All the bread has gone

All the bread has gone. And all the peppers. And all the avocados. The shelves are bare. Am listening to some hilarious skits on the radio in Dublin as the country hunkers down for the worst snow storm since 2008 or was it 2004 or maybe it was 1984? I was due to fly out today. Back to Budapest. I had plans.

I could have gone back yesterday, but when I was booking my flight I decided to stay an extra day to catch the sale at Newbridge Silverware. I woke up this morning to 6cm of snow on the car with more coming down. And Newbridge Silverware, like almost every place else in Kildare, was closed or inaccessible or not worth risking a no claims bonus on getting to it. I had a rental car with third party insurance and a deposit of €1500 riding on my credit card. I had to get the car back. I could have extended the contract over the phone for two days but I’d have to go in on Friday to sign a new one. And Friday is when the worst of Storm Emma is to hit.

But there were patches of blue sky and I was hopeful. Around noon, I saw a tweet from RyanAir saying all flights out of Dublin were cancelled. I got online, booked a seat on the next available flight (Sunday), checked in, and as I went to print my boarding pass, the site went down. And it’s been down since.

I set off for the airport to return the car and hoping against hope that RyanAir might relent and the weather gods would cooperate and I might fly after all. My mate MH was heading back to Australia and was on the train over from Westport, so we’d planned to have a drink and a catch-up anyway.

Driving back was the stuff white knuckles are made for. I hadn’t done a great job of defrosting the wipers and the windscreen washer was blocked so for a while there it was like driving behind Venetian blinds. When the trucks let up, I pulled over, and doused the dirt with water. That lasted till I got on the motorway … where there was nowhere to pull over. I must have said five decades of the rosary, answering myself, and praying that I’d get there without a scratch, my deposit intact.

The car safely checked in, I took the shuttle to the airport with two others – both of whom weren’t scheduled to fly till tomorrow but were hoping to get out before the Beast from the East hit. They, too, were going home. And like me, they didn’t make it. At the airport, the expected wait time in the RyanAir queue was up at four hours. When I left two hours later, it ran the full length of the airport. What a nightmare.

In the bar, a bunch of lads from Kerry were getting sozzled. They were to fly to Budapest to go on the razz but they weren’t going anywhere. With no public transport and no way to get back to Kerry, they’d booked themselves into a hotel in Temple Bar (€150 a night) and planned to party. was doing a great trade. Yells and screams went up any time someone managed to get a hotel booked. The only ones flying were off to Abu Dhabi. Everyone else was stranded.

Down in arrivals, the TV crew was out. The Irish skiers had arrived back from the Winter Olympics. Am sure they felt right at home. Upstairs in departures, the TV crews were using the milling masses as a backdrop as they commented on the chaos. And it is chaos. All buses stop tonight at 7pm and nothing will run tomorrow. The Luas (tram) will run tomorrow till 2pm. And that’s that.  All outpatient appointments in the hospitals have been cancelled for the next two days. Schools and universities are closed till Monday. And employers have been asked to close shop before 2pm tomorrow and send everyone home. Mad.

I’m going to miss the first St David’s Day celebration tomorrow night. And I’m going to miss the Brain Dogs gig on Friday. But at least I’m scheduled to fly on Sunday. And hopefully, by then, the Beast will have passed on through and the runways will have cleared.

I think back to my Alaska days when this sort of snow wouldn’t have caused anyone a second thought. We were used to it. And we were ready. Ireland isn’t. It’s not a time to be homeless. It’s not a time to be scrimping on the heat because you can’t afford the fuel bills (fuel allowance payments have been doubled this week). It’s not a time to be looking for bread because all the shops have sold out. (When did people forget how to bake?)

But I have somewhere to stay. There’s wine in the fridge. And there’s coal for the fire. It’s not Budapest, but it’s a home from home-home. And I’m happy to have it.


2018 Grateful 45

For anyone living abroad, coming home is a lot about things you used to do as a child: the Sunday visit to your granny (if she’s still alive), the Saturday night pint in the pub, doing the shopping on a Wednesday. It might be going to the Panto at Christmas, or putting money in the Trocaire box during Lent. It could be bringing in the hay or feeding the pigeons or cutting turf. Whatever it might be, these rituals of old anchor us to a place and take us back in time. And in a world of constant change, it’s nice to have something that has remained pretty much unchanged.

