2017 Grateful 21

This day, 12 months ago, on 31 July, life took an unexpected turn. We’d gotten a phone call to say that another house had come on the market in the village. The one I’d set my heart on didn’t want me. It had been listed originally for 4 million ft  (€12 500 on one site), and then later withdrawn and listed on another for 6.5 million without so much as the grass being cut. It had masses of potential. Lots of outbuildings. I asked an architect friend to suggest how we could make it into something really fabulous and he duly obliged. The man is gifted .

I had visions of separate guest quarters, a BBQ pit and a summer kitchen, a long, windowed hallway opening out onto sweeping lawns. The barn at the end of the garden would make a fabulous working studio with floor to ceiling windows. Or equally could be more self-contained guest accommodation. There was room for a pool and a pony or three. The car could have a garage. We could have a gazebo. All we needed was the mullah. And the owner to accept the offer.

She laughed me out of it when I offered half a mill more than it was originally posted for and she wouldn’t budge. So much for the village gossip that she was desperate to sell. And I simply didn’t have the money to do it justice. And I don’t have the patience to get in the builders and then wait for weeks till the carpenter was ready and wait again for the plumber and the painter and the electrician. And wait 12 months before we could stay for a weekend.

A lot of workers in this part of the world cross the border to work in Austria or go further afield to Germany. They go where the work takes them. It pays better outside Hungary. If they get a better offer, they go. And who can blame them. To get one crew to come in and do it all would have upped the bill considerably. And, as I said, I didn’t have the money. And even if I did have the money, I have a thing about paying more than something is worth.

Although four houses have sold in the village in the last year, many more are still standing unsold. The one across the road is supposedly on the market for 1 million huf (about €3000) while another has dropped from 16 million to 10 million and yet another outside the village is going for a mere 435 million. Something for everyone. The closer you get to the Balaton, the higher the prices get. And just being in sight of the lake is guaranteed to up the price even more.

Anyway, with the dream house a non-runner, I had shelved any ideas I might have had about life in a village. There are plenty of other villages around, with many more houses, but it was important for me to know someone in situ, as I travel a lot. And it helps having the benefit of wisdom and experience, not to mention contacts with local tradesmen. I don’t think I’d have had the mental fortitude needed to rock up to some random village and start renovating.

But late July last year, the phone call came. Another house had come on the market. It needed aesthetic work but nothing major immediately. It’ll eventually need a new roof and it did need an exterior paint job and new windows, but the gas and electric and the plumbing were all serviceable. We could pick up the keys and move in.

It’s not nearly as grand as the original pick. The garden is much narrower and the outbuildings just one. I wasn’t all that enthused as there was a new (2007) extension that didn’t quite fit with my idea of a period home. And having seen the Kánya Ház and having seen the potential in my first choice, I didn’t think I’d like it. But we came down, anyway. Just to see. Just in case.

It took all of 20 minutes. The renovation itself wasn’t impressive. The tiles … ugh. The proliferation of varnished pine did nothing for me. Afterwards, over a coffee beside the croquet lawn (pitch? square?), I decided to make an offer. Ten minutes was all it took. And to think that sometimes I have trouble deciding what to wear. Hilarious really.

I had imagined a weekend spot, and someplace to come for a month in the summer. It’s a 2-hour drive from the city (assuming traffic is moving) so not as local as Gödöllő where there’s a fabulous forest and a house I have first dibs on, were IZ ever to sell. But get-away places close to the city are more expensive, naturally, and as I’m allergic to debt, it had to fit the bank balance.

It’s become far more than a getaway place, a weekend cottage in the country. I’m increasingly drawn to it spending as much time as I can here. I have  reclusive side. The me that likes to check out and hole up. Perhaps 10 years of city living and extensive travel have taken their toll. The last time I did the village thing was the 5 years I spent in Valdez, Alaska. And compared to Balatonmagyaród, Valdez is a bustling metropolis. But energy levels ebb and flow. The key to being happy is to recognise what your body and your mind needs – and right now, at this stage in my life, I need quiet. I need peace. I need to recharge. It might last one year, or two, or ten … it doesn’t matter. I’m grateful that today, the universe has conspired, through the good auspices of the R-W’s, and financial circumstance, to bring me here.



