The masquerade of charity

I was in Serbia earlier this week and while there, had a few minutes to browse the web. I belong to a host of online sites selling old and used furniture. I can lose myself for hours in these virtual shops. One (wo)man’s trash is indeed another (wo)man’s treasure. I found a chest of drawers that I liked. It had some nice carving on the front and although it looked as if it had seen better days, it seemed in reasonable nick, from the photos, at least.

I engaged in a conversation with the owner using my friend Google Translate. It transpired that it was too big to fit in the boot of our car (I’d learned my lesson from a previous online purchase, and now check with himself before committing myself to anything). But yer man said he’d deliver. I didn’t argue the price, even if he said it was a guide price. I’m useless at that sort of stuff and he said he really needed the money as he has two small kids and no money to buy clothes or toys for them. I offered to pay for his petrol to drop them over but forgot to  mention this to ‘he who is not blessed by divine inspiration’, with the result that when yer man arrived and dropped it off, he was given just the asking price. I was in Serbia, remember?

That said, the piece is, by all accounts, a little worse for wear. At one stage it must have had a top half that is now missing; the holes into which that piece fit are a tad obvious. I’ve yet to see it, but I’m already thinking that it has the makings of yet another project (my way of dressing up buyer’s remorse). It joins a chair waiting to be reupholstered, two other chairs waiting to be painted, and two wardrobes waiting for inspiration. But I live in hope.

We’ve been back and forth since about how to pay the money promised and the conversation is getting interesting. We’re back to clothes, shoes, and toys for the two kids. What’s even more interesting though, is my reaction to it all.

I had the initial – Oh, no, please, not a con artist! – which morphed into ‘Oh, no, please, I’ve enough to be worrying about with my own bills’ – which then capsized into the seas of Catholic guilt and surfaced as ‘FFS, have a heart.’

I ran quickly through the seven works of mercy:

Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, comforting the imprisoned, visiting the sick, and burying the dead.

and while me buying clothes and toys for this chap’s kids wouldn’t tick any specific boxes, the mercy could be loosely implied.

Earlier today, I had reason to revisit  the five stages of grief:

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance

And they rang a louder bell.

When he first asked me for clothes and toys, I was in denial. I thought it was some major mistranslation and that Google had messed up. I double checked. And he wrote again, in German this time, with the same key words: kids, clothes, toys, no money. But he’s also looking to buy car (or so it says on FB).

Then I got angry. Yes, I might look as if I have pots of money because three sides of the outside of the house are freshly painted and the inside is obviously a work in progress. And yes, I’m a foreigner so I must have money. And yes, I’m a woman so I’m supposedly programmed to feel empathy for women and kids in need. But he’s also buying a car. And I don’t know him from Attila. And what if it was all a ruse to scope out the house and make off with all that furniture waiting to be fixed! And then I got angry at myself for being so distrustful and cynical.

I moved on. I started to bargain with myself. I’d already paid over the odds for the chest of drawers and I’d paid for delivery (I’ve since transferred the money). Was I now supposed to go out and buy clothes and toys for this chap’s kids? And how did I know that he wasn’t a con artist and living in the lap of relative luxury funded by soft touches like myself? Perhaps I should go visit him and see for myself. And then decide. But what would that make me – a social worker? And a skeptic. Why not just buy the damn stuff and be done with it? But if I’m taking that tone, I’m doing it unwillingly and the good deed would be tainted.

Then came the depression, and the guilt, and the realisation that maybe I’m not as good a person as I think I am if I’m even questioning ignoring his need … if it is a real need. Aghhhhhhhhhhhhh!

I’ve now reached acceptance. I’ve asked him for the kids’ sizes and ages and I plan to go shopping this weekend. Yep, he might be a con man. It might all be a scam. And I might be an idiot. And if that’s the case …. well, I have a degree in self-beratement from a previous life. so I can just dust off the certificate. But if there’s a chance that he’s genuine, and that his need is real, and that he’s so at the end of his tether that he’s had to ask a total stranger for help, then what choice do I have?

As my man Sydney said so long ago: Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.

But lest there be any confusion here – I’m not doing it to be good, to be nice, to be Christian. I’m with Anthony de Mello on this one [The masquerade of charity] – this isn’t charity – it’s enlightened self-interest: he gets what he needs for his kids, and I get to feel that I’ve done something useful.