My security blanket, the thing that makes me feel most at home, is driving in a car with my parents at night. In mid conversation, apropos nothing that has gone before, one of them will utter the words:

Thy Lord shall open my lips.

And the rest of us will take our cue and respond en masse:

And my tongue shall announce His praise.

And the rosary will be given out, all five decades of whatever mysteries fall on that particular day. The Joyful mysteries are said on Monday and Saturday, the Luminous on Thursday, the Sorrowful on Tuesday and Friday, and the Glorious on Wednesday and Sunday (with this exception: Sundays of Christmas season – Joyful; Sundays of Lent – Sorrowful). But we’re still sticking to the old ways in our house. Joyful on Monday and Thursday; Sorrowful on Tuesday and Friday, and Glorious on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

When I asked why we hadn’t made the move over, an analogy was drawn between popes and captains of golf clubs: both have to do something new to leave their mark during their tenure. There might be some truth in that. Years after the updating of the standard prayers, I’m still struggling to master the words.  It was 2002 when Pope John Paul II introduced the ‘new’ rosary – but I suspect in many rosaried homes, they remain a flight a fancy.

The Rosary is supposed to offer time for reflection, but we race through it, chant-like, as if time were running out and we had someplace more important to be. I’ve sat through community rosaries in Malta, in Hungary, in Italy, in the UK, and in Ireland, and reflection is something no one seems to have time for. It’s always well paced – singsong-like. As kids, we would kneel down at the couch and try to keep keep count as we made our way through our decades without giggling. I remember going through a particularly bad period of stammering and having a terrible time getting out my Ms in the Hail Mary. But the name Rosary comes from the Latin Rosarium or crown of roses and ideally the prayer should be said as if you were strolling (not running) through Mary’s garden of roses

Word has it that the Rosary was given to St. Dominic in 1214 AD, so by Catholic standards, it might well equate to being modern, particularly as it wasn’t made an ‘official’ prayer until 1569 when Pope Pius V legalised it. For a time I would say it every night knowing that if I fell asleep before I finished it, the angels would finish it for me. Ah, the beauty of stories.

Today, rosary beads are often worn as necklaces, something that gives me the heebie jeebies. In my day, rosaries were hidden, used discreetly, the 59 beads carried in a purse or pocket and only taken out at mass or at wakes. I had a penal rosary (Irish: An Paidrín Beag) that had just one decade’s worth of beads and was easily hidden. I’d move the ring from one finger to the next, beginning with the thumb, to count the mysteries. Then, and now, it was a stark reminder of the Penal times, a time when we were not allowed to practice our religion, among other things. The more major of the laws included:

  • Catholics were excluded from holding public office such as Judge MP solicitor Jurist or barrister, civil servant, sheriff, or town councillor.
  • No Catholic could vote or be elected to office.
  • Catholics could not own land.
  • Catholics could not lease land for longer than 31 years and the rent was to equal two-thirds of the yearly value of the land.
  • Catholics were not allowed to hold arms nor be members of the armed forces nor own a horse worth more than £5.
  • If a Catholic landholder died, his estate could not be passed to the eldest son unless that son was a Protestant. Otherwise it was to be shared by all the surviving sons.
  • Catholics and Protestants could not intermarry.
  • Catholics could not be an orphan’s guardian.
  • Catholics were barred from living in many provincial towns.
  • Catholic clergy were to be registered and required to take an oath of loyalty, but friars, monks, hierarchy and Jesuits were to be exiled.
  • Clerics could not wear distinguishing clothes.
  • Places of worship could not have a steeple nor display a cross.
  • Catholics and dissenters were required to pay tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland which was the Established Church.
  • Catholics could not establish schools or send their children abroad for education.

Okay, so it was more than 300 years ago, but persecution is still alive and well and thriving in the world today. And how sad is that.