Village living

Walking down the village yesterday evening, lost in my own little world, I spied a vision ahead that had me wondering if the nip of házi vad körte pálinka (homemade wild pear brandy) I’d just had was doing something to my eyes. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing on main street Balatonmaygaród. Come to think of it, there are only two streets – Petőfi Sándor  and Dózsa György – and they intersect at a T-junction just by the church. That it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis is just one of the many charming things about it. Anyway, Petőfi  is the main street – the main road – the one that goes straight through the village. I was headed over to the neighbours for a game of croquet and smoked salmon sarnies. I know. It’s some life. But hey, someone has to live it. And it’d been a long day. And it was Friday.

The builders had arrived as usual, about 7.36 am. Eight of them. And by 7.50 am they were all at work. I’ll say one thing for the tradesmen who have worked or are working on the house – they know how to work. None of this breastfeeding shovel stuff or lolling around discussing what they might eventually get around to doing. Each man has his job and is busy doing it.  They even take lunch breaks in split shifts, choreographing their work so that not a minute is wasted. And all in good humour, too.

The eight were there to start for a couple of hours of blitz-like doing. Then they whittled down to four, only one of whom was a regular; the other three were new. And just when I’d gotten the hang of who took how many sugars in what, too.

They hung a plastic tarp to block the archway, more to keep the dust in than to keep me out (I hope) so I couldn’t really see what they were up to. I snuck a peek at one stage and saw the two plasterers waltzing around on their ladders, stepping to it, one in full voice, belting out rockabilly folk songs – in Hungarian. And what a voice. By mid-afternoon, he was starting in on his light opera repertoire. Carnegie Hall doesn’t know what it’s been missing. I was vaguely tempted to capture it on video but I thought better of it. Maybe his wife doesn’t know he sings and he’s been dodging the church choir for years. I couldn’t take the risk.

Friday, being Friday, we cracked open a few beers when they’d wrapped up for the day and were hanging around waiting on their lift. The gaffer arrived and doled out the pay packets and then produced the offending bottle of pálinka. I’d had a run-in with said beverage some time ago at a pig killing down in Békéscsaba and we’re only recently back on drinking terms. Some of this homemade stuff is at rotgut level, but this was lovely. Really smooth. As I’ve learned to my cost, it’s rude to refuse it, if offered. Just about the only acceptable excuse is that you’re driving or that you’re a teetotaler. But as I so obviously wasn’t either, with my grapefruit beer in hand (don’t I live the high life), I had to be polite. Propriety is my middle name.

So, having had a sip or two of the deadly pear, I took off down the street to keep my appointment at the Kánya Ház. It would be my croquet debut. After we’d had a nagyfröccs (2 dl white wine + 1 dl soda water) or two, to go with the Irish smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches (neat little crustless triangular works of culinary art that just begged to eaten  with one’s little finger cocked), we set up to play. I can’t say I got the style down. I was holding the mallet like I would a putter and eyeing up the ball (is it called a ball in croquet?) like I was on the 18th green playing for glory. I got the hang of the roquets and the croquets and I won. Both games. Not that I’m bragging. But I think I’ve found my calling.

But anyway, that’s not what I started to say. Back to my vision. The neighbour lady (I think she’s German) from a few doors up was out mowing her grass – the patch between the path and the road outside the house that each of us is responsible for. Now, remember those cheeky postcards from Brighton and Blackpool from the 1940s? She could have modelled for them. And there she was in all her glory, mowing the grass in her swimsuit and her floppy hat and not a bother on her.

You gotta love it. Especially when I think of how the old néni next door was berating me for letting myself go. I used to make an effort when I first arrived apparently – and now look at me. My wardrobe has shrunk to two pairs of shorts, a pair of crops, and seven t-shirts (two styles, different colours). Village life certainly has a way of stripping it all back to what matters. The basics.

And for those of you following the renovation , all is going to plan. András is here today finishing off the insulation and sheetrock. The place is looking bright and airy. And the open archway is making a massive difference to how it all looks.



A lesson for POTUS

Donald T? Are you listening? I’ve news for you. Walls make places smaller. Honestly. I know what I’m talking about here. Yesterday, I had a grand room. Plenty of light. Even the part sectioned off for the new bathroom seemed spacious. I’d have plenty of space, I thought, to try the minimalist look. Plenty of space to wander around. I even began double thinking the decision not to plumb in the washing machine. There’d be so much empty space. It was all about space. Now I’m second-guessing (too late) the distance between sink and wall and sink and shower and shower and loo and I’m just a tad worried that I got it all wrong. That I should have paid attention to the raised eyebrows as I wantonly added centimeters here and there is niggling at me.