2017 Grateful 47

There was mad panic in my house this evening. I lost a week. I was all set to write my  Grateful 4  blog about celebrating Thanksgiving in the village and what a great time we had. I was going to write about the hunt for the turkey because turkeys cannot be found in Hungary until December when you can get massive ones but if you’re in the market for a 6kg bird in November, you may as well be looking for ice cubes in the Sahara. And we tried. We tried the travelling butcher van. We tried the market. We tried the supermarkets. We had even sourced two 3kg birds on the north side of the Balaton and I was prepared to travel. But, as luck would have it, I stopped off in Metro on my way down last week and found one, lone, single, solitary 4.4kg bird that came with freezer burns but hey, those could be cut off.

I was going to write about the joys of cooking dinner for 8 using a gas oven that could just about hold said 4.4kg turkey and four rings ranging from very small, to small, to sorta medium, to what passes for big. Thankfully, the lovely RWs at the other end of the village took in the spuds. But the pressure was on. I was trying new dishes – like Asian sprouts and a maderia/mushroom/green bean casserole. I was all set to do the bourbon hasselback sweet potatoes but I was behind schedule and the guests had started to arrive.

Yes – me – behind schedule. I was going to blog about that, too, before I lost the week. I’d spent far too long that morning figuring out how to make paper napkins look like turkeys. You gotta love YouTube. It really sucks the time out of the clock and shoves it forward. My turkeys ended up looking more like swans because I didn’t have the patience to find the foil the lovely woman said I’d need. But the thought was there.

I was also going to mention that our little party of 8 was representative of 7 countries: Austria, England, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, Serbia, and the USA (x2). Countryside cosmopolitanism at its best. Age wise, we spanned 40 years from oldest to youngest. And I’m proud to say that none of us had a real job (as in one you have to get up in the morning and go to, clock in and clock out, and then ask for holidays) – something all of us were very grateful for indeed. Most of us had been there at some stage in our respective lives and none of us wanted to go back.

I was going to share the diversity of discussions which ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, from politics to parochial gossip, from recent awards conferred to what Wikipedia had to say about those in our party famous enough to warrant a page. But my missing week put paid to all that.  And then I did the math.

I was on Grateful 4 which would suggest that there were only three more weekends after this one till the end of the year. I checked the calendar just to be sure and found that December has five weekends so I was really missing two weeks, not one. I went back and trolled through my Gratefuls to find that I was had posted 42&41 together one week and the following week, instead of 40, I did 41…again. And then went to 39. So I skipped 40. And I’d skipped 47. Now, you may think this trivial, but believe me,  doubting my ability to count backwards from 52 could have series repercussions. My faith in myself right now is low (thinking turkeys and swans) and I don’t need any more self-doubt.

I tried going back and renumbering the posts but that would invalidate my links and create all sorts of headaches later. Then I remembered that video I’d watched earlier in the week about how, for (some?) Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning. And I got sidetracked. I watched some more videos (all contradictory, I might add – does anyone know the truth?). I read the comments (and some downright nasty ones ,too) and chased up referrals. And I lost a couple of hours. But at least I found my two weeks – and for that I’m grateful.


Travel books and tour guides

Plenty has been written about the differences between tourists and travellers. I’m usually a traveller and very occasionally a tourist – and yes, it definitely depends on who I’m with. I’m not a great fan of guide books that give me the Top 10 things to see and do, all neatly packaged. Such lists come with the implied suggestion that I have to tick off each one before I can claim to ‘have done’ Paris, or Timbuktu, or wherever.  [Not that I would EVER use the expression – ‘I’ve done wherever’. I’ve been to Malta about two dozen times at least and I still haven’t seen everything there is to see on the island. I defy anyone to say they’ve done Malta.]

I dislike rankings, TripAdvisor being a case in point. Without knowing these people, how can I trust their opinion of what is worth seeing? It’s all very objective. Things needs context. I don’t have much faith in numbers. But that’s me.

I rarely do any prep work in advance of a trip. I don’t have a set list of things to see or do in my head. I have my usuals – I want to find a local market, I want to spend a few hours in a local cemetery, and if there’s a museum that deals with man’s inhumanity to man, I’ll be there. I like to cash in on the three wishes I get each time I visit a church for the first time, so they’re always a possibility. And I like to eat like the locals do – I’d take street food and neighbourhood caffs over posh restaurants any day.

