not allowed contact with friends or family outside until  his final year when he could legally send a postcard.

In 1955, Fr Placid was allowed to return to Hungary but forbidden to teach or work as a priest. What ministering he did was done in secret. He spent his time variously as a factory worker making boxes in Pesterzsebet, as an ambulance driver at the at the Országos Reumatológiai és Fizioterápiás Intézetben (National Institute of Rheumatology and Physiotherapy), and later as a laundry worker.  Finally, in 1977, he went back to being a priest as auxiliary chaplain of the Cistercian parish of St Emeric.  [An aside: In Cleveland, OH, USA, a church by the same name offers mass in Hungarian – it was founded in 1904 to minister to the many Hungarians in the city – who’d have thought eh?]

My friend told me of the four rules that Fr Placid had shared, his secret to surviving the Gulag. He once apparently joked that for ten years, the Soviet Union had tried to destroy him, but that he had the last laugh as he survived and it didn’t, thus proving that God has a sense of humour. In the Gulag, he said he found his true vocation – not to teach but to keep the souls of the prisoners alive. The Soviet Union taught him how to live, he said. And these are his rules for living: (in translation)

  1. Don’t dramatise suffering because it makes you weaker.
  2. Recognize and consciously look for the little joys of life.
  3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are.
  4. Hang on to God. With His help, you can survive every hell on Earth.

When he turned 100 last year, Fr Placid described himself as a ‘simple man of average abilities’. And this simple man has been lauded with just about every award the country has to offer from the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary to being one of four people to hold the Hungarian Order of Honor. He survived against the odds, with spirit and in faith.

And today, when the future is looking bleak and tantrums are being thrown, it is the likes of Fr Placid to whom I’ll turn when I need an example of humility, strength, justice, courage, and empowerment… all the qualities great men need to inspire and to lead. RIP, Fr Placid. RIP.

Thank you, my friend, for sharing. I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid Olofsson, the Benedictine monk who was imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag from 1946 to 1955, passed away yesterday evening.


In a book published on his 100th birthday, Father Placid described his life in the following terms:

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 rules of surviving GULAG: 1. Don’t dramatise suffer because it makes you weaker. 2. Recognize little joys of life. 3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are. 4. Hang on to God. With his help you can survive every hell on earth.

Repriza

My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first trip to Subotica (Szabadka), just over the Hungarian-Serbian border. Since then, over many more trips, including a memorable first time in Belgrade, I’ve come to realise that Serbia and its people are one of a kind. Perhaps their history has taught them the value of living for today because without exception, every Serb I’ve met to date has an unparalleled appreciation for life.

While the rest of the world’s partiers spend New Year’s Day nursing a headache, feeling none too happy with life, and making all sorts of resolutions to behave over the course of the coming year, Serbians head out for Repriza (reprise). A do-over. A replay. And this I had to see.

Six of us convened in Subotica to acknowledge the start of the Serbian New Year last weekend and to celebrate two birthdays. The fact that I’m writing this a week later says it all; it’s taken me this long to recover. Six of us, from six nations, sat around a table in Jelen Salaš, a farmstead just 1 km from Palić lake. We brought to the table a mix of traditions from Serbia, Wales, Hungary, the USA, Romania, and Ireland. We switched between three languages and over the course of 12 hours, did our bit to store up good memories to get us through the week ahead. Thoughts of Trump as President were quickly decanted and sights were set on the now. [No coincidence, perhaps, that Jelen is Hungarian for the present.]

The platters of food – a meat lover’s fest – seemed endless. The musicians were in fine form. And everyone in the room was up for dancing. It was a riot. The wine and the šljivovica flowed, as did the conversation and the laughs. The waiters became part of the party. Cries of Mammia Mia! mixed with Oh, yeah! punctuated the night as the mood got better and better (and it had been great to begin with).