It’s been an interesting week – one that started in a Hungarian village and ended in an Irish one, with lots of towns, cities, and catch-ups in between. I’m grateful for the security offered in coming home, something denied to many as they no longer have homes to go. I’m grateful for the rituals that knit the fabric of Irishness in me. And I’m grateful for the reminder to appreciate all that I have.

A reminder of what the Grateful series is about.

The stories behind the cakes

On a recon of Zala county a couple of years back, when I was exploring thoughts of life in a Hungarian village, the instigators of this grand plan took me to visit Florridora’s Pantry, an English Tea Room run by Mancunian Ken Jones and Brighton-born Neil Stevens over in Zalaszántó. Fast forward a couple of years and the boys have moved to my village, Balatonmagyaród. The grand opening is scheduled for early March but I got a sneak preview of the new gaff last week. And it didn’t disappoint.

The lads had prepared a sampler tray of old stalwarts. It being a Friday in Lent though, all I could do was sit and listen to the stories while himself tasted them to make sure they were all up to scratch.

Going clockwise from 9pm, first up was Rocky Road. This is a favourite of mine (it was my ice-cream of choice during my  B&J wars with the inimitable Sam Fowler while living in Longview, Washington). The recipe is about 150 years old and originates from the gold mines of Australia. It would take weeks for supplies to reach the camp and most arrived in pieces. But the broken bits were bunged together and aptly name Rocky Road, as a nod to the road hard travelled.

Next, were two versions of the famous Hungarian Kossuth cake. Some say that the Florridora menu is one of the few menus (if not the only one) on which this features in Hungary today. After the 1848 Hungarian uprising, Kossuth Lajos was invited to to America. He made the trip in 1851, primarily to tell the folks over there about what was going on in Hungary and to raise some money for another attempt at a revolt. And while the locals didn’t quite stump up (he raised a paltry $25, equivalent to about $740 in today’s money), he got a name for himself as a champion of freedom. An enterprising fan, a baker in Baltimore, decided to honour him in cake, filling a sponge cupcake with sweet whipped cream and topping it off with a strawberry or a chocolate sauce. Bring it back, I say. Bring it back.

At about 1pm in my photo, there’s the Brighton sandwich, a nod to Stevens’s home town. The origins of shortbread are a focal point of discussion for some – Mary Queen of Scots is mentioned, as is Elizabeth I. And, something I didn’t know – shortbread comes in tails, rounds, and fingers. This sandwich is filled with an apricot-and-almond jam.

It’s followed by a Bread-and-Butter-Pudding cake, a granny cake, so-called because grannies were quite clever when it came to using up stale bread. Jones’s great-grandmother was in service in Gainsborough Hall  and this particular recipe has survived the generations. It has the texture of a tea-loaf with a chocolate and orange flavour.

The Grasmere Gingerbread dates back to 1854, when Sarah Nelson started making it in her Lake-District home.  Nelson sold it to the villagers from a table-top on a tree stump in her garden. A local resident, a chap by the name of William Wordsworth, him with a thing for daffodils, endorsed the cake and word quickly spread. Centuries later, it’s still going strong. Nelson’s story is a fascinating one and a visit to the Lake District is now on my bucket list. [When I asked him to rate the cakes, himself voted this his favourite.]

Centre-plate is the Manchester Tart. This coconut-topped biscuit cake filled with raspberry jam originates from a time when coconut cakes were only found in large port cities like Manchester and London. The delicacy didn’t survive inland road trips. The recipe dates to Mrs Beaton and the 1850s. The pasty case is medieval, and would have originally been filled with meats rather than jams. The tart was Jones’s dad’s signature dish when he was in the Navy in WWII. Some go all out and add sliced bananas, but the lads opted for a filling of cherry-and-clove jam.

The traditional cream tea fare of scones with jam, butter, and cream, wasn’t on the menu that day. Had it been, I might have stretched my Lenten fast and had it was one of my collations.

Florridora’s Pantry will open at weekends and on Public Holidays from March, with extended opening in the summer tourist season. I imagine the village will be getting a lot busier. Cyclists doing the Kis-Balaton circle from Zalakaros will now have somewhere to wet their whistles. So book ahead. Just to be sure.