But for that sense of place, that background of culture, that familiarity of people, for those I go to novels set wherever I’m headed.

I was in New Orleans back in 2001. I was driving around the southern states and it was my start and end point. I liked it a lot. And now I want to go back. Not because I have any lasting impression of the place from when I was there, but because I’m in the middle of the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith.

I’d read the second book first and liked it enough to go back to the start – and I’m glad I did. New Orleans Mourning explains the essence of Mardi Gras and the French Quarter. [I didn’t know that a string of Mardi Gras beads is referred to as a ‘pair of beads’ – and I had no idea that NOLA was such a class-conscious city.] Smith develops each character’s strengths and insecurities and uses this to give her whodunnit context. By the end of the first two books, I was sold. I’m happily kindling through the rest of them and want to go back to see it all for myself, using Skip as my guide.

Dana Stabenow does something similar with her Kate Shugak in Alaska. Peter May does it with Finlay McLeod on the Scottish islands. Timothy Hallinan does it with Poke Rafferty in Bangkok. And the list goes on. This is my sort of travel reading.

On the rare occasion I buy a guidebook, I buy local – something written by someone who lives in the area. Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. More recently, in Košice, Slovakia, Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice, a sequel to Wanders in Košice, was our guide – both purchased in the local tourist information office, both little gems, replete with backstories, insider tips, and context. Just what I like.

2017 Grateful 5

Many, many years ago, while living in London, I had the great fortune to go see Maya Angelou live. My memory of the particulars is sketchy. I think it was a smallish room, perhaps a community hall, with a stage. The audience numbered hundreds rather than the thousands I’d imagined a legend like herself would draw. Whether that was because tickets were limited and we were damn lucky or because the wider world didn’t know she was there or think of her as someone to go see, I’m not sure.

I’m a fan. I read and quote her work and always learn something from her poetry. I worked with a gal in Los Angeles once who was so obsessed with her that she was planning to move to Winston-Salem on the off-chance of running into her idol at the grocery store.

Born in 1928, Marguerite Ann Johnson’s life began badly. She was raped and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 8. He was caught, jailed for one day, released and murdered four days later. Maya stopped talking.

I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…

It wasn’t until she was 14 that her teacher, Ms Bertha Flowers, helped her talk again. Of many firsts in her life, her first first was probably to become San Francisco’s first Black female cable car conductor. Her son Clyde (Guy) was born when Maya was just 16, a single mom, working as a waitress to keep them together. In 1952, when she began her singing career, she took the name Maya Angelou. Her interest in music and literature blossomed as did her activism in the Civil Rights Movement. She toured Europe with Porgy and Bess and began what would become a habit – to learn the language of the countries she visited. In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr asked her to be the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The following year, she met Vusumzi Make, an activist from South Africa and all three move to Cairo, Egypt where she edited an English language weekly The Arab Observer. She later moved to Ghana before return to the USA in 1964.

Somewhere along the way, she met Oprah Winfrey and became her mentor. At Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Maya read her poem On the Pulse of Morningit would win a Grammy that same year. It was one of many awards she would go on to receive.  There is so much about the woman I didn’t know. Her film Georgia, Georgia, filmed in Sweden, was the first screenplay written and released by a black woman. She married Germaine Greer’s ex-husband, Paul du Feu. And she directed the film  Down in the Delta, featuring Wesley Snipes. And there’s so much more.

Why she’s in my mind today is that a friend posted a link of Facebook that got me thinking. It was titled How to change your life in one second flat.

According to Maya, there are four questions we subconsciously ask ourselves with almost every interaction we have with others:

  1. Do you see me?
  2. Do you care that I’m here?
  3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
  4. Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?

Katherine Schafler, NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker, explains the theory behind it all far better than I could. 


I’m guilty of stumbling on the first one. Do I see you? Did I look at the cashier at the market today? Nope. Do I look at the waiter, the church collector, the postie? Maybe. Sometimes. But more often than not, I’m rushing. I’m not looking. I’m not connecting. I’m not seeing.

And those times when I do stop and look and see, they make a difference. At the World Bank meeting in Dubai many lifetimes ago, a Bangladeshi kid was stationed at our conference bus stop. His job was to be there in case any of the delegates needed to return to their hotels. Each day, in the sweltering heat, we’d chat a while. About him, his family, his life. He told me to try smoking a hookah pipe. And then he asked me which flavour I preferred. On my last day, my last bus ride from the venue, he gave me a present of some apple tobacco. It had cost him a day’s wages. I knew better than to refuse but I did ask him why – and he said: Because you saw me.