What struck me most was the hospitality shown, the size of the welcome, and the readiness to simply sit back and enjoy. Serbians, and their neighbours, have a respect for music and musicians that I’ve not seen anywhere else. I first encountered it in Belgrade and then later, in Sarajevo. It’s humbling.

For 12 hours it went on. And we hung in there till the end. It was a long train journey back to Budapest, but we lived to tell the tale. If memory serves me correctly, now that we’ve been broken in, as such, we plan on doing the real thing in Serbia next year. But even were I to start training now, I have serious doubts about my ability to do both NYE and Repriza. I haven’t an ounce of Balkan blood in me, and it shows.

The proof is in the passion

For me, wine falls in to the same category as music and art:  I know what I like and what I don’t like. I have friends who delight in wine, who have made it their business to educate themselves about the various grapes and vintages. They speak knowingly about bouquets and noses using words and phrases that turn their English into a language I neither recognise nor understand. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I think them quite pretentious. But that says far more about me than it does about them; I’m well versed in my own limitations.

That said, I like my wine. I like discovering new wineries. And I like to know what its story is, what makes it special. But I’d given up on wine tastings. I don’t like being patronised or preached to and when pretentiousness comes with a price and little or no time to really savour the wine, I’m not impressed. I don’t need to know the technicalities and I have no great desire to learn the language. I just want a few good stories accompanied by some interesting wines in comfortable surroundings.

A few weeks ago, in search of a new Siller (that Hungarian lovely that is darker than a rosé but not dark enough to be a red), I ambled into VinoPiano Bor & Tapas Bár, part of the Élesztőház offer at Tűzoltó utca 22 in Budapest’s IXth district. Their sommelier, the very unassuming Kiss Ferenc, had told me that he was expecting some new bottles and I went to sample. Having introduced me to three new wineries, two new Siller, and a very interesting Olaszreisling that I’ve been wowing friends with since, I decided that he was a man I could listen to.

We were expecting family for the New Year, most of whom had never been to Hungary before, so I booked a wine tasting for 3pm on the 29th of December. There would be 11 of us. I was promised six wines, tapas, and some good stories. Kiss delivered in spades.

VinoPiano is noted for only stocking natural wines. I was a little disconcerted to hear that 90-95% of wines contain a variety of the 3000 or so legal chemicals used in modern-day viniculture. I’m an avid label reader but apparently these legal chemical don’t have to be disclosed. Mmmmm….

With the general introduction to winemaking in Hungary over, Kiss took us on a tour of the country. He’d taken my request to heart and produced only what I would call ‘interesting’ wines. He peppered his educational talk with anecdotes and trivia from the country’s wine history, going with the flow and taking his cue from the volume of talk around the table.

The first wine on the card was a 2008 white from Lenkey Pincészet in Mád. That year, they managed to produce 3216 bottles instead of around 15 000 because of a very aggressive mildew. This white, aptly named Túlélő (survivor) was one of them; a dry Furmint-Hárslevelű-Muskotály blend that we liked.

Next, we visited Somló, the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, comprising just 560 hectares. We went to Sághegy, to sample the notable 2011 Sághegyi Olaszrizling from Dénes Tibor whose 2.5-hectare vineyard uses minimum technology to deliver the ultimate in craft wine-making. For a reason I can’t quite remember, we all came away calling this wine ‘rock juice’. And we loved it. So much so that I bought some to take with us. A little gem.

From the volcanic hills, we moved to the Mátra, to Gyöngyöspata and the Kékhegy Pince, another small vineyard producing some 600 bottles annually that walks the minimal-interference walk by making the most of opportunities provided by nature.  I’m a Siller fan and had made a special request to include one in the tasting. The 2015 Piroska is now a firm fixture on my list of recommendations. And even though the company I was in might have preferred the reds, they were suitably impressed with their formal introduction to Siller.