And yes, it was all measured out on paper and I saw the plans. But I’m missing that part of the brain needed to translate numbers into images. Just like I thought I could fit a hope chest measuring 120 cm x 80 x 90 into the boot of the car because hey, they were only centimeters and centimeters are small things. Now, had he said it was 1 m 20, I’d have known better. Because meters are big things. Welcome to my world.

Walls really do make a difference. The room has shrunk. It’s darkened. It feels closed in. Even the office space looks smaller, as it should, but it seems smaller than it should. At least it’s bright, though. I’m glad I didn’t opt to build a full wall and have a hallway. The place would be like a cave, as we can’t add windows to the back wall because it looks out onto the neighbour and there’s some rule in Hungary preventing that. Windows in facing walls have to be above eye level and no larger than a certain size. What a novel approach to privacy. And while I prefer to work in semi-darkness than bright light, himself doesn’t. We’re wired differently.

When they removed the layers of horrible lino, they uncovered the traditional, old cement tiles on what will be the bathroom floor. I was tempted, fleetingly, to try to save them, but seeing as I’ve yet to find a way to clean the ones in the hallway and bring them to something close to a shine, I decided to let go of the past, to let it be buried beneath a new layer of something designed to look old. Hey, it’s all the rage. I read a post on a FB site for used furniture this week that said – and I kid you not – We’re selling our vintage furniture as it no longer fits the decor. We had it made four years ago.

But I’ve been doubting my English recently and while I think of vintage as being old, I thought I’d double check:

  1. 1.
    relating to or denoting wine of high quality.
    “vintage claret”
    synonyms:high-quality, quality, prime, choice, select, superior, best

    “vintage French wine”
  2. 2.
    denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind.
    “a vintage Sherlock Holmes adventure”
    synonyms:high-quality, quality, prime, choice, select, superior, best

There you go – vintage doesn’t mean old. Just look at those synonyms. What else have I been wrong about? Oh, yes. Centimetres.

Anyway, the ceiling is up. The lights are wired. The radiators are plumbed, as are the sink, loo, and shower. Tomorrow the rest of the insulation goes in and the concrete floor is laid. And then the tiler comes to do the floor tiles at the weekend. Seems like we’re on track. They’re all still smiling and I’ve heard no Basmegs! as yet.

Donald, take heed. If you insist on putting up that wall, America will look smaller. Trust me.



Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do. So said CS Lewis in The Silver Chair. And I was close to tears last night in OBI, the local hardware megastore, as I tried to pick lights for the new bathroom. I didn’t want anything I’d have to clean, so recessed lighting was the way to go. Due diligence revealed that the world is moving from halogen to LED, so that narrowed down the choice considerably. Too much so, as the lights I wanted weren’t in stock, and there was no time to drive to the next town to check if they had any.

Of what was on offer, I couldn’t decide how many I’d need for a 2×3 m ceiling with 1 sqm of that taken up by the shower. Six wouldn’t fit in any discernible pattern. Five would look odd. Four wouldn’t be enough. I took the ‘phone a friend’ option as if my millionaire status depended on my decision. He said 6. But admitted that he’d be on the hooch and that his math figuring wasn’t as sharp as it might have been otherwise. There were vague mumblings about ratios …

So I checked the larger light fittings and had it narrowed down to two but one looked too disco-like and the other came with a warm bulb and they didn’t have a cold one in stock. God be with the days when a lightbulb was a lightbulb and all you needed to be concerned about was the wattage.

Why the rush? Well, the boys are putting up the ceiling today (I think) and needed to know if holes had to be cut. Yes, they could do it later, but it would be easier to do it before they hung it. It has be to suspended because the house slopes left and nothing is straight any more. The archway is slightly off, too, with the apex more right that left, indicative perhaps of the way the world is currently leaning. But it’s an old house and crookedness is part of its charm. That doesn’t faze me.