I’d forgotten that. I’d forgotten what a game changer it can be if we actually ‘see’ people. This article reminded me of what I’ve been lax about. And for this reminder, I’m truly grateful.   And think, that’s only Question 1.

Happiness is…

In a workshop last week, one of the participants gave a presentation on being happy. They spoke of how being grateful for the simple things in life can make us happier, as we’re busy concentrating on all that is well with us rather than focusing on what is not so good. And they had a point. I’m a great fan of gratitude; it’s something I practice daily. But the whole happiness thing got me thinking.

We seem to be preoccupied with being happy, with achieving a permanent state of near bliss. Advertising and marketing companies prey on this need, creating the product, the experience, the feeling that will tip the balance and make us happy. A flash car. An exotic holiday. A diamond ring. Or perhaps health in the form of cholesterol-lowering margarine. Or beauty in the form of shiny hair – just because we’re worth it.

The self-help shelves in bookshops are lined with reams of advice on how to find, catch, snare the all-elusive happiness that we so evidently crave. Pists, gists, and trists build careers on finding out what is preventing us achieving that sought-after state. We work ourselves to the bone to make more money to buy more stuff, stuff that we think will make us happy. We stay awake worrying when we don’t have money because we feel insecure. And we stay awake worrying when we do have money in case we lose it all. But, to borrow a line from Lily in the Wind, a poem by one of my favourite contemporary poets, the great Neil McCarthy, and included in Niall Connolly’s song Not my Monkey, on his album All we have become, which is currently getting a wearing as I drive:

When does money stay awake and worry about you and me?

My mother espouses what she calls the ninth beatitude – Blessed is she who never expects anything, for she shall never be disappointed. For a long time, I linked unhappiness with expectations. But I got over it. When bosses told me in performance reviews that I needed to better manage my expectations in order to become a more satisfied employee, I knew it was time to move on and move out of a system that needed me to portray on-the-clock happiness to succeed. Promotion was linked to positivity rather than productivity. It was too much for me. Trying to seem happy all the time made me miserable.

I read somewhere, perhaps on a card or one of those motivational posters that were so popular in the 1990s, that happiness is knowing how to be content with what you have. All well and good but where should I park my dreams? My ambition? My want for a better world? I struggled with this one for a long time, buying into its essence but being concerned with the ‘settling’ implied. And then today, I got this in my inbox.

I’ve learned…to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am (Philippians 4:12-14)

And I thought yes, that’s it. Whether our One is Allah, Mohammad, Krishna, Jesus, Bhagavan, Shiva, the Universe, or ourselves, happiness comes from a belief in self, a faith in life.

So, after due reflection, lots of reading, and more than half a lifetime lived, I’ve decided that happiness is far too amorphous to be defined. It can’t be labelled or described in definites. It can’t be bottled and sold or earned or awarded. It’s simply what happens when we believe in our one. Whatever that one is.

To paraphrase Albert Camus:

We will never be happy if we continue to search for what happiness consists of. We will never live if we are looking for the meaning of life.


Peeved, piqued, and petulant

The older I get, the more people annoy me. More specifically, it’s their lack of consideration for others, for their environment, for my space that bugs me. Maybe I don’t have enough to be thinking about. Or perhaps it’s a curl of curmudgeonry signposting just how cantankerous I’m going to get. But I’m fit to be tied.

We’ve had visitors this weekend and that always warrants a trip to the Island, Kányavári sziget, on the Kis Balaton. It’s a gem of a spot that I’ve written about before. A birder’s paradise. A fisherman’s haven. A walker’s dream. It’s at its best this time of year, with the autumnal colours, the grey skies, and the notable lack of visitors.

Kányavári-sziget Balatonmagyaród

Kányavári-sziget Balatonmagyaród

The fishermen were at their usual stands, some notable by their absence. And perhaps because the leaves were falling and the bushes were bare, I could see beyond the foliage to the rubbish. Plastic bottles. Beer cans. Plastic bags. Even a broken deck-chair. What possesses people not to take their rubbish with them when they leave? What makes them think that it’s perfectly okay to litter, to leave a mess, to toss their garbage in the water or into the reeds? What sort of rearing did they get? What were they taught in school? How come they are so bloody inconsiderate?