And so to the reds, where I generally lose interest. I had a bad accident with a bottle of port back in my Alaska days, the memory of which is still very vivid. So vivid that even sitting within sniffing distance of an open packet of wine gums is enough to bring them flooding back. My challenge to Kiss was to introduce me to a red that I could drink.

His first choice, a 2014 Turán from Nyolcas és Fia in Eger, didn’t do anything for me, but I was alone in my lack of appreciation. The others were drooling over the dark purple, late-harvest offering.

Determined to convert me, Kiss opened a 2013 Kadarka from Szekszárd’s Halmosi Pincészet. Hungary’s most popular grape in the nineteenth century, the kadarka is enjoying a revival of late. The thin skin means less colour and less tannin, both of which suited me fine, thank you very much. I was suitably impressed – as was everyone else. Kiss took his well-deserved bow; his job was done. And again, Halmosi József, like the other viticulturalists featured, believes in working with nature. Tradition for him is not a trend to be followed, but a core belief that influences everything he does. Another to take home.

Staying in Szekszárd, our final wine of the afternoon was a 2009 Kékfrankos from former electrical-engineer-turned-award-winning viticulturalist, Dániel Zsolt from Dániel Pince. The others raved. I went back to my Siller.

It was a convivial, relaxed, afternoon in a very unpretentious setting. The tapas – breads, cheeses, olives, meats – were plentiful. The wines were excellent. But more remarkable was the man himself, Kiss Ferenc. Young, enthusiastic, and passionate about his profession, Kiss left us with an appreciation for natural wines and a taste for small vineyards devoted to their craft. If, as US founding father Benjamin Franklin* supposedly said, wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy, Kiss made believers of us all.

First published in the Budapest Times January 2017

*Post updated to reflect that Ben Franklin was a founding father and not a US President as originally stated. My bad.

2017 Grateful 50

In trying to find a word to describe a friend of mine recently, I had occasion to Google the term ‘giving people’. And once I’d stopped trying to remember how I’d found similar information before Google, I started to think. Three things struck me from a list of 10 things that supposedly characterise a ‘giving person’ and what they give to the rest of us. [All are relevant but these struck me as particularly pertinent.]

The gift of requesting help: Requesting help is is a difficult one. It’s something I’ve had to learn myself. It not easy because somewhere buried inside all our insecurities is that irritating voice that tells us that asking for help is a sign of weakness, of failure. But if we view it not as helping ourselves but as giving others the chance to help us, it takes on a different appearance. Giving people know when and how to ask for help.

The gift of opportunity: Our rhetoric is full of if onlys. I could spend the better part of a day listing mine: If only I spoke Hungarian, I’d apply to go on study tours. If only I had time, I’d spend two hours a day learning the one language I need. If only I had an ear for music, I’d be able to better pronounce my letters. For many with a community spirit, the if onlys could also include ‘if only I had the opportunity, I’d volunteer to do something good, to give something back, to help make someone else’s lot a little easier.’ Giving people do this – they create an opportunity for the rest of us to give something back.

The gift of purpose: In a world where insecurity is rife, change is a constant, and lunacy prevails, it anchors us when we have purpose, some clear, solid goal which we can work towards alongside others also intent on making our corner of the world just a little better than it was yesterday. Giving people give the gift of purpose.

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Just when I thought that my mate Zsuzsa Bozo had topped it all with the soup kitchen/feed the homeless drive she and her gang have been working tirelessly on, a wonderful initiative that the Caley and Age of Hope are facilitating, she goes and takes it one step further.

The cold weather is going to be around for a while and warm coats are needed. The Caledonia has joined the Free Coat initiative. It’s simple. If you have coats you’ve grown out of, don’t like, don’t want, are not wearing and they’re warm… hang them up on the coat-rack outside the Caley where those who have a greater need can come pick them up (and remember to bring a hanger, too). And if you don’t have coats that are warm and suitable but you still want to help, why not swing by any one of the many many many secondhand-clothes shops in the city and buy a couple. Then drop them by the Caley, and while you’re there, stick your head in the kitchen to see if help is needed to peel those veg. The soup drive continues all this week and ingredients are needed.