Petőfi utca 237
8753 Balatonmagyaród, Zala, Hungary

And if you fancy some Kossuth cake on 15 March, here’s the recipe:


100g butter
200g sugar
2 eggs
225g pastry flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
100ml milk
½ tsp vanilla

Cream butter and sugar well. Add beaten eggs. Fold in flour, baking powder, and salt (sifted together), alternately with the milk. Add the vanilla. Bake at 180° in muffin pans for 16-18 minutes. When done, cool, cut almost in half, fill with sweetened whipped cream and ice top of cakes.

Chocolate Icing

50g chocolate squares
50g butter
225g powdered sugar
2 egg yolks

Melt chocolate and butter, add sugar and a little hot water until just soft enough to spread. Beat in egg yolks. Add a pinch of salt and a little vanilla. Makes a soft icing to spread on top of the cakes.

Strawberry Icing

10 ripe strawberries
½ tsp lemon juice
225g powdered sugar

Mash berries with a fork, add lemon juice. Gradually add sugar until stiff enough to spread, yet soft enough to run over top of cream-filled cakes. Ready to serve.



2018 Grateful 46

Up until last Saturday, my knowledge of pigeons was minimal: birds that gather in main squares in old cities to wow the tourists; birds that poop on statues; birds that some people call sky rats. From my banking days in Dublin, I knew of homing pigeons. Some of the customers raced pigeons and Monday mornings always came with stories of how they’d done. I didn’t know that many people of all ages have an irrational fear of pigeons (peristerophobia) or that the term New Jersey pigeon meant anything other than a pigeon from New Jersey (sometimes you can know too much).

So, what happened last Saturday?

The village ain’t exactly hoppin’ when it comes to scheduled entertainment. That’s why I like it. We’re pretty much left to our own devices. But occasionally, when something is put on, everyone turns out. Last weekend it was the annual pigeon, birds, and small animal exhibition. Bird enthusiasts and pet-owners from the nearby villages brought their birds and beasts and set them up in the village hall where, for the princely sum of 500 ft ($1.80/€1.60), you could ooh and aah to your heart’s content. For us, it was a language lesson to see if we’d recognise the names in English. Money well spent.

The first room was full of colourful canaries and parakeets and all sorts. Oranges and blues and pinks and greens all chirped away adding up to a nearly deafening roar. Maya Angelou’s The the Caged Bird Sings came to mind. A long-departed friend of mine in London, the inimitable Sheila José (RIP), kept a parrot, Napoleon. I liked him. He was big and he talked. The little ‘uns didn’t do much for me.

The second room was quieter, but ooh the smell, the smell. Watching an episode of Doc Martin recently, I’d first heard of Pigeon lung – a disease you get from inhaling pigeon poop. I wasn’t about to hang around, but then it got interesting – and I realised that pigeons have been getting a bum rap. They’re gorgeous.

First up was the Páva (the peacock pigeon). Cuter than all git out. If it wasn’t for the neighbour’s cats, these would look lovely picking their way through my mole hills.

Next up was the Fodros galamb (or frillback pigeon). You know the effect you get when you take a potato peeler and peel some hard chocolate? Well, think of this on legs – with a head and a tail and a beak and two beady eyes. Fabulous.

My favourite had to be the magyar óriás galamb (the Hungarian giant pigeon – or the Red Capuchin). This is the Queen of pigeons apparently. She has haughtiness down to a fine art. Think little old ladies with spindly legs in high heels wrapped in mink coats.

The Debreceni Pergő (the Debrecen vulture pigeon) is a classic. I tried to see the vulture in him but failed. And, if you’re curious as to why the vulture pigeon from Debrecen has the city name attached to it, there’s also a vulture pigeon from Birmingham. Who knew. There were lots more, too many to take pictures of (did I mention the smell!) but these were the interesting ones. 

You know those ceramic figures that some people collect, the ones that look like fat chickens? Well, they could be pigeons. I think this is a French Mondain – one step up the evolutionary ladder from the Rock pigeon. I could be wrong. I was so sure it was a fat chicken that I didn’t pay any attention to the name tag.


I’d have gone for fat chickens for these, too, except for the fancy slippers. Now I’m not so sure.