Despite the tranquility, despite the still air and the calming waters, I was working myself up into a right vent. WTF! How difficult is it to pack a trash bag? They must have carried in their stuff in a bag… surely it’s not asking too much to carry it out again? In the same bloody bag? What brain cell wasn’t working when they decided just to get up and walk away from it all? It’s no wonder the world is so screwed up.

Many years ago, a nun I had in school – Mother Patrick – asked us how long it would take to clean the streets of Paris. We answered in days, weeks, and months. She said it would take just 10 minutes – if everyone cleaned outside their own front door. Our village is clean. Very clean. It’s well kept and tidy. No litter. Nothing lying around. But the island is another story. Admittedly, it’s not as bad as it might be, but it’s a slow creep.

Next time. I’ll pack a bin bag and pick up other people’s trash. Not because I want to clean up after them, but because of a comment from Bill Bryson I read  a while back:

In the countryside, litter doesn’t have a friend. It doesn’t have anybody who’s saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is really starting to get out of control.
And lord help the person I see casting their empty coke bottle into the bushes. There’s a rage inside me just waiting to be vented. FFS  sake, litter louts. Get a grip.




2017 Grateful 6

I don’t think I’ll ever grow up. Not really. I might get a little more responsible, a little more sensible, a little more pragmatic, but at heart, I’ll still be that gullible kid who believes in magic, in fairies, in ghosts. I needed very little persuading when the lovely GZs suggested a trip across the border into Slovenia to Bukovniško lake and its magic forest. Not too clear about what to expect herself, she sold me on the idea of healing energy and curing waters.

Back in 2001, Dr Ilija Čosić (who, as far as I can tell, is a writer/professor from Novi Sad in Serbia) visited the lake and mapped the bioenergy and radiesthesy. [I had to check that one out: Radiesthesia is the science of using the vibrational fields of the human body to access information about other objects of animate or inanimate nature by establishing resonance with their energy fields, using specially calibrated instruments and a scale of qualitative measurement to decode this information.] He and his team of experts found more than 50 energy points clustered around two power lines that cross right where the church of St Vida (St Vitus) sits in the middle of the forest.

They focused on 26 energy points that are clearly marked for specific ailments. Stand or sit at any of these points, arms relaxed, palms facing the ground, and you will feel the energy manifested as a warm, tingling sensation or a cool breeze. And if you don’t feel anything, then that particular spot is not for you.

I looked at the list of 26 energy points and made my selection. I didn’t want a conveyor belt experience. I wanted to treat the specifics.  I stopped first at No. 2 – just because stress is nasty. It was pleasant, but more because I was out in the forest rather than feeling any surge of energy. So, nothing I can’t manage myself, I thought. I stopped at No. 9 because I have cholesterol issues but I didn’t feel much by way of anything. I can stop worrying about that then.  Next I went to No. 15, the rheumatism and arthritis spot and after a few minutes in situ, my palms started to tingle and heat up. Damn, I thought, that pain I’ve been feeling is real. I then stopped at No. 24 – limb pain and muscle inflammation) – same thing. The full list is quite something and I’m sure something has gotten lost in translation.

1: Gallstones and kidney stones

2: Mental, emotional, stressful, depressive problems

3: General back pain

4: Leg ulcer diseases (arteries)

5: Small and large intestinal diseases, including hemorrhoids

6: Headaches, dizziness, vertigo

7: Respiratory diseases (trachea, lung inflammation)

8: Migraine problems and tension in the head

9: Diabetes, cholesterol, liver, pancreas, spleen

10: Skin diseases (inflammation, acne and psoriasis (psoriasis) [the recommended retention time on it is 30 minutes]

11: Strengthening the immune system

12: Vascular diseases (venous vessels) and varicose veins and knots

13: Chest problems, pleurisy

14: Cardiac vessels

15: Rheumatic diseases (rheumatism, arthritis)

16: Gastric, duodenal and colorectal inflammation (acid, ulcer)

17: Alcohol, tobacco, and drug addiction

18: Urinary system, prostate and fertility (inflammatory diseases)

19: Blood pressure

20: Eyes, ears and nose (inflammation), partly also of allergies

21: Gastrointestinal disorders (diarrhea and constipation, abdominal cramps and tension)

22: Respiratory allergies – bronchitis

23: Malignant or benign tumors

24: Limb pain (muscle inflammation and osteoporosis)

25: Strengthen and improve the blood count

26: Enhance life energy and increase frequency cell vibrations

The church of St Vida, at the centre of the energy lines, is like something out of a fairy tale. Back in WWII, there was a wooden structure on the site. During a battle not far from the chapel, one partisan managed to escape (they were hiding out in a local hunting lodge). Badly wounded, he crawled to this sanctuary. It was open then (unlike today). He didn’t expect to make it through the night but when he woke the next morning, all was well. Legend has it that he came back after the war and built the structure we see today.