This week, I’m adding my thanks to those of the hundreds of homeless who are grateful for the soup and sustenance delivered through the good auspices of Zsuzsa and Ákos. Without their provision of an opportunity and a purpose and without their ask for help, the rest of us might well still be mired in a sea of if onlys. They are two truly giving people.

Zsuzsa shared this story with me, a story that has done its bit to restore my faith in human nature. I hope she won’t mind me passing it on:

I left the Caledonia, distributing the soups with Ákos and Gergő. Once we finished, I got out of the van, said happily goodbye to both of them, not realizing that I had no money or no metro pass with me. So I was there , out in Határ Ut, at the metro underground, thinking how I could get back… I spoke to the people of the street there (homeless). One old man went and came back, holding a ticket, he just bought. For me… that’s all he had.

Yep, you reap what you sow.

 

Reluctant to leave

After a number of years of living in rural Alaska, I began to hanker for the city smoke. The bustle. The arts. The restaurants. I didn’t want to have to wait until the annual theatre festival – I wanted drama, year round. Not the personal kind; the staged kind. I loved living in Valdez. My commute was  spectacular. The mountains seemed to rise out of the water on those days they weren’t completely hidden by cloud. I liked the small-town feel of it all, that everyone knew everyone. But after 9/11, I felt the walls close in a little and I needed to go home.

I swapped rural Alaska for semi-rural Ireland to ease myself back into it all before heading to London – the big city. I traded community for anonymity and I loved it, too. For a time. But then the city got too much and I downsized – to Oxford. Still within a relatively easy commute of the city but straddling the fence between the modern metropolis of London and the wizened, oldie-worldliness of Woodstock, it was great while it lasted. Circumstance moved me further South East and after two years of living in an earthly rendition of God’s waiting room, I was back to hankering for city lights that didn’t go out at 8pm. And so to Budapest.

I love it. And if anything, I love it more now than I did, say, last year. Because now I don’t have to get on a plane to leave it. I have the best of both worlds, splitting my time between the city and the countryside and two more different lives I can’t imagine.The country me favours fleece cotton pj bottoms and an old sweatshirt. She potters from desk to kitchen table to sofa depending on the mood. Nights are spent watching boxsets or reading. Days are spent working or exploring. Phone calls are a rarity and visitors are few. It’s a little piece of heaven.

Balatonmagyaród sits on the southern end of the Kis-Balaton, a few miles off the M7. From what I can find, the first time it appeared on any records was in 1308… so it’s old. Back then, villages were owned by families and in the late fifteenth century, it was the Báthory’s turn. Some time around 1540 it was destroyed (by the Turks perhaps?) and again around 1680, when the Germans and Croats passed through and burned it down.

In 1696 Széchényi György took over and pretty soon, despite the odds, the place was flourishing. By 1739, there was a church. By the 1800s, several noble families had taken up residence and by the mid-1800s, 752 people called it home. Fast forward to the 1920 when the lake was drained to reclaim some agricultural land and this is where it gets hazy for me. From what I gather, this wasn’t altogether successful; so much so that in 1985 (I think), the lake was flooded again. The marshes returned, the birds came back, and it’s now a conservation area, famous for its bird life and the Great Crested Grebe, in particular.  The walk around Kányavári sziget, an island in the lake accessible by a rather spectacular wooden bridge, is a lovely way to spend a couple of hours, enjoying the birds and watching the fishermen watch the fish. 

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It took me a number of years to get my head around the fact that the Balaton doesn’t stand upright on the map but rather drapes itself as if on a chaise longue. And now I discover that the Kis-Balaton appears to be not one but two lakes. I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag.

