1%

Paying tax is a duty, an obligation. Taxes pay for our medical care, our education, our roads, the infrastructure on which society is built. Even so, few of us pay them with a smile, confident that our money will be put to good use. But taxes, like death, are supposed to be unavoidable.

So, having accepted that I have to pay my taxes, it is nice to be able to divert even the minutest portion from the government’s coffers and into a cause that is far needier. Hungary allows us to donate 1% of our taxes to a church and 1% to a charity. My church 1% goes to the Hare Krishnas because of the tremendous work they do feeding 1500 homeless and in-home poor in the city almost every single day of the year. Rain, hail, or snow, the lads from the Food for Life programme are out there, dishing up hot foot.

The other 1% needed more research.

I only discovered this second 1% last year and then I gave to an art gallery working with those with psychiatric disorders and mental illness. But as I buy from them fairly regularly, I needed to choose another recipient.

I’d heard tell of Menedék Alapítvány (the Shelter Foundation) and their work with the homeless but I hadn’t heard of their work with victims of abuse – mothers and kids in particular. Abuse, in all its guises, is something no one should have to live with. I’ve been there. It’s not nice.

Through the good auspices of a friend, I went to visit the Menedék Mamásotthon, their mums’ home in Budapest. I’m being deliberately vague about the location as many of the women there are seeking refuge from their abusers.

Space is limited and the waiting list is long. Right now, there are 11 mums and 29 kids in the home. Last year, they had 300 registered applications with 34 families passing through. They are unique among shelters and homes of their kind in that each family gets its own room with a private bathroom and a bed for everyone. The two largest families (one with seven children) occupy self-contained apartments on the premises. The others share a communal kitchen and living area with a communal laundry facility.

When accepting applicants, those in physical danger get priority. Then mothers with children who are facing life on the street with no other option. Hungarian law says that no child should be homeless or living in an unsafe environment. Children are often removed from their parents and remanded to the care of the system. At the Menedék Mamásotthon, mums and kids get to stay together.

Families can stay for no more than 18 months. By this time, it is hoped that mum has a part-time job and that they’ve managed to save some of the children’s allowance (13 700 huf /€45/$47) and her salary to set themselves up in social housing (if they’re lucky enough to get one). Clothes and food donations play an important part in the Shelter’s provision and they heavily rely on public support. Government funding goes to pay building maintenance and upkeep and the salaries of the seven employees who provide the support and counselling the families need.

As I sat there chatting with the director, I couldn’t help thinking, on a theoretical level, that it all sounded rather good. Mums are taught parenting values, the importance of routine in a child’s life, the value of nutrition and personal hygiene. The kids go to kindergarten and to school. They have access to a computer for homework if needed. All rather lovely.

Then I saw the rooms. Bright and airy but small. I can’t imagine three people living in one and not killing each other. One mum I met – let’s call her Kati – shares a room with her two children, a boy and a girl, aged 14 and 16. They’re at that age where space is important and moods are frequent. Yes, they go to school, but they’re home by 7 (a house rule). Kati says she’s lucky. Had the home not accepted them, they’d have been split up. They’ve been there close to 18 months. She has a part-time job as a sales clerk and the kids are doing well in school. She’s managed to save some money and is hoping to be rehoused as part of the social housing scheme. She’s there because of a bankruptcy. Her husband left. She had nowhere else to go. Her kids have adjusted well. They’re old enough to know what life could have been like. They’re good. They manage. But they are looking forward to having their own space. Soon.

Not for the first time, I stopped and gave silent thanks for the blessed life I lead. And I thought, once again, about perspective. Kati and her kids are happy – happy they’re not on the street, that they’re together, that they’ve a clean bed to sleep in that they can call their own, however fleetingly. I was looking at the room unable to get beyond the size of it and the horror of living in such close quarters with anyone. If circumstances dictated, I’m sure I’d adapt. But man, am I grateful I’m not there.