Bukovniško St Vita's chapel

Not far from the church is the spring of St Vida. Bathing your eyes in the healing waters is said to improve your eyesight, and indeed local lore has it that many have been cured. Washing your hands and face can improve your skin. And drinking it is recommended to calm anxious nerves. GZs had done her homework so we’d brought empty bottles. But had we not, the information office has water cans for sale (when they’re open).

The lake itself is man made, and is about 2 metres deep. There’s a trail around it and a couple of picnic spots, too. It’s stocked with fish and fishing licences are available for purchase. All very relaxing on a cold November Saturday but I’d imagine it would be teeming on a hot week in August.

Bukovniško lake

Bukovniško lake

Bukovniško lake

As with anything good these days, there’s a caveat, a sort of disclaimer that says that one visit won’t do it. You need to come back a number of times within a short period. Not that I need much of an excuse to visit Slovenia. This weekend marks the beginning of a long-promised break, a chilling out period, time spent reflecting, reading, and writing. And if I can fit in a couple of more trips across the border – I’ll be even more grateful for the joys of village life and the access to other worlds that living so remotely affords.


PS There’s also quite a spectacular adrenaline park just at the entrance, one of the best I’ve seen. It would take about 2 hour to get around it and is suitable for ages 4 upwards.




2017 Grateful 7

On the plains of hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the dawn of victory, sat down to wait, and waiting – died! So said William A. Lawrence, and in fairness, the man has a point.

Procrastination. It’s a slow killer. It robs us of our time, screws with our dreams, and turns life into as series of tomorrows. Although scoring off the scale in Belbin’s team scoreboard as a completer-finisher, I still need to cross that initial hurdle and start.

Most effectively used at the end of tasks to polish and scrutinise the work for errors, subjecting it to the highest standards of quality control.
Strengths: Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. Searches out errors. Polishes and perfects.
Allowable weaknesses: Can be inclined to worry unduly, and reluctant to delegate.
Don’t be surprised to find that: They could be accused of taking their perfectionism to extremes.
I’ve given a number of workshops lately and if I believed in conspiracies, I might be justified in thinking that the universe was conspiring to send me a message. Three presentations in particular stand out. One said that it takes just 20 hours (45 minutes a day for 27 days) to master the rudiments of anything. Another said that an experiment showed that 90 something percent of people who wrote an appointment for the gym in their calendar actually went. And a third talked about happiness.
The first I like. In theory. But committing to 45 minutes for 27 consecutive days is proving difficult. Now, had I to have some sort of medical treatment that required the same commitment, I’d have no problem finding the time. Or if I was on parole and had to report in daily. Or if I had accepted a challenge to say a decade of the rosary in a different church every day for 27 days and a trip to Mecca was riding on it – then I’d find the time. But to learn Hungarian? I’m struggling. Being of a rather anal disposition, I’d prefer it to be the same time every day. But do I want to commit to being up and at it by 7.30 am every morning? Or curb what little social life I have these days by committing to 7.30 pm every evening? And during the day? That doesn’t suit either.
I know I’d be a lot happier if I could speak to my neighbours. I think I’d be a lot less happy if I could really understand the conversations on the metro or the tram. One of the advantages of not really speaking the language is that I’m saved the drivel.  I can avoid the banality, the complaints, the negativity so evident in tone on public transport. Do I really want to open those floodgates?
But, I don’t want to die not having had a few decent conversations in Hungarian with people I couldn’t otherwise talk to. I don’t want to be the procrastinator Lawrence talks about. So, I’m biting the bullet.  I’m going to try the 45 minutes of concentrated effort. Except that 27 days is a lot and I only have a clear stretch of 14 so I’m going to do 45 minutes twice a day for 14 days starting 10 November. And then we’ll see. Gotta be grateful for small steps. 