I could have waited and let the lads work that little bit harder, but consideration kicked in. When the good Lord was making me, He took his eye of the measurement tube and gave me too much consideration – so much that it paralyses me at times. I’m way too concerned, not about what people think of me (I’m too old to care much about that) but about inconveniencing them, about making their lives more difficult. Forget the fact that I’m footing the bill for this work – that doesn’t seem to matter. You’d swear I was working for them and not the other way around. Such is my lot.

Mark Twain reckoned that he must have a prodigious amount of mind; it takes [him] as much as a week, sometimes, to make it up! That’s not usually a problem. Most of my life’s great decisions have been spur of the moment, many of which involved my moving country or changing job or buying a house in a Hungarian village. But lately though, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to make up my mind about anything. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have a fixed quota of conscious decisions that I can make in a day. The subconscious ones, like what to wear or when to have a coffee or what to work on, they’re all doable. It’s when I have a choice that I need to live with – like what kind and how many lights I need for the bathroom – those are the limited ones.

Yesterday, it was plugs, radiator positions, and whether or not to have a central ceiling light in the new study. And then the tiles. The helpful lady on Monday (helpful enough to warrant me planning to drop by with a box of chocs as a thank you for being so patient and helpful) forgot one salient detail: they had to be ordered and won’t be here till next week, which puts my finish by date back by three days. And I have visitors coming Thursday. I need that bathroom.

I’d paid for the tiles. They’d been ordered. A refund was out of the question. I couldn’t go pick them up as that wasn’t allowed (they’re Italian tiles but are in the country at an undisclosed location). They couldn’t ship earlier either as they distribute to stores around the country on a fixed schedule. FFS! I said I’d eat the cost and go somewhere that had tiles in stock and choose more (although I was dreading the thoughts of having to make more decisions). The room fell silent. Such wasteful extravagance was unheard of. But they didn’t know me well enough to know how I obsessed I get when I get something in my head.  Finally, they said, that as the order for the floor tiles had gotten lost in the wash and they’d not yet been paid for, we’d go pick some out tomorrow and at least have a working toilet and tiled floor for my guests next week. The wall tiling could be done daytime, but in the evening, they’d have somewhere to pee. I’m telling you,  this consideration lark killing me. Decision made.

I reckon my limit is five conscious decisions before I’m all decided out. I know this, because after the bathroom light was sorted (one square recessed block of six LEDs in a chrome setting), I tried to choose a post box. A simple enough job you might think – the box slit had to be street facing with the keyed door at the back. The colour didn’t much matter as the gate needs to be painted at some stage and it could all be done together. But faced with a choice, I couldn’t decide. The Lewis tears were surfacing again. I couldn’t do it.

I did my best Rosemary Smith impression driving home, taking all my frustrations out on the gear box. I wondered, not for the first time, how such a capable, independent, not unintelligent woman can be broken so easily. I’d never make a spy. I didn’t have the energy for self-beratement. I was too tired to care. So I did what I do best: I ate yer woman’s chocolates. I’ll deal with the guilt tomorrow.

2017 Grateful 22

It’s been a while. Unusual for me. Unless I’m without Internet access, I’m pretty religious about posting. Somehow more than a week has passed without one, something that’s been pointed out to me a few times, most recently by a mate in Australia currently who is winging his way to Thailand and was short of reading material (thanks, JS, for the prompt).

Life has taken over. Work has taken over. And my plan to have a month free to paint chairs and put up pictures and try my hand at making Swedish blinds has come to nowt. And somewhere, in there, I’ve promised to work on two book projects and contracted to start my own.

No – don’t get excited. The publishers haven’t finally tracked me down. It’s more like a nudge agreement – all signed though, so somewhat binding – to deliver a ‘sizeable’ portion of a manuscript by my next workshop gig in September. The things I agree too when sat before a full Irish breakfast, complete with black and white pudding.

It’s the usual catch 22 of a freelancer’s lot. I need the work to pay the bills but then the work interferes with what I want to do because I have yet to master the concept of having a weekend or making my workday fit between the confines of 9 and 5. And as I’m hemorrhaging money at the minute, I can’t afford to be anything but pragmatic.

The builders are in. One room that currently serves as a pass-through between the old house and the extension has a bathroom (with WC) and a loo attached to it. The plan is to break down the walls and remove the conveniences (done) and then to build in a new bathroom.