The bridge that Menedék Mamásotthon provides is incredibly important to the lives of those families fortunate enough to get a place. Given that the connection between the various municipalities in the city and those in need of their services is tenuous at best, all too often these families have nowhere to turn.

The foundation itself, Menedék Alapítvány, under which Menedék Mamásotthon operates, has other places, too. This home was once a Baptist church, renovated in 2005, so it’s been in operation for a while. I’m a little wary of religious institutions. I’m not comfortable with the idea of conditional giving: I’ll help you, but only if you attend prayer services and bible study groups or only if you share my beliefs. And while the Baptist foundation and Christian beliefs are very much evident in their literature, neither colour nor creed play any part in the application processes. Attendance at bible study and prayer groups is voluntary rather than a condition of acceptance and support. In a sermon last year, Pope Francis talked about the deception of ‘saying and not doing’, of talking piously but not actually doing anything good. Menedék Alapítvány is an example of doing a lot, with very little by way of saying.

Also in Budapest, they operate a weekly TeaKlub for young people in need of support. And a home for self-sufficient, homeless young men aged 18-35, those who need time to get themselves together. Sometimes, all people really need is a break, for something to their way, a chance to right themselves. This respite keeps many off the streets and that can only be a good thing. Down the country, in Kiskunmajsa, a renovated former Soviet barracks now provides temporary housing for 30 families in Menedékváros (City of Refuge) [and there are plenty of these dotted around the country that could be put to similar use].

So, having done my due diligence, I’m happy to redirect my 1% and work also towards getting them the heavy-duty washing machines they so badly need (40 people makes for a lot of laundry and their current machines just ain’t up to the job). If you want to help them out, and redirect your 1%, this is the number you need to quote on your tax form:  Kedvezményezett adószáma: 19004909-2-43. They’ll also accept in-kind donations of food, clothes, and furniture (delivery by prior arrangement to the main office). And cash donations, too. Specify on the transfer which home you want the money to go to. Details available on their website.

As poet and philosopher Samuel Decker Thompson said:

We are all just a car crash, a diagnosis, an unexpected phone call, a newfound love, or a broken heart away from becoming completely different person. How beautifully fragile are we that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are forever.

Kati and her family dodged a bullet when they got a place in the Mamásotthon. They were lucky, she said. We can be part of creating that luck for others, too.

2017 Grateful 43

I’ve long been a fan of a simple G&T and have only lately moved up the gin ladder to gin-based cocktails. I was a tad late for the onset of the gin revolution but am now happily making up for lost time. I wrote a while back of an eventful meal where gin replaced wine with a new one coming with each course. I’d highly recommend the experience .

Since that memorable evening, my holiday shopping has moved from jewelry shops (my travel bracelet won’t take any more charms) to the booze shelf at the local supermarket or the native equivalent of an off-license. I can lose an hour or so checking out the local gins, taking note of names to try at the local bars before deciding which to bring home with me. I enjoy the research. I was quite taken recently to see that my Dublin local is now stocking a favourite from Wisconsin – Death’s Door.

I’m quite a fan of Spanish gin after my first introduction to it at AkaBar at Baraka in Budapest – the place to go in Budapest for a decent cocktail. Since then I’ve tried the Ginebra Petra Mora (a birthday present) with an international list of ingredients that would keep you in food for a week: wild celery from Belgium, bitter almond, coriander from Bulgaria, more coriander from Morocco, juniper berries, bark of cassia, lemon peel, licorice root, orris root, orange peel, grapefruit peel, ginger, and a touch of cherry. Lovely – but don’t scrimp on cheap tonic. Invest in the good stuff.

This week, I got a belated birthday gin – another Spanish one, that came in its own lantern, stylishly packaged. The gin game is getting serious. Some I’d be tempted to buy just for the bottles. I happened across a 2013 review of this one in Gin Foundry,  and was highly amused. The wine narrative is losing its hold and has competition. You could have hours (well, minutes) of fun trying to pick out the herbal tastes.