Dream your way out of this one

I brag about Budapest. I brag a lot. I brag to the point that I’m beginning to sicken my friends. Those who have been here to visit know what I’m talking about and don’t need reminding. Those who have yet to visit feel as if I’m nagging them. Enough, they say. Stop it. We’ll get there eventually.

It’s not just the fabulous architecture, the riverside vistas, or the city parks that gets me going. It’s not all about the excellent wines, the artery-clogging langós, and the famous marzipan. And it’s certainly not limited to the ruin pubs, the garden bars, and the rooftop venues. My main brag lately has been the sheer variety of affordable music that’s available any night of the week.

Homegrown talent like Frenk, Budapest Bár, and Quimby. Imported talent like Ripoff Raskolnikov and Ian Siegal who play in town so often they may as well be local. And Irish talent who pass through on tour.

This time last year, in November, we had the fabulous Little John Nee, who wowed the audience in Beckett’s and had us begging for more of his peculiar brand of story-telling and repartee. This month, we have Niall Connolly returning for two nights. He plays Club Pop Up in Zalaegerszeg on Sunday, 12th November and Beckett’s in Budapest on Monday, the 13th.

Credit: Art Heffron

Connolly is no stranger to Budapest. I first saw him as part of the The Voice & The Verse ensemble in Treehugger Dan’s on Lazar utca back when Treehugger Dan was doing his thing to entertain the masses and ensure quality entertainment at an affordable price. [Dan, we miss you.] The Budapest stops are usually part of epic tours that take in bars in Koloszvár, jazz clubs in Prague, bookstores in Kraków, and underground venues in Vienna. These boys will travel. And what both Nee and Connolly bring with them is their innate Irish ability to tell a good story. That, coupled with their talent as songsmiths, makes them special.

Connolly has played international festivals from Glastonbury UK to Cuala NYC in the USA.  He’s played the Prague Fringe, the Cork Folk Festival, and the Acoustic Festival in Düsseldorf. Classifying his music is beyond my limited arts vocabulary. I only know that I like it. But those in the know, like the Chicago Tribune, describes his stuff as folk-pop: ‘Terrific. Disarming and beautifully craft folk-pop.’ The Irish Independent says his stuff is very much ‘in the vein of early Dylan’ (and that I can see). No Depression says he’s ‘among the most vibrant, poignant, and authentic Indie folk artists in New York City.’

And it’s NYC that this Irish lad born in 1970’s Cork currently calls home.

In an interview about his album Sound, back in 2013, Connolly describes himself (and his songs) thus: ‘I’m interested in people, and as much as anyone, I’m sensitive to suffering of others, and I get riled up about things. And I love singing. I feel like if I’m going to write a song I better mean it. Because, the reality is, I’m going to sing that song hundreds, if not thousands of times. And I want to mean it every time.’ And it’s that authenticity that makes him memorable.

One of the many songs that resonates with me is one he wrote to commemorate James Connolly on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising last year. He wrote it from the perspective of JC’s daughter. Beautiful stuff.  And like everything else about both Connollys, there’s a story to this song, too. He first performed it as part of the Cuala NYC festival at Cooper Union in New York City, in a room where James Connolly himself had spoken many times. Then, later that year, the fab Glen Hansard (the Oscar-winning talent behind the song Falling Slowly from the movie, Once) asked him to perform it with him in Coughlan’s in Cork, and again on the roof of Apollo House in Dublin as part of the public protest against homelessness in Ireland. Hansard sings on the studio version of Connolly’s latest album Dream your way out of this one and, wait for it, Javier Mas (guitar player with Leonard Cohen for years) features on lead guitar. Our Irish lad has done good.

But, you might think, what appeal, if any, would Connolly and his repertoire have for a Hungarian audience? Funny you should ask. Hungary, not only Budapest, but also Győr, Szombathely, Debrecen, and Pécs have strong Irish connections. I’m very fond of quoting a line from James Michener’s 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, in which he describes Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. We share a sameness. Speaking with a Hungarian friend some time back, about the similarities between the two peoples, I quoted WB Yeats: Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy. You could easily switch ‘Irish’ for ‘Hungarian’, I said. And what about Sírva vigad a Magyar, they asked… wouldn’t Sírva vigad az ír work just as well?