As am sure happens with all renovations, I found myself wondering who could have thought that a shower with green fiberglass against a blue floor would be attractive. Mind you, it is offset nicely by the green diamond in the mirror. But I draw the line at fish (even if the blue floor now makes sense). In my design world, fish work in bathrooms in Hawaii or the like – places where there are tropical fish. The fish in Kis-Balaton are far from tropical. The tile motif had to go. I had to defish.

The estimate we got for the work was very reasonable by Irish or US standards, but more expensive than if we went the route of separate deals with each tradesman. We’d need to be here all the time and would be very much at the mercy of their schedules. The painter was due Monday to finish off the exterior painting – he’s only three days late. And surprisingly, I’m not that put out. But to have to pick my way through a work in progress every time I wanted to make a coffee for anything longer than a week or 10 days would do my head in. My lack of patience, my wanting everything done yesterday, that costs money.

I went shopping with the builder – for the fittings and the tiles. We’d cased the joint a couple of weeks ago so I knew what I wanted. Thankfully, my luck with Hungarian builders is still in. MP, like his Budapest counterpart, VL, spends my money as if it were his own. He reined in my more extravagant wants and steered me in the right direction re brands and such. My plans changed only three times in the space of the 2.5 hours it took us (and an hour of that was paying!). Not bad.

So, the boys are in. They arrived on Monday to demolish walls. (I was tempted to ask for a go of the sledgehammer but didn’t have anything but sandals with me.) There was one almighty crash and then nothing  – not a sound. I had visions of the headlines – Wall falls, man dies. Thankfully though, they’d have been a more mundane – Wall falls, man takes celebratory cigarette break.

The lovely old blue door is gone. The archway is now high enough that tall people can now walk through i without banging their heads (something people only usually did once). And the work continues. The plasterer is plastering. The electrician is working wires. And the builders are putting up new walls. Every now and then I’m called upon to make a decision (I didn’t know that your average sink is 80 cm off the ground or that a bathroom plug is usually 180 cm high (that always bothered me – but it’s something to do with distance from water). And I’m winging it. Patience isn’t one of my strengths and I need to get a grip as I’m in danger of doing to get done rather than doing it as I want it.

No matter. This week, I’m grateful that they’re here. That it’s happening. That there’s an end in sight. And next week, I hope to be even more grateful that it’s all been done.

2017 Grateful 23

The new Irish. I heard that phrase this morning and it threw me. For years, centuries, Ireland has been exporting her people to far flung places and they’ve mixed, married, and melted into their new worlds, all the while retaining that Irish connection. They’ve become citizens of other countries. So why then am I so surprised at the thoughts of foreign nationals moving to Ireland and doing the same: mixing, marrying, and melting into Ireland. And becoming what is known as ‘the New Irish’.

In my inbox this morning, I received a link to a piece in The Guardian about the most ethnically diverse town in Ireland – Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo. Home to the first purpose-built mosque in the country (which dates back to the 1990s), this west- of-Ireland town is quite the example of how immigration and integration can fit in the same sentence, without exaggeration.

The video (just 15 minutes and worth a watch) tells of the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) supplanting the church as the focal point of the community. It shows a club, hemorrhaging Irish players to foreign parts, anxious to bolster numbers – and where better to go looking for talent that to the new-Irish community. The numbers are staggering. More than two-thirds of the kids in the local primary school don’t speak English at home. What was the local convent is now home to 300 asylum seekers from countries like Africa and Syria. And to these you can add the influx of Poles and Eastern Europeans to the mix and the Pakistanis who moved over a while back.

I felt the warm glow of national pride. Finally, a community that gets the need to integrate, to welcome, to get involved. And then the admission. They’re doing what they can to ensure that the kids feel no different to the local kids. But for the adults they can do little.

Direct Provision is the name of the scheme into which asylum seekers in Ireland find themselves. It can take 4 years to have your application processed and there’s an 80% chance you’ll be rejected. Long odds by any reckoning. And for those  years, you get a paltry weekly allowance and are housed and fed. You’re not allowed to work, no matter how qualified you are or how badly the community needs your skills. They’re the rules. Madness.

And while many who have come through the system are grateful to have been granted asylum, for thousands more, it’s a waiting game what will end badly. A temporary reprieve before being shunted on. Across the country, housing estates lie empty, buildings are boarded up. The recession offered a one-way ticket to many who left in search of a better world. And yet thousands more new Irish see Ireland as their home, and Ballyhaunis as their new village. When will someone with some policy power connect the dots?