 

It smells herbaceous, with resinous juniper and thyme dominating. Olives are also apparent. To taste, more juniper with a burst of basil, rosemary and thyme emerge as well as coriander. The combination feels savoury and different to other gins on the shelf, marking Gin Mare as both authentic and original. It can be considered as being part of a very short list of “Herbal” gins, and when served with the right tonic, makes for a delightful aperitivo.

But as with wine and art, I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about. I know simply what I like and what I don’t. Whether Gin Mare is authentic or original is beyond me. But it rates on my list. Like perfume, sometimes the appeal fades – I’ve gotten over Bombay Sapphire and Gordons. I’ve moved beyond Hendricks. I’ve lost my taste for Dingle (but it had a good run). I never acquired a taste for Sipsmith. Right now, I’m in Spanish mode. And lovin’ it. To MD and JF, thanks, lads. Lots of gin gratitude spinning its way towards ye.

Gearing up for withdrawal

The last time I went away for more than 48 hours sans laptop was in 2010. That was seven years ago. Seven years. Every holiday (?) I’ve been on since then I’ve worked. Not all of it, but some of it.  Enough of it to know that I wasn’t completely switching off, letting go, being present. Back in 2014, I managed to stay offline for 72 hours.

It’s a  symptom of the freelancer’s lot. You take the work when you get it because you never know when you’ll get the next bit. Add to that the fear of being disconnected and having some or all of your clients find someone else while you’re gone and then staying with them out of convenience. [And you know this will happen because convenience is why you haven’t moved banks in 9 years or changed utility provider even though you know you should.] And you know that no matter how good you are, you’re not indispensable. There’s no contract. No paid leave. No redundancy clause.

That said, I wouldn’t swap the freedom and flexibility that freelancing offers for anything less than 353 days of paid leave per year from a corporate. I like what I do and like that I can do it from just about anywhere. It’s the ‘just about’ that brings me out in a cold sweat.

I’m off to Cuba. I hear tell that you can buy (not inexpensive) 30-minute vouchers for the Internet but that the Internet there might not be quite as fast as the slow Internet here. So rather than put myself through the torture of watching a large file upload to an FTP and get to 99% at 30 minutes, I’m steeling myself to go dark. Offline. For 10 days.

I’ve done the unthinkable and told my regular clients that I’ll be incommunicado. I’m figuring out how to post an out-of-office message on my various email accounts. And I’m working like a mad woman trying to clear my inbox before I leave. By the time the holiday comes, I’ll be exhausted.

And that will be great. Because I’ll have ten whole days to recover. I reckon I can decompress on the flight and not start to experience the first withdrawal symptoms until Day 2 in Havana. By that stage, I’ll have found a cigar factory and will be busy testing a theory I have about rum and tobacco so the anxiety levels will be minimal.

From experience, day 3 is when the full impact hits – that disconnectedness, that wondering what I’ll be going back to, that faint niggling worry that the workflow will have stopped entirely. And knowing this, by day 3, I plan to be on a beach, somewhere near Trinidad, by the water.  And there’s very little, in my book, that seawater can’t cure. Bring it on, I say, bring it on. Who knows, it might be the start of a whole new career.

Whatever!

I should have been angry. I should have been furious. I should have been ranting with self-righteous indignation. I should have felt like my privacy had be violated, like my world had been invaded, like my self had been stolen and yet the best I could muster was a rather insipid ‘whatever’.

This message appeared in my email box:

Hi Mary,

Someone just used your password to try to sign in to your Google Account using an application such as an email client or mobile device.

Details: Sunday, February 19, 2017 1:21 PM (Eastern European Standard Time)
Egypt

So, someone in Egypt is busy pretending they’re me and the best I can do is wonder what they look like. Are they even a flesh-and-blood person or are they a computer program randomly trying a bunch of pilfered addresses? If they’re real, are they male or female, boy or girl, man or woman? Are they doing this for a living or just for the hell of it? What do they hope to gain? My emails aren’t that interesting. And where did they get my address/password from anyway?