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Anyway, yesterday evening, just after sunset, I watch hundreds of greylag geese come home. They flew in formation back to the lake for the night, having spent the day God only knows where. It was quite spectacular. The noise was deafening. I would have thought they’d be long gone by now, particularly as the lake is quite frozen. But they’re sticking around and, from what I read, these overwinters are not that unusual but they’re just a fraction of the whole population. The lake is about 400 m from the house but these guys may as well be living next door. If only I could speak goose.

I’m happy to swap the police sirens for gaggles of geese. I’m even happier to swap the post-midnight street arguments about where to go next for gentler, more rhythmic bird calls. And like the greylag geese, when it comes time to go, I’m reluctant to leave. But Serbia calls…

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Shutting up

westI’ve been overdosing on West Wing, the old TV series starring Martin Sheen as President of America that ran from 1999 to 2006. The writing is clever, the dialogue witty, the characters eminently likeable. I’m addicted. We can go through anywhere from 4 to 7 episodes a night. Two episodes into series 2 and it’s not lost on me what perfect timing this viewing is. I look at Jed Bartlet and I look at the soon-to-be US President, and three words come to mind: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. And no, I’m not an idiot. I know that Jed Bartlet is a fictional character born of the pen of Aaron Sorkin. I haven’t lost the plot completely. And I know that the staff he has surrounded himself with, those who serve at the pleasure of the President, play a huge role in keeping this fictional America straight. And the more episodes I watch, the more I despair at what January 20th will bring.

During the week, I reposted a video by GQ on Facebook – I didn’t know the chap speaking but I could identify with his message. He spoke not of policies or mandates or great plans – but of the man himself. He showed tweets penned by DT that begged the question – Is this guy really all there?  I doubt there’s a writer in Hollywood who could come up with a presidential character quite like him and expect the series to be a success.

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I had two messages of note in reaction to my post. One pointed out there’s nothing that can be said that will change people’s minds. Like abortion and blood sports, both democrats and republicans have come down hard on one side and are intractable. My friend said that posting such videos would just lose me friends. And,  when I checked, they were right. I’m not nearly as popular on FB as I was pre-DT.  Ah well.

Another friend pointed out that the chap in the view was a ‘sports commenter and failed political commenter from a network that can not generate enough viewership to keep him in his time slot,’ branding him ‘an extremist on the liberal side of American politics’.  In public speaking, this is known as ad hominem  – an argument/reaction directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining. But then, so was the GQ piece, although it was clearly positioned as such, perhaps for lack of a position to attack? Yep – intractable.

Anyway, I’ve decided that as my tuppence ha’penny isn’t going to sway public opinion, I will watch the unfolding drama with an interest born in fiction. I can’t think of it as anything else and find myself seeing the whole thing as a plot line, wondering which way it will go. And in an effort to compare like with like, I will use Jed Bartlet as my yardstick, because comparing DT to Barack Obama would be like comparing oranges and apples. [A shout-out to my US friends who are feeling the pain – thoughts and prayers with you as you battle to  make sense of it all.]

And, in the meantime, while the world continues to go off kilter, I will concentrate on what’s going on closer to home. While I’ve been down the country with my geese, Zsuzsa and the crew at the Caledonia and Ákos and his team at Age of Hope have been busy doing stuff that matters. Another 300 portions of soup have made it to the homeless. Ingredients are coming in. And people are turning up with their potato peelers to help out. Tomorrow, Friday, at 2pm, more help is needed to prep for the weekend. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work, drop by and help out. This is a time when you can really make a difference to the lives of others.

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2017 Grateful 51

You don’t have to look very far on Facebook and other social media to see people’s reaction to the current cold front that is sweeping Europe. It’s bloody freezing. Perishing. Mind-numbingly cold. And for those of us who have homes to go to, we can bitch and moan to our hearts’ content knowing that our discomfort is temporary. Fleeting, even. We can even opt to stay at home and not stir outside until the weather starts cooperating. But for hundreds if not thousands of others in cities like Budapest, life is a tad different.