These are definitely roosters, though – I heard them crow.

A little reading tells me that pigeons go as far back as 3000 BC. Apparently archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) found some images of the birds dating back that far. I didn’t know that the words pigeon and dove are used interchangeably: pigeon is used for the bigger birds and dove for the smaller but they’re all part of the same family. And as for pigeon poop, far from the irritant it is today, it used to be very valuable stuff, a prized fertiliser and the only source of saltpetre – the key ingredient in gun powder.

There are famous pigeons, war heroes like Cher Ami, who saved the lives of 200 American soldiers in WWI. Stories abound of pigeons like Ariel in New Zealand who carried a record-making 5 sheets of paper over a 90-minute trip back in the 1880s between Great Barrier Island and Auckland. Or a pigeon called Velocity who holds the record for that run (50 minutes) averaging 125 kmph (only 40% slower than a modern aircraft!). That’s some going.

It’s a fascinating world, the pigeon world. They’re private, they co-parent, and they mate for life. And they’re supposedly very intelligent.

Laboratory PIGEONS learned to recognize each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. It seemed odd to the researchers that the birds made the same kinds of initial mistakes as elementary school students.

I had a lovely couple of weeks in the village – even if some of that time was spent without heat or hot water. And yet again I’m grateful, ever-so grateful, for my retreat, and for the curiosities of village life. It’s amazing what you can learn when you have no distractions.

Feast or fast with hearts and ashes

Not since 1945 have Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day fallen on the same day. It’s a tricky one for practising Catholics in relationships or courting: how to have the traditional romantic dinner for two with all the trimmings AND observe the fast day that’s in it. And I’m sure restaurants will be rethinking their menus, too.

For as long as I can remember, fasting entailed one main meal (meatless) and two collations (light meals). It also included no booze, no sugar, and no cakes, sweets, or biscuits. We had to be very specific in our house, after a long argument one year on whether a Jaffa cake was considered a sweet or a biscuit.

As I couldn’t remember the rules, I did a quick check.

Apparently, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. [With 70 being the new 50, I wonder if this will change?] But the meatless thing applies to everyone aged 14 upwards. And the meat-fast applies to all Fridays that fall during the 40 days of Lent. I also discovered that when it comes to the collations, the two smaller meals together cannot be as big as a main meal, which put paid to the idea that my everyday eating plan already consisted of one main meal and two collations.

Vegetarians might ask why fish isn’t lumped in there with meat. Apparently the Church sees meat as coming from animals who live on the land. Those that inhabit the sea are a different kettle of fish (I know, I know).

And if you count the 40 days from Ash Wednesday, it only takes you as far as the beginning of Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter Sunday – and not to Easter Sunday itself. I can’t believe I never counted those days as a child.

But back to what to do – feast or fast, hearts or ashes?

A church in Cincinnati is using the same-day thing to launch a Lent is for Lovers programme in their community. They’re having a Lenten-style feast tonight that includes everyone, singles too. In the UK, Bishops found a solution by suggesting that their congregations celebrate St Valentine’s Day a day early – on the 13th. In St Louis, the Lenten Fish Fry is what it’s all about and today’s fish fry comes with long-stemmed roses and pink margaritas – so where did I get the idea you couldn’t drink on Ash Wednesday… mmmm

And then there’s what to do with the ashes? Practising Catholics will go to mass and stay afterwards to receive their ashes (a physical representation that we came from dust and unto dust we shall return – a stark reminder that we shouldn’t lose the run of ourselves). I prefer Ecclesiastes over Genesis when it comes to dust:

Ecclesiastes 3.19-20: … for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

The ash is daubed on their foreheads and left there all day/night. This mightn’t be such a style issue today, though, as in many countries Ash Wednesday is celebrated on the following Sunday. I had a first date in Hungary one year, on the Sunday immediately following Ash Wednesday. I showed up in my ashes and after a few minutes of hard staring, he reached across the table with a napkin to helpfully wipe my forehead. I recoiled. It didn’t bode well. It’s hard not to stare at someone who has a great big black mark on their forehead, yet strangely, I never once thought of wiping away the ashes myself, before I went to dinner. It simply isn’t done.