Cyber-attacks on grand scale happen every day. At the Warsaw Summit back in July last year, NATO declared cyberspace as the fourth military domain, in company with land, air, and sea. The battle is on. A quick check of the Hackmageddon site shows the scale of what’s happening out there and it ain’t pretty:

… the discovery of a long lasting cyber espionage campaign in Italy dubbed EyePyramid, targeting the political and economical elite, and the massive cyber attack against Barts Health Trust, the largest NHS trust in England.

Now, with power grids being brought their knees (remember Kiev being plummeted into darkness last year?), with the accounts of millions of being compromised, my thief in Egypt will hardly rate a mention. And knowing that, I couldn’t muster anything close to anger. Because sadly, I see it as a cost of doing business on the Net. At some stage, all of my accounts will be compromised. Live with it, Mary.

And add to the theft itself, the doubt it created. Because of this one incident, I had to change all my passwords everywhere and that was no mean feat, not to mention inconvenient and an hour of my life I’ll never get back. But before the change could happen, I had to find out if the original Google alert was real. Yep. Perhaps the warning was a phishing scam and not really from Google at all. But I checked the email address, proofread the text, and made sure it was from a secure site. And that, ladies and gentlemen is the extent of my preparedness. Sad.

Do I need to know more? Do I need to take more precautions? Or can I be sure that Google is out there, watching my back, knowing that it can’t prevent people stealing my password but it can let me know when it happens…

So much for the initial ‘whatever’. The real anger, frustration, and indignation set in when I started thinking of how much more I whatever – more important things like racial comments, bullying, political stupidity. Are they, too, just the price I pay for living in the twenty-first century? Have my sensibilities been dulled to the point that I’m growing inured to atrocities and injustice? Am I retreating into my own little world, cocooning myself in a bucolic blanket, about as far as I can get from reality without stepping off the world altogether? Is my ever-present craving to hole up in the countryside symptomatic of  my disillusionment with life in general? Has feeling safe become so important that I relish closing the gates on the outside world, just to feel that sense of peace I don’t know anywhere else?

Damn you, Egypt. I had more to be doing this week than second-guess myself.

 

 

2017 Grateful 44

Dithering at a bus stop outside Dublin Airport recently, debating the merits of taking a 16 or 41, a bus driver hollered at us from inside his bus.

– Where are ye off to?
– Malahide Road
– That’s a long road, love
– Between Artane and Donnycarney
– Ah – you want that bus there (pointing to the one in front of him). Get off at Annesley motors on Cloghran and hop on the 27b and you’ll be sorted. How are ye paying?
– We have Leap cards [Irish equivalent of Oyster cards – prepaid travel cards]
– Ye know it’s two fares, right?
– Yep – cheers
– No bother

So we get on the No. 16 and ask the driver to let us out at Annesley Motors in Cloghran. Then we sit down and wait.

In comes our friendly guy. He has a chat with our driver and then shouts down the bus to us:

– Tommy’ll see ye right. He’ll let ye know when to get off. Are ye okay so?

It’s been a while since I’ve merited such attention.

We motor on and Tommy finally calls us out. As he pulls up to the stop, he asks us where we are going:

– Malahide Road. Between Donnycarney and Artane
– Ah sure, why don’t you come on down with me to Beaumont and pick up the 14 That’ll take you to Donnycarney
– But they’d we’d have to walk up the hill instead of down
– Fair point, fair point. I’ll take ye to the next stop – it has a shelter and a timetable so ye can see where ye’re at. No charge. Ye’ll have a wait though. Sure ye won’t come with me?
– Nah. Thanks though. We’re grand

At this stage, the rest of the passengers, all tourists, were trying to figure out who we were and why we were getting such attention.

It was bloody freezin’ as we stood and waited our 12 minutes for the 27B. It was on the screen, getting tantalizingly close only to drop back as it was overtaken by another bus. We watched the countdown. 5 min. 4 min. 2 min. Due. And then it disappeared off the screen and never appeared over the hill. And we were in Cloghran.