While it’s by no means a perfect system, I’m grateful that in some parts of Ireland, they’re getting it right. Go, ‘haunis.



The things people say

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” I posted these words by author Robert McCloskey a few years and Facebook has seen fit to remind me of same. I’ve no idea what was going on in my life back then (other than I was blonde) but whatever it was, I’ve lived to tell the tale.

And while the words themselves still ring true, perhaps more telling is that that I had no clue who Robert McCloskey is (or was) and yet, here I am, quoting him. If you’re interested:

John Robert McCloskey (September 15, 1914 – June 30, 2003) was an American writer and illustrator of children’s books. He both wrote and illustrated eight picture books and won two Caldecott Medals from the American Library Association recognizing the year’s best-illustrated picture book. Four of those eight books were set in Maine: Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, Time of Wonder, and Burt Dow, Deep-water Man; the last three all on the coast. He was also the writer for Make Way For Ducklings, as well as the illustrator for The Man Who Lost His Head. McCloskey was born in Hamilton, Ohio, during 1914 and reached Boston in 1932 with a scholarship to study at Vesper George Art School. After Vesper George he moved to New York City for study at the National Academy of Design.  In 1940, he married Peggy Durand, daughter of the children’s writer Ruth Sawyer. On June 30, 2003, McCloskey died at his home in Deer Isle, Maine.
I started thinking about the people in my life and the notes of wisdom I attribute to them, words that might well live on long after they’ve departed this world, assuming I’m still around to quote them.
SF: If it’s for you, it won’t pass you
PF: In the heel of the hunt
VS: We’re not putting hearts into babies
CM: No one’s dead / no one’s going to die
AS: Will you ever go to bed and let me go home?
CM: There are worse things in life than death
IM: It’s your doughnut
PF: That’s the bill of the fare
MC: His ankles forgot to ask his trousers down for tea
CG: Not bein’ bad, like
CM: Paper will take any print
JM: Perfection leaves no room for improvement
ND: Did you meet anyone you liked better than yourself?
AP: Spend money on your hair and your glasses – they’re two things you will wear every day
I’m going to add to this as I come up with more. And it’d be interesting to see if I’m quotable myself.

To lie or not to lie…

“So you’re always honest,” I said.
“Aren’t you?”
“No,” I told him. “I’m not.”
“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.”
“I’m not saying I’m a liar,” I told him. He raised his eyebrows. “That’s not how I meant it, anyways.”
“How’d you mean it, then?”
“I just…I don’t always say what I feel.”
“Why not?”
“Because the truth sometimes hurts,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “So do lies, though.”
― Sarah Dessen, Just Listen

I posted this back in 2013. Same time of year. I read it this morning, some four years later and it took time to figure out why I was so upset. Who had lied to me? Or, God forbid, had I lied to someone? That said, had this conversation happened in my life, I’d have been him, not her. Give me truth to lies any day. Many years ago, in a flat in Chichester, I was having dinner with a couple of college friends, the lovely Es. We were having a discussion about truth and honesty and I had stated with all the certainty I could muster, which back then was quite a lot, that truth would win out every time. And that even if the person hearing it was hurt, so be it. Better that than lie. RE was a little taken aback that I might hurt someone, deliberately, in my determination to be honest. She was a little bewildered about my certainty that it was the other person’s responsibility to deal with my honesty – not mine. They’d asked for it.  I was simply obliging. I was certain. I’d tell the truth. Uncouched. Unvarnished. Unflailing.

Fast forward a number of years to a classroom in Bangalore where my teacher, the great Dick McHugh, was asking me difficult questions. I’d asked him about this very conversation. We were speaking about this fear I had of being lied to, of my need for complete and total honesty. He suggested that before I answer any question requiring me to be honest, I ask myself – What do I want to achieve? And if I wanted to hurt someone, to offend them, to make them feel small, then by all means, I should dish out the unvarnished truth. But that question should always be asked. And responsibility should always be taken. By me.