Whatever you decide, feast, fast, or simply just another Wednesday, have a good one.

For more on St Valentine’s Day, check out a piece I did back in 2012 for the Budapest Times.


Bring on the pancakes

The verb to shrive is one I’ve never given much thought to, but when asked by a Hungarian friend to explain the origins of Shrove Tuesday, I had to do some digging. My simple explanation – it’s the last day of gorging ourselves before we start fasting for the 40 days of Lent, the period leading up to Holy Week and Easter Sunday – wasn’t enough. They were more concerned with the word shrove.

The verb, to shrive, means to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve or to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution. And yes, typically, we’d go to confession on Shrove Tuesday so that we could ready ourselves for Lent with a clean soul (am sure we used to go from the school to 10 am mass in the morning). So it makes sense. But from a practical standpoint, it’s about clearing your fridge of the stuff you won’t be eating while fasting: eggs, milk, sugar, and salt – and in my case, butter. Lots of butter. I can’t have pancakes without slathering them in butter. Not for me the prim and proper sugar and lemon or the indulgent maple syrup or jam – I’m all for the fat. Butter all the way.

But there’s a twist on the ingredients, which are said, in some circles, to represent the four pillars of Christian faith. Creation (eggs), sustenance (flour), wholesomeness (salt) and purity (milk). Mind you, I’d always thought the four pillars of faith were profession (the Creed), mystery (the Sacraments), morality (the Commandments), and prayer. But there you have it.

It the States, it’s Fat Tuesday, from the French Mardi Gras. Think carnival time, partying, the last hurrah. The Italian martedì grasso, and the Portuguese terça-feira gorda, go with that, too, while the German Fastnacht and the Dutch Vastenavond (eve of the fast) are thinking in terms of the fast about to begin. In Irish, today is known as Máirt na hInide (Shrove Tuesday), or  Lá na bPancóg (Pancake day) but mostly we call it Pancake Tuesday.

It was the one day of the year when I’d know for certain, that when I came home from school, there’d be pancakes. Later on, when I could see over the cooker, I even got to try my hand at flipping them. Superstition had it that if you tossed a pancake and it fell flat on the pan, you’d be standing before the priest by the end of the year – with a man at your side. I could never get the hang of it, which probably explains a lot. I read somewhere that back in 1563, a papal decree prohibited marriage during Lent so Shrove Tuesday was the last marrying day for 40 days – maybe weekday weddings were all the rage back then.

No doubt in houses around the country today, the batter is being whisked and the debate over fat or thin rages. My preference has always been for small and fat rather than the Hungarian palacsinta, a thin crêpe-like pancake which cries out to be filled with some sort of something. There’s a 24-hour palacsinta place I’ve been known to visit occasionally after a night bath at Rudas, but the menu is way too extensive and the pressure of choice negates the relaxed feeling induced by the thermal waters.

Did you know that a 2009 movie called Shrove Tuesday: The legend of Pancake Marion won a host of awards:  Best British Film at Horror UK’s 28 Hours Later film festival, Best Experimental Short at South Africa’s Horror Fest V, and Best Mythic Film at Vampire Film Festival, New Orleans. But I doubt you’d have much of an appetite left after watching it.

As to the history of pancakes, according to the Unofficial Happy History of Pancakes 

600 BC – The first recorded mention of pancakes dates back to ancient Greece and comes from a poet who described warm pancakes in one of his writings. 1100 AD – Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) becomes a traditional way to use up dairy products before lent – the pancake breakfast is born.

And, as for preferences, according to an article in National Geographic

The ancient Greeks and Romans ate pancakes sweetened with honey; the Elizabethans ate them flavored with spices, rosewater, sherry, and apples.

Making them is as easy as 1, 2, 3:

  • 100g plain flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 300ml milk

Put the flour, eggs, milk, 1 tbsp oil and a pinch of salt into a bowl or large jug, then whisk to a smooth batter. Set a medium frying pan or crêpe pan over a medium heat and carefully wipe it with some oiled kitchen paper. Pour to desired size/thickness. Toss. Serve. Dress according to your preference. And whatever your preference, enjoy.


Is it funny if I’m not laughing?