A couple of minutes later, a bus pulls up. It had its as seirbhís sign up (out of service). The driver opened the door and the story continued

– What number are ya?, I asked
– What number do you want me to be?
– I’d love you to be a 27B

– Grand so. Hop on.

Not quite believing the randomness of it all, on we got.

– What fare to you want?
– I’ve no clue. I want to go to the Malahide Road. The stop after the turn to Artane Castle
Yeah, but what fare do you want?
– The cheapest

Grand so. That’ll be €1.05

We were on that bus for at least half a hour if not 40 minutes; our €1.05 had run out in the first ten. We wandered in and out of estates, passing the same church at least twice. It was like a mystery tour.

I love Dublin. I love Dubliners. I love the irreverence and their ability to knock some craic out of just about anything. And for those who say that the ‘furriners’ or the ‘non-nationals’ moving into the country will ruin it, only one of those three bus men was Irish. It hadn’t taken the others long to catch on. And for this, I’m grateful.

 

All in a name

I’m a great fan of Oscar Wilde and one of my favourite plays is The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve been known to bet on a horse just because its name reminds me of something or someone I like to remember. I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to see what is behind a curious place name. So when I discovered that the neighbouring village of Zalavár was once known as Moosburg, I laughed aloud. The Alaska me had come full circle.

Driving around the lake recently, we went in search of the museum signposted on the road to Sármellék. We had passed it once before and I’d noted the funny-looking church that I’d mentally added to my Lake-Church photo project. Not quite sure what to expect, what we did find was remarkable.

The history of Zalavár dates back to about 840 AD. At the turn of the twelfth century, it became the county seat, long since relinquished to Zalaegerszeg. Around that time, the Benedictines built an abbey and monastery there and over the centuries other private estates grew in the area. The history reads like a saintly Who’s Who with the likes of Adrian,  Cyril, Methodius, and Benedict all getting an honorable mention. Various churches and chapels were built and dedicated and then razed in the battles and wars that ensued: The martyr Adrian’s Church, the Chapel of St Stephen, the Church of the Blessed Virgin, and a church with no patron at all.

Looking out over the fields at the remnants of the foundations, it doesn’t take much to imagine Zalavár as a thriving metropolis, a far cry from the sleepy village it is today. That so much has survived the ages is a miracle. Excavations over the last 60 years or so have yield a treasure of antiquities that flesh out the history of what was once a very important place indeed. So whether it was Moosburg or Mosuburg or Mosaburg (depending on what you read), Zalavár is worth a second visit when the museum opens at the end of this month.

Rephrasing the ask

When I told my mother that I wasn’t doing guilt any more, she laughed. Deep, down, on some basic cellular level, guilt is hardwired into the Irish psyche. It took (and takes) a lot of effort for me not to be guilted into doing something I don’t want to do. [See, it’s even a verb in Ireland.] I’ve had to retrain those around me to rephrase their ask to get the answer they want in a way that leaves me guiltless.

But it wasn’t always so. When I was still doing guilt, the conversation would go something like this.

I’m going into town to do some shopping.
Grand.

30 minutes later:
I’m heading off now.
Enjoy.

15 minutes later:
I’ll go so.

This is where I’d usually cave and go – Okay, okay. I’ll go!!! But since I gave up the guilt, the ask has had to change and all concerned now know that if they want me to do something, the ask has to be explicit.

So me and mam are sorted. I’d forgotten all about it until recently, when this conversation happened…

It’s a lovely day – do you want to go for a drive around the lake?
Nope. No ta. [I was up to my tonsils and happily cocooned in my den, oblivious to the sun shining outside. I was where I wanted to be and I didn’t want to be disturbed.]

10 minutes later:
You sure you don’t want to come? We could check out …..?
Nah, not today. Tomorrow maybe.

5 minutes later:
Shame to waste the day…
mmmmm, whatevs

In fairness, there were no dramatic sighs or annoying tsk tsks, no sound track to accompany the hopeful questions that were clearly not getting the right answer. But then I remembered… they hadn’t had the training and divine inspiration was in short supply.