Over the years, I’ve softened. I’m not nearly as ornery as I used to be. And while I still find it very difficult to deal with anything other than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I’m not beyond telling a fib if, in the grand scheme of things, the truth won’t help. Does it really matter if I don’t like spaghetti bolognese? If my host has spent the better part of an hour making it from scratch, am I going to sweep the pastiche from under them and tell them anything other than it’s lovely when they ask me how it is? If a random stranger in the fitting rooms asks me what an outfit looks like on her, one that does nothing but accentuate everything she wants to hide, I will temper my previous ‘does absolutely nothing for you’ and offer a milder ‘doesn’t have the wow factor – perhaps another style’.

I’ve often wondered where to draw the line. And whether I’m on a slippery road to always taking the easy way out. So far though, I’m hanging in. I’ve dulled my bluntness and am a tad more considerate of other people’s feelings. That said, if I ask someone to be completely honest with me, then complete honesty is what I expect, warts and all. And I will return the favour.




2017 Grateful 24

Twice last week I listened to myself sagely pronounce: ah, well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In both cases, parents were commenting with on something idiotic their kids had done. And they were wondering how their kids could have done or said or written whatever it was. And in both case, it was something I’d known both of them to do when they weren’t much older than their kids are now. I can’t remember the details – just the essence.

It’s a great expression – one that says so much. But literally? Apples and trees? How far is far? The garden is littered with fallen apples. And they’re not dropping vertically. They’re special apples. Gifted apples. They can fly.

The windfalls are not big enough to bother peeling for tarts. And they’re too bruised to be any good for cider. So what do to with hundreds and hundreds of the little buggers and not a pig within smelling distance when you need one?

I did what I usually do when presented with such a massive ‘What now!’ I googled. What to do with windfalls. I could make them into apple chips, had I a vegetable hydrator, but I don’t. And it’s way too hot to even think about getting in the car and shlepping to the nearest big town to go search for one. I could make chutney – but I don’t have all the ingredients I need and, as I said, it’s way too hot ….

One of the things about living in a shopless village is that you learn to make do with what you have. Add a modicum of heat-induced laziness to the mix and it was definitely a case of digging deeper.

Cloudy apple juice. There ya go. Perfect. All I needed were apples (plenty), a strainer, a few clean cotton cloths, and some empty bottles.

I mentioned that it’s hot, yeah? Not an ideal day to be standing over a gas stove boiling up kilos of apples but what conscience I have wouldn’t let me sit and watch them rot. So that’s what I did today – I boiled apples.

It amuses me no end how quickly we fall into the patterns of our parents. Somehow, the outside seems to have become himself’s domain, while the inside is mine to rule. [That said, it could be that himself loves the sun and I don’t.] Anyway, he picked and I cooked. And it’s been hours. I’ve been at this since 11 this morning and there’s still no end in sight. I’ve run out of bottles so I’m multitasking and finishing off last night’s wine as I go, while looking for another with a screw-top lid to lay into.

My cloudy apple juice isn’t nearly as pink as the one in the recipe picture, but then my apples weren’t nearly as red. It’s nice though – a little sweet, but I have it on good authority that it’s a great source of fibre. And I saved some of the pulped apple for use in apple sauce or a sponge mix. Martha Stewart, each your heart out.

Penny per minute, it certainly didn’t pay me to spend the bones of my day making apple juice. The return on my time investment isn’t great. About a litre an hour. Were I to sit down and do the math, I probably spent more on gas to boil the buggers than I would have spent to buy the equivalent in juice. But I know that my juice has no additives (I took out all the worms). And it’s fresh. And it’s mine.

The nature of my day job is such that I rarely get to see a finished product. Sure, I get emails from workshop participants months after the event telling me that they’ve been asked to present somewhere and now have the confidence to do so. Or they tell me how much better their work lives are, now that they’re not petrified of speaking out. One of my TED speakers has had over a million hits on a video of a speech we worked on together. But those concrete, measurable results are rare.

Today though, I can see what five hours of work has yielded. And while the work itself was mindless, it gave me time to switch off and not think. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that is all too rare in my world. And for that I’m truly grateful.

Something to think about, with Ealy Mays

What I know about art could be written on the back of a postcard. My approach is simple: if it speaks to me, I like it. If it says nothing, then no matter how much the artist is revered by others, no matter how many times they’ve been exhibited or how often they’ve been critically acclaimed, I can’t get excited.