They have no homes to go to. And perhaps for some who do, they’re faced with the heat or eat dilemma. Money is tight and people have to make decisions based on need. One homeless activist told of how he personally had taken ten dead people from their homes last winter – they’d died of hyperthermia, in situ, having chosen to eat.

There’s been a homeless chap camped under an archway on our street for the last few months. I’ve never seen him drunk or belligerent. He keeps his stuff tidy. And he always looks neat and relatively clean. He can leave his stash and it’s left undisturbed. No one bothers him. He seems to hold himself apart. When we’ve had occasion to interact, he is pleasant and sweet. A nice lad who could be anything from late 30s to early 50s. It’s difficult to tell.

When the cold spell hit, we were worried as he was showing no move to go to a shelter. We talked of inviting him home but this brought up a litany of concerns mostly stemming from the fact that our Hungarian and his English were nowhere close to facilitating a conversation that didn’t run the risk of being misunderstood. What if he was mentally unstable? What if he threw a fit? What if he was allergic to nuts? What if, what if, what if…

But the biggest what if was what if he died during the night and we had done nothing? In the UK you can call a number to report where someone homeless is camping out so that those working to help can come and do their thing. We rang a Hungarian friend to see if there was a  local equivalent. When we explained what was going on, she offered to come with us to talk to him and see what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to go to a shelter, even though one locally would have taken him in. He was adamant. It was dangerous in there. He preferred to take his chances on the street. He was working down on Mester utca during the day so only needed to get through the night. He could slip the night watchman a few forints and he’d let him sleep inside the building he was camped outside. We bought him dinner; she gave him money, and the next day he was alive. That was Thursday.

On Friday, as I was walking by, two policemen were talking to him. From what I could gather without loitering with intent, it seemed that he was still refusing to go a shelter. When they’d gone, I went back and slipped him some money for his bribe, feeling his hands to make sure he was warm. An hour later, a visiting friend told me she’d seen the cops there and she’d thought he had died. But I think they made him go inside, because he was back the next morning.

Respecting his right to decide, we brought him food and blankets to make the decision a little easier, and added money to facilitate his choice. Our conversation is always pleasant and he seems quite okay. But around the city, in the underpasses, other homeless are not coping as well. Cheap booze is fueling what often seems like a death wish. It’s hard to watch.

Budapest Bike Mafia and other activist groups are collecting blankets and food donations to distribute around the city. And when one of the city’s most socially conscious pub – The Caledonia – stepped up to help, we didn’t need to be asked twice. On Sunday morning, we went shopping for ingredients to make 200 portions of goulash soup to be distributed throughout Sunday night and 200 portions of a healthy tomato soup for Monday. We retired to The Caledonia and sliced and diced and cooked it all up. Kilos and kilos of fresh veg and meat. It was distributed that evening by volunteers from the Age of Hope Foundation who stepped in to help out those from Menedèk. Job done. Conscience appeased. And it felt good, damn good, to do something constructive. Giving money is easy, but when it comes to getting bang for your buck, using the money you could donate to buy ingredients and then help prep and cook is far more rewarding.

caleAkós from Age of Hope has said that they’d be happy to distribute more this week, if there is food to distribute. The shopping list, when it comes to feeding 400, is expensive. So we thought – why not ask others to contribute… and to help. Chopping onions, when done in volume, is a Zen-like experience. Ditto for peeling carrots. It can be very meditative.

What’s needed:

  • Onions
  • Celeraic
  • Fresh paprikas (the TV sort, I think they call them)
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes (fresh and tinned)
  • Garlic
  • Gulyas meat
  • Paper bowls/cups for hot soup with lids (Metro has them :-))

You can drop off all donations to the Caledonia, Budapest, Mozsár u. 9, 1066. They’re open from 2pm. And sure when you’re there, stay and have a drink and chop some veg. Restorative therapy has never been so cheap. You can make a difference. I am grateful to have had the experience. Thanks to Zsuzsa & Co. for making it happen.