So I explained about not doing guilt. And about changing the ask from ‘Do you want to ….’  to ‘Will you…’

Invariably, if I’m working, the latter has a much better chance of happening. So we went. To the lake. And got there just in time to see the sun beginning to set. Fabulous.

 

 

A day of silence

Retreats used to be a focal point of religious life in Ireland. They may well be enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts as busy professionals look to disengage and step outside the online world. Generally, they last for anything from a half-day to two weeks. Most are preached, some are guided (as in silent). And it’s the silence I’m taken with. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a 10-day silent stint somewhere but figured that I should start off slowly – just to see. So when I got a present of a one-day silent retreat at Manresa House in Clontarf (an Oasis Day), I was dead chuffed. That said, it took me two years to get around to booking in and last Saturday was the day.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The last time I’d been on retreat was back in Secondary School and that wasn’t today or yesterday. And back then, prayer and reflection were about as far from our minds as silence.

They told us that we could do as much or as little of the set programme. We could walk the beach at Clontarf across the road, or stroll through the neighbouring St Anne’s Park or simply wander the grounds. And we could have done all three had the weather cooperated. But it was miserable. Teeming rain and howling winds made it a perfect day to be indoors.

Nineteen of us in all showed up. Given the option of a silent lunch or a talking one, I opted for the former. The whole idea for me was to say nothing to nobody. This was my trial. No phone. No laptop. No talking. We had our choice of places to retreat to: a chapel, a prayer room, a library, or the lounge, complete with floor to ceiling windows and reclining chairs.

As I said, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The first of three guided meditations got rid of the residual stress. Left to my own devices I wandered the library and picked up a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel. I cracked it open and read a passage – the answer to something that’s been bothering me for months jumped off the page. I was sold.

The next meditation, coincidentally, was also on a passage from Matthew – a different one. My mind was all over the place but I was getting the hang of it. I’d visited the honor-system book stand and purchased a copy of Antony de Mello’s Rediscovering Life, and each time we were left to amuse ourselves, I’d retreat to a corner and read.

De Mello has it all figured out. The root cause of sorrow is attachment. He tells a story of a guy going into a restaurant with his mind set on tomato soup. But there’s no tomato soup of the menu. He’s mad. He leaves. He goes to the next restaurant. That’s me. I’ve done that. I once tried four Chinese restaurants because I was fixated on having dumplings for dinner. In de Mello’s lingo, I was attached to my dumplings. And I got quite worked up about not finding any. How much better for me had I been detached and simply picked any one of the may other dishes I liked. The angst I’d have saved myself.

I read this before lunch. Which was just as well.

There is one dish that I cannot abide. I can’t abide the taste of it or the smell of it. I’d rather go without that to sit down to a plate of boiled bacon and cabbage. And that’s exactly what was on the menu. Bacon and cabbage and potato with the obligatory parsley sauce. What a great opportunity to practice detachment. Anyway, there was no choice. I’d not phoned in my dietary preferences in advance (usually I go vegetarian for communal dining), so I ate the bacon. And it wasn’t bad.

Later that afternoon we had more guided meditation and then confession. It’s been a while. Although a practicing Catholic, I’m at odds with the institution and find it hard to confess to things I do not repent. But the Jesuits are pragmatists, believing that ultimately it’ll be between me and my maker and if I can live with the thoughts of how that conversation might go, so can they. Not for the first time, I left the confessional without receiving the sacrament but having enjoyed an enlightening conversation that helped square away something else that had been bothering me for a while.  I was batting 3 for 3.

We finished up with a final meditation, what St Ignatius calls the Daily Examen, an elaboration on my nightly grateful ritual. Before we left, we had the option of going to mass. I usually shy away from Mass in English as I’ve been a little disillusioned by the inability of those preaching to make the Gospel relevant. Best, I think, to spend my mass time in communing in my own way, none the wiser.