Hungary has been in the international news lately. The New York Times ran a piece with the headline: As West fears the rise of Autocrats, Hungary shows what’s possible. In it, Patrick Kingsley talks about the eight years of Orbán’s rule:

Through legislative fiat and force of will, Mr. Orban has transformed the country into a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture. He has done this even as Hungary remains a member of the European Union and receives billions of dollars in funding from the bloc. European Union officials did little as Mr. Orban transformed Hungary into what he calls an “illiberal democracy.”

It’s a long and detailed article and well worth a read. I knew things were bad, but I hadn’t realised how bad, embarrassingly bad. There’s no shame at all it would appear.

“A company belonging to the prime minister’s son-in-law was already meeting with mayors about a future public procurement before an E.U. grant was even announced — and then he ended up as the main contractor.”

Across the pond, The Guardian was having similar thoughts. It ran a piece headlined Orbán allies could use EU as cash register, says MEP. Jennifer Rankin talks of how Hungary isn’t the only one getting rich off the back of poor EU control and almost non-existent accountability. But, as is pointed out, none of this is technically illegal.

“Getting public contracts now in Hungary is a matter of friendship and not a matter of merit,” Engel said. While “not technically materially illegal, where else in the European Union would you have a system where public contracts of significant size go to family members of the head of government?”he said. “I don’t think that happens anywhere else.”

Is Hungary going to become an example for other countries in the region?

Strangely though, these dire accounts of what’s going on here didn’t bother me nearly as much as reports last week of the mayor in the village of Gödre advertising the local töpörtyű és forralt bor fesztivál as being migránsmentes (migrant free). I read it on an English-language site and immediately thought: Fake News! Has to be.  I asked some Hungarian friends to do my due diligence for me and scan the Hungarian-language press to make sure it wasn’t some sort of early April Fool’s joke. But no. It was real alright. Shamefully real. And the justification?

“Firstly, let’s make it clear: the term has only come up regarding our pork greaves [crackling] event, not any other events. I don’t think I need to explain why we can call it – jokingly – migrant-free. And guess what, we have achieved our goal! Hopefully, we have managed to pique the interest of many, that was exactly the point of promoting the event. Please don’t see politics or provocation into this, because the event is not about that! It is, however, about building a community, keeping gastronomical traditions alive, as well as fostering personal relationships!”

I’m all for building communities and keeping traditions alive. I’d even go as far as giving the nod to fostering personal relationships – but to exclude migrants? I’m a migrant – an economic refugee from a country I can’t afford to live in. I know plenty of others like me. Does the migrant-free banner include me?

I asked around – just to see – and guess what? Apparently I’m okay. I might be a migrant, but I’m not a Muslim. There but for the grace of God, eh?

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just me. I know I was cursed with a hair too much consideration for others to the point I’m borderline obsessive about making sure that, for instance, the neighbour lady living below me isn’t kept awake because I fancy doing dishes after 10pm (her bedroom is beneath my kitchen) or letting the chap  behind me in the checkout queue with only five items can go ahead of me because I have a trolleyload and he shouldn’t have to pay for my extravagance with his time or offering my seat on the bus to anyone who looks 10 years older than me. But maybe I’m just supersensitive. Maybe when they tell me that I’m okay because I’m not Muslim, they’re joking. Maybe they don’t really mean it. Maybe they’re only saying it to get a rise out of me. Like the Mayor of Gödre, this migrant-free thing might be one massive joke that no one takes seriously. Except me. Have I lost my sense of humour?

Yet I remember my boss in Alaska and his near constant refrain when it came to such matters: If no one is laughin’, then maybe it ain’t that funny.



2018 Grateful 47

Ah, no! Seriously, Tibor? Monday? Say it isn’t so! That was me on Thursday morning. We’d arrived down to the village the previous evening to find the house freezing. It was 5 degrees in the kitchen and there wasn’t a gux out of the boiler. Thinking we might have missed a simple reset button or perhaps needed to do something embarrassingly obvious to everyone but us, we called our go-to guy and then the boiler lad. Neither could help.