Tip – Suck on a teaspoon while you’re chopping the onions and you won’t cry. It works.

 

Notes from my Kindle

I have become unbelievably attached to my kindle. I never leave home without it. If I forget my phone, I can live with it. If I forget my kindle, I have to go back. Who’d have thunk it, eh? I was a committed anti-ebook reader just a few short years ago when I found myself in Boston, Mass., with an urge to spend some money and seeing nothing that I either wanted or needed. We were in an electronic store and there were kindles and ereaders aplenty. And I gave in.

When I finally got around to using it for the first time, I was hooked. It’s not simply that I now have extra space in my suitcase when travelling. It’s not just that I don’t have to worry about extra weight in my check-in bags. It’s not even that I can immediately buy the next book in the series I’m reading without having to wait until I find a shop that stocks it. It’s the notes function.

I’m getting more mileage that ever before from the books I’ve been reading. I highlight sentences or whole paragraphs that grab me and email them to myself. I make note of references within the book itself – music that the characters really like, poems they’ve read, or books they swear by. And I go in search.

Given that I’ve made 2017 my year to do more about sharpening my musical literacy, I noted this:

"Radio 3 were playing The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh by Rimsky-Korsakov – good head-clearing music if you’re ever looking for some." (from "In the Morning I'll be Gone (Detective Sean Duffy Book 3)" by Adrian McKinty)

As our Sean is a bit of a lad, I was curious to see what his version of ‘head-clearing music’ was. So I went to YouTube and listened to the opera.

Composed in 1905 by Russian Rimsky-Korsakov, it has still to reach what some critics call ‘internationalisation’.

With its unwieldy title, Wagnerian allusions and less-than-coherent symbolism, The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh is one of those epics that often seems on the verge of revealing itself to non-Russian audiences as a masterwork but not quite getting there.

Apparently, it’s based on two Russian legends, that of St Fevronia of Murom and of the city of Kitezh, which became invisible when it was attacked by the Mongols/Tatars. Searching for St Fevronia, I discovered that hers is not her tale alone – she shares it with a chap called Peter, who had a brother Paul (and that could take me places…).

Paul, a Russian prince, was a tad upset at the company his wife was keeping. She was being regularly visited by a snake disguised as a prince and through her own investigations discovered that the only man up to getting rid of the snake was her husband’s brother, Peter. Peter duly does the deed with his magic sword but in the process gets some of the snake’s blood on him. And the blood turns into nasty sores. Medical science can’t help. So enter, Fevronia, the peasant girl who can cure him, but will only do so if he marries her. (A tad cheeky, I thought.) He promises. She heals. He reneges. And instead of marrying her, sends her lots of presents. So the scabs come back. And when she heals him a second time, he knows better than to not marry her.

In the meantime, Paul dies and the bould pair, Peter and Fevronia take over the kingdom. But the natives aren’t happy with a commoner for a princess so they ask her to leave, taking anything she wants. She, of course, chooses her husband, and the city is left without a prince. Mayhem ensues. The locals can’t cope so they ask the pair to come back and everyone is happy. The pair eventually retire to a monastery. Peter and Fevronia know they will die on the same day and ask to be buried together, something the Russian Orthodox tradition wouldn’t allow but when both bodies disappear twice from their original separate coffins, they finally agree.