The celebrant was from Malta. I could tell by his accent. And given that both Brexit and the Trump election were mentioned, his sermon was Relevant with a capital R.

Conclusion: It was a great gift. A very worthwhile way to spend a day. And although I did think more than once that I could enjoy a similar quiet and solitude down  by the Kis Balaton, I realised that there, I’d always find something to do. A day devoted to thinking, reflecting, and yes, the occasional nap, is a rarity, but one certainly worth repeating.

Maybe next time, I’ll try the 4-day one and gradually work myself up to the full 8 days of silence. Bliss.

 

2017 Grateful 45

Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris? Nope, he’s not. He’s dead. Dead and very buried on an island in French Polynesia. But his songs are still doing their thing and at the Gate Theatre in Dublin this week I met the Belgian in spirit for the first time.

I was in town. My mate had tickets. It was a given that I’d go. I asked no questions as I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen bad, really bad theatre. I’ve seen mediocre stuff, but even a mediocre night at the theatre beats a night of thumb twiddling.

So, to Jacques. I wasn’t the only one in the company who’d not heard of him so I wasn’t that put out. Born Jacques Romain Georges Brel, he died back in 1978 at the very young age of 49. Lauded as the master of the chanson (a lyric-driven French song style), his work has influenced the likes of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen, two of my favourite lyricists. McKuen was one of the first Americans to translate his songs, which were originally written in French and Dutch.

Brel himself wasn’t above influence either. Probably his most recognised song, Ne me quitte pas (If you go away), recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Marlene Dietrich and a litany of others, has a melody in part derived from Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Needless to say, I didn’t recognise it. But no surprises there.

The cast of four – Risteárd Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan – were well into it all. The revue was originally performed in Paris in 1968 to great acclaim and there wasn’t anyone in the audience on Thursday night who didn’t enjoy it either. It was magical. The scene was set in Paris, in a crumbling old bar reminiscent of Budapest’s Piaf. It ran uninterrupted for 90 minutes with song after song sung with a passion and enunciation that lent clarity and soul to every word.

The four swung seamlessly between tunes, adopting the roles required by each set of lyrics. Each song told the type of poignant and heartfelt story that never dates. I was particularly taken with The Old Folks and the lines:

Though you may live in town, you live so far away
When you’ve lived too long

As I said, Brel’s songs were originally recorded in French or Dutch and subsequently translated to English so while Elly Stone’s version does the man justice, his original is something else and worth a listen.

McKeon’s version of Carousel left me reeling. I was there with her, on the carousel, going fast and faster to the point of dizziness. Amazing. But like all Brel’s songs, this too was what Cooper calls a ‘playlet’. And what Peter Crawley explains in his review in the Irish Times as creating

 an image of life that is always accelerating, finally moving so fast that it threatens to spin out of control completely.

We met a young girl whose sweetheart didn’t come home from the war. We met a young soldier who lost is virginity in army whorehouse. We even had a glimpse of Brel talking from his grave. I enjoyed every last minute of it and have made a note to self to buy Marc Almond’s album Jacques to hear it all again. If you’re in Dublin in February, it’s a must see.

This week, I’m grateful I didn’t ask questions because it wouldn’t have been something I’d have picked to go to see myself… and although discovering him late, my life is already all the richer for knowing of Jacques Brel.

 

Selflessness in action

The village of Tarnabod sits 113 km east of Budapest. A shadow of its former self, today success and plenty are but a memory. Like other villages in rural Hungary, things are bad in Tarnabod. Jobs are scarce, resources few. And, for many villagers, by the last Saturday of the month, food and money have run out.

In 2011, Gabriella, a then Budapest-based journalist, visited the village to do a piece on child poverty. It was the beginning of a journey that saw her and her best friend and fellow journalist Kata, getting involved in making life a little easier for the locals. Tarnabod és mi (Tarnabod and us) was born. What started as donations of food, clothes, and cleaning materials has grown into solid support. Their relationship with the village is open and trusting, and their help is much appreciated.  When the kids go back to school, Kata & Co., provide school supplies. When the football team needs new boots, they are there. When the village needs hot food, they’re there, too.