I go to exhibitions of work by the greats so I can decide whether they speak to me. So far, I’m drawing blanks. While individual paintings speak – like Whistler’s Reading by lamplight (which is technically an etching), or Van Gogh’s Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette, or Monet’s The Magpie – I cannot say that I’m a fan of any one painter’s body of work. I don’t prefer a particular style, or rate a particular form (although I am rather partial to pen-and-ink). But that might be about to change.

A couple of years ago, a young Hungarian friend of mine, Timea Klincsek, introduced me to the work of Ealy Mays. She was quite excited about it. Living in Paris at the time, she had met Mays through a Polish friend Barbara Brzoska, who was, in a sense, his agent. Mays and Brzoska had met in a bar one night in 2012 and got to talking about art and broken hearts. She went to see some of his exhibitions and became a fan. The following year, when Mays had a falling out with his agent, Brozska stepped in and began organising exhibitions for the artist around the city. In 2014, Klincsek joined what is now the Ealy Mays Attelier (EMA) team and, together, the two young women restored Mays’ faith in agents. They collaborated with rising stars in the fashion and jewellery world to create events that appealed to diverse audiences. Brzoska brought with her a background in Art History and her familiarity with the Parisian art scene, while Klincsek, having studied Fashion and Journalism, added new strengths to the team. [Official website: ealymays.com]

The two young women were impressed with Mays’ honesty. He, in turn, showed them a side of Paris they wouldn’t normally have seen. He introduced them to American, Russian, and Mexican art history, and through his social and political commentary, exposed them to new worlds. ‘His work doesn’t just reflect his own community, but captures experiences of many different cultural backgrounds, making his artwork a never-ending journey. There is always something new to discover both in his art and in his character’, says Klincsek. Mays does what other artists often fail to do: he makes people think.

He is fond of saying that ‘every new idea comes from an old book’. And while he often quotes his father’s advice of imitate, initiate, and create, he insists on originality in thought, form, and composition. Resisting the urge to conform and caring little about the opinions of art critics, Mays’ originality is what makes him special.

Born in 1959 in Wichita Falls, Texas, USA, Mays started painting at the age of 4. When he was 8, he had a piece exhibited in the White House. Yet despite such auspicious beginnings, he would forsake his passion and choose instead to follow the path carved out by his father and two older brothers, medical doctors all. He opted to study medicine at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara in Mexico, so that he could indulge his passion for art. While he studied, he painted. His Last Train to Chihuahua, an evocative portrayal of a revolution-era train arriving at a station, received a lot of coverage by the local press.

Back in the USA, his work came to the attention of Jacob Lawrence, the most widely acclaimed African-American artist of the twentieth century. In a letter of reference to the Studio Museum in Harlem, Lawrence described Mays as a ‘pure painter’, emphasising his natural talent and his audacity in never following the crowd. Not bad, considering Mays hadn’t received a whit of formal training.

In search of an ‘intellectual environment to think, to breathe, to paint’ Mays moved to Paris in the 1990s where his series The Migration of the Superheroes was twice exhibited at the Carrousel du Louvre, once in 2005 and again in 2007. Mays sees himself as a social critic. His work embodies ethnicity, politics, history, religion, and satire. And yes, it makes you think.

Now living back in Budapest, Klincsek decided it was time that her home city got to see Mays in person. And again, she’s quite excited. Although the art and collector circle in Budapest is not anywhere near the scale it is in Paris, there’s a curiosity in the city, an appetite for new work, and a willingness to introduce international artists to Hungarian art lovers.

As a self-confessed neophyte, I’m quite taken with this piece A Savior is Born and had I $20 000 or so to spend, it would be on my wall. I’m even more enthralled by Cosmic Cloud, a piece that took me places and gave me lots to think about. I’m hoping these two will be included in Mays’ Budapest debut. Think outside the box – an Ealy Mays retrospective 1987-2017, showcasing 30 years of his work, opens at the Pintér Gallery (Falk Miska Utca 10) on 20 July and runs until the end of the month, Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6pm and Saturdays, 10 am to 2pm.

I’m looking forward to meeting the artist in person; I believe he will be in attendance most days. I’m also looking forward to seeing Brzoska and Klincsek in action. Their passion, their drive, and their determination in promoting Mays’ work is admirable. He’s fortunate indeed to have two great women behind him.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 July 2017