So back to Kitezh, when in 1237, the Mongols were on a roll through Russia. Set to capture Kitezh, the were a tad surprised that not only did the town have no fortifications, the locals didn’t seem all that bothered about defending it. Instead of fighting, they prayed. Happy days, they thought, and onward they marched. But as they began their attack, hundreds of geysers of water sprung from the ground and the town was slowly swallowed by the new lake. Today, centuries later, if the weather is quiet, it’s apparently possible to hear bells and music from  Lake Svetloyar (now on my bucket list). And if you’re really holy, you might see lights and buildings beneath the water of what’s known as the Russian Atlantis.

opAnd then there’s the opera. In Act 1, Fevronia, a peasant girl, meets her prince (not knowing he is a prince) in the woods and they become engaged. In Act 2, the town readies itself for the wedding procession and the locals are none to happy that their prince is going to marry a peasant. The Powers that Be persuade the town drunk, Grishka, to mock the princess. The Tatars approach and Fevronia prays for the city to become invisible while Grishka betrays Russia and leads the invading army to the city. Confusion, betrayal, angst, and grief tinged with a little magic (what I’ve come to regard as the usual operatic cocktail) reigns but eventually love prevails and everyone dies and lives happily ever after in the invisible city.

I enjoyed it. I’d even go to see it live, were it ever to come to Budapest. I have no measure of how good or otherwise it is musically, but I liked it. Am still none the wiser though regarding ‘head-clearing’ music – I can’t say I noticed any difference. But isn’t it amazing where a random line in a random book can take you?

 

The gods must be crazy

When I stumbled across South African writer Damon Galgut, I was well impressed. I’d just been to South Africa and as is my wont, had visited a local bookshop to sample some national authors. This is something I’ve been doing for years and it’s paid off in spades. If you’ve not read Galgut, put him on your list. My personal favourite is The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.

godsBattened down by the Kis-Balaton on Day 2 of 2017, after a lovely afternoon in the outdoor hot springs at the fab Kehida spa, we’d eaten well. It was movie time and my first time to see the 1980 South African movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Others in the room had seen it multiple times. They promised me slapstick comedy but the opening, documentary-style gambit threw me. Wait, they said. Just wait. Be patient. A couple of hours later, I’d made up my mind: If the world was ending and I had a choice of just one movie to watch for eternity, this would be it.

Curious to know more, I did a little digging. Back in 1980, writer/director Jamie Uys (I wonder if any relation to my old mate, L?) raised enough money to make this low-budget movie, one which would turn out to be the most commercially successful in the country’s film history, grossing $100 million worldwide. The fab Nǃxau, who plays the Kalahari bushman, is said to have been paid anywhere from $300 to $2000 for his role, depending on what you read. The gods must indeed be crazy.  Apparently, it broke all sorts of records in Japan when the original Afrikaans version dubbed in to English was shown, and it was this best-selling foreign film in the USA that year, too. Can’t think of where I was that I missed it…

nxau_2003The film, with its multiple story lines, is set in Botswana. Before he was cast in the role of Xi, Namibian farmer Nǃxau ǂToma had seen just three white men in his life. He would go on to make six more movies before returning to farm in Namibia, dying of TB some time in his 50s. A bushman himself, he had little experience of the modern world, something the movie makes the most of.

Xi’s path crosses those of Andrew Steyn (working on a PhD that involves lots of stool sampling) and Kate Thompson (the newly arrived school teacher). Steyn is played by Marius Weyers, who might be better known for his role as Rudolf Van de Kaap in Blood Diamond.  His bumbling ineptitude around women is so real it’s easy to forget he’s acting. It’s a laugh-out-loud gem of a movie with layers of depth to it. It can be as light or as a thought-provoking as you want it to be, depending on your mood. It has good guys, smarmy guys, and bad guys. It’s genuinely funny with no special effects, bells, or whistles. And in its simplicity lies its beauty.

Xi and his fellow Ju’/Hoansi bushmen are living it up in the Kalahari. The gods have given them everything they need. They have enough. All goes well until one day, a glass bottle falls from the sky. Innocent as they are, the bushmen assume the Coke bottle is a gift from the gods and put it to all sorts of uses.  But there’s only one bottle and soon, it starts to cause problems. The tribe decides to rid themselves of this evil thing and Xi volunteers to throw it off the end of the Earth. The movie is his journey.

Highly recommended.