Photo by Péter Horgas / Tarnabod és Mi

The Saturday I was there, it was -12°C. I watched as Chef Daniel, from Revolucíon Budapest, one of the city’s top Tex-Mex restaurants (Akácfa u. 57), and his team tried valiantly to get the barrel fires going. They were there to cook a hot stew for the villagers (all 600 or so of them). They’ve been doing this every month in winter and every second month in summer since 2015.  They worked outside, on open fires, in freezing temperatures. When the food was ready, word went around and the people came to collect.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Up the road, in the tanoda (study hall), Zsuzsa and her gang from Caledonia Social Bites prepared hot chocolate. We were lucky. We got to work inside. In the next room visiting singers, musicians, and storytellers entertained the kids. The place rocked. Two of the local young lads have gotten places in a gymnastic school in Budapest – one is particularly talented and destined for great things. They both come from large families with unemployed parents. This scholarship is their way out of the cycle of poverty in which the village is mired. And that’s Kata’s aim – to show the kids that they can have a life outside the village, that theirs can be a different world.

As we worked, I met other volunteers from other groups, all there to contribute in their own way. Volunteers like 20-year-old Selina, German born of Turkish descent, who’s spending her gap year working in Tarnabod. An Order of Malta programme funds her food and accommodation and gives her pocket money in return for the work she does at the preschool, the kindergarten, the primary school, and the tanoda. There are far more glamorous places to spend a gap year, but a 10-day student exchange to Debrecen sealed her fate. Selina fell for Hungary in a big way and wanted to contribute to the greater good. She’s one of a group of 12 young people on the programme from Spain, Germany, and Poland aged 18–29 who are volunteering around the country, giving of their time and energy and getting invaluable life experience in return. The kids love her and she gives every ounce of that love back, and more besides.

A car pulled up. Heni and Szilvia had arrived from Debrecen with bags of clothes. They got involved with Tarnabod és mi after experiencing first-hand how activism and volunteerism work. For nearly 80 days straight they worked their day jobs and then helped man the train station in Debrecen from 6pm till 1am helping refugees figure out where they were going. With a multinational student cohort at the local university, they had lots of willing translators and interpreters who juggled exam schedules to be available. Since then, the pair have continued to do what they can for those in need. They joined forces with the Bike Mafia in Debrecen to feed the homeless and are in the process of setting up an NGO.

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

A couple of weeks ago, a Roma family in the village of Sáp heard a knock on the door. Officials came and removed their 8 youngest kids and 2 grandkids to places unknown, saying that the house wasn’t fit for kids to live in (the family had just moved in). For three days, the parents didn’t know where the children had been taken. The dad’s boss posted a request for help on his Facebook page, a request that was brought to Szilvia’s attention. Thanks to local volunteers and community donations, within 6 days the house had a new fitted kitchen and new floors. It was fully furnished and carpeted. The cupboards were stocked with food, the wardrobes filled with clothes. The kids are expected home soon.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

The hot chocolate went down a treat. It did this jaded heart good to see so many smiling, laughing faces, despite the odds. Because the odds ain’t good. And despite there being people willing to give of themselves and their time for no other reason than to help others, naysayers, politics, and egos can thwart the best of intentions. What’s needed is action. What’s needed are more people like the Tarnabod crew – people who do more than sit around a table and discuss the whys and wherefores of possibilities; people who recognise a need and act on it.

Yes, there will be those who show up for the photo opp. And perhaps the gloved volunteers who went to draw with kids in a refugee camp did more harm than good.  But as long as the Katas in this world make things happen, there is hope.  And today, more than ever, we need to work together, to give of ourselves, to do what we can to redress the imbalance and mitigate the fear being fomented by those in charge of our world.

PS: The villagers badly need gloves – all sizes. The collection point is Jurányi Produkciós Ház, II. District, Jurányi u.1. Give what you can. Make a difference.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2017