Connolly’s songs are both sad and uplifting. They’re real. They speak to the goodness in people, that need to do something to make the world just a little better (Samurai). He identifies with universal troubles, with lines like ‘to bring home the bacon, you have to work with pigs’ that hit hard at modern-day compromises (Work with pigs). And lines like ‘I will not let the hatred in me change the man I try to be’ that speak to the fear that is choking twenty-first-century living (No cause of alarm). I’ve listened to the album several times now, and find that at each listen, a different song draws me in. And lately, one I’d really like my politicians to listen to, on repeat, is Open your eyes. Open your eyes to all that’s true and good.

Do yourself a favour. If you’re in town, go see him in Beckett’s on 13 November. He’s live. He’s true. And he’s good.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 November 2017





Prison chaplain John Jordan

I’m an addict. I’m addicted to that instant gratification that comes with being able to order the next book in a series I’m reading and get it minutes later. My kindle has revolutionised how I understand the word ‘series’. Instead of resting after one book and perhaps picking up whatever is lying on the shelf unread, I can now move straight to the next book in the series ensuring a steady diet of the characters and story lines for as long as it lasts.

I can’t remember how I stumbled across Michael Lister and his John Jordan series. I read No. 11 – Blood Oath – first and was so taken with the man and his life that I went straight back to Book 1 – Power in the Blood – and started over. And Lister had me up till Book 11. The one that had started out as a favourite. Then Jordan moved town and now I’m not so sure. Maybe it just takes time to adjust to the new situation. Book 12 – Blood Work – would have been great, had I not read books 1-10. And it is great. Lister at his best. It’s me…. I miss the prison.

John Jordan is a prison chaplain at a Florida state penitentiary. His dad is the local sheriff. His mum an alcoholic. His brother Jake is a cop, and his sister Nancy got out when the getting out was good. His best friend Merrill is as black as Jordan is white and is a prison officer at the same place. His high-school sweetheart Anna works there, too, but she’s married to someone else. His is a complicated lot, drawn as he is to his calling and to his innate investigative skills. He weaves the two professions into a tapestry that is both empathetic and pragmatic.

We are our stories. We are who we believe we are. .[…] And the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of ourselves and the world are all-powerful.

But, you might say, there are hundreds of clerical detectives out there (360 at one count). What has Lister done to make Jordan stand out from the discretion of priests, the converting of preachers, or the prudence of vicaries that enjoy a but of detecting on the side? [Bring back 15th-century collective nouns, I say!] For me, its the insight we get into prison life, into the the inmates’ psyche that is fascinating. The poverty of rural America, coupled with an inherent racism and small-town politics is equally so. Lister writes well. His characters have personalities that develop and age. His plots, though fictional, seem all too real. Author Michael Connolly, the man behind another favourite investigator of mine, Hieronymus Bosch, is a fan. So much so that Lister has Jordan’s dad working with Harry Bosch on a case and even has Jordan calling the great detective a few times for advice. Weirdly, this made it all the more real, as if one friend of mine knew another from a completely different part of my life. Yes there are those who question my grip on reality. Indeed, I’m the first to hold up my hand and say that the sky in my world is a peculiar shade of orange.

When I get into the grasp of a good series, I’m lost. Every spare minute is spent finding out what happens next. And with my Kindle, I can bookmark those lines that resonate most, that deserve second, third, and even fourth readings.

Man had come to the forest and money had come to town, and nothing would ever be the same for the land or the people of what once was the forgotten coast.

I wasn’t not overly impressed with Florida when I was there, but given that John D MacDonald placed Travis McGee [another all-time favourite detecting philosopher] in Florida, too, perhaps I need to reconsider.

Lister is generous with this signposting to other authors using John Jordan as a channel, like this quotation from author Tahereh Mafi (note to self made to explore more):

The moon is a loyal companion. It never leaves. It’s always there, watching, steadfast, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing forever just as we do. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human. Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections.

I like John Jordan. I like how he thinks, how he expresses himself. I like what he has to say. I like that he’s far from perfect and that he never pretends a piousness that would make him less than credible.

To me, faith and devotion is far richer when mixed with a good dose of honest agnosticism.

Lister has this to say about Jordan:

Running through all of the stories is the mystery of divine grace and the way it can penetrate even the darkest places. The stories are religious in the best sense of the term—open to possibilities. Jordan is a chaplain with more questions than answers, yet he recognizes that grace—the sign of God’s presence in the world—is capable of manifesting itself through the most unlikely people and in the most surprising situations.

If you’re in the market for a new series, this is one I can recommended.