Tibor came to check it out on Thursday and said it was beyond resuscitation. A new one was called for. And it wouldn’t arrive till Monday. So four more days of being damn cold, with the lovelies due to visit on Friday for the weekend and no heat, no hot water.

Himself was called back to Budapest and I could have gone, too. But it says a lot about village life when I’d rather be here, freezing my ass off and nipping over to the neighbours for a hot shower, than in the flat in Budapest with every modern convenience at my fingertips. I spent Thursday evening on the couch with a hot water bottle and a blanket watching Season 2 of Doc Martin. Szilvi, she who gives a great home massage, arrived on Friday lunchtime as arranged and we managed to have a brief conversation. A bojler elromlott. Nincs melegünk. Nincs meleg víz. At least my Hungarian vocabulary is expanding; the silver lining in this particular cloud.

Undeterred, the lovelies came anyway on Friday evening after work, armed with heaters and thermals and the makings of some whiskey cocktails for that inner warmth. The kitchen got up as high as 13.4 degrees at one stage. We’d borrowed a noisy industrial heater and had the oven going full blast. For a brief moment, I was warm. Friday night, wrapped in winter woollies, as we sat around the kitchen table making the best of it, I gave silent thanks for the friends I’ve been blessed with. No complaints. No moans. Not one.

The next day, we headed over to Dobrovnik in Slovenia, for a walk in the healing forest. We had the place practically to ourselves. There was snow on the ground and a bite in the air. It was beautiful. I spent time at my four stations and came away feeling tired but content.

Healing forest Dobrovik Slovenia

A stop-off at Vadászcsárda (Hunters’ Inn) in Zalacsány on the way home topped off a lovely day and got me ready for Season 3 of Doc Martin.

Tomorrow, the heating will be fixed. My creature comforts will be restored. And another glorious week will begin. This day last week I was heading to the airport to catch a flight to Malta. Seven days later, I’m back from mass, hatted and scarfed and wrapped in a blanket, waiting for a chap to come quote for a télikert, a winter garden (the Hungarian term for a conservatory). If there’s any money left over after buying the new boiler, it might just be my next project.




In a previous life, while working with a think-tank in London, a report came across my desk that shocked me. It coined the term Ghost Town Britain. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of banks and post offices – they’re both big businesses; the streamlining of services is part and parcel of their operations. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of corner shops; I could see for myself how the behemoths like Tesco and Waitrose were bagging up the competition. What really got to me was the reported demise of the local pub. A colleague of the Muslim faith didn’t understand why I was upset. Fewer pubs meant fewer people drinking, and that had to be good, he said. But, I argued, pubs are much more than shorts and pints; they’re often the backbone of community life.

This, perhaps, is particularly true when you’re living in another country, away from what’s familiar, in the process of making a new life. I’ve looked back at the various cities in which I’ve lived and realise that many of the friends I made (and am still in touch with), were friends I met in a pub.

Starting over can be daunting. And the older you get, the more difficult it is to break into well-established social circles. Having a local pub helps, a concept embodied by the long-running TV show, Cheers!, and its theme tune with the refrain “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Expat pubs are like nation-states, serving up a fare that appeals to the displaced. In Budapest, for example, Jack Doyle’s and Becketts both fly the Irish flag and attract a community of expats from all over. The Caledonia gives a nod to the Scottish presence in the city. And strangely, it was from the Cale that a local Hungarian pub was born, one that is rapidly becoming a contender in the home-from-home market for many English-speaking expats in the city.

Back in 2009, Budapest-born Zoltán Farkas started working at The Caledonia as a bartender. He soon endeared himself to the clientele. Over the next eight years, Zoli got to know his punters by name and nationality. Although he’s never been to Scotland (or Ireland, England, or Wales for that matter), then co-owner Patrick McMenamin (himself a Scot) introduced him to the concept of banter, that back and forth between punter and publican that is such an inherent part of the ultimate pub experience. A quick study, Zoli soon realised that it’s not enough to offer good beer, fine wines, and decent food – the pub needs to have a personality, too.

Last year, Zoli got the opportunity to go out on his own, to see if he could replicate the down-home experience and create a pub where everyone would be welcome, where everyone would want to go, where people would be known by name. A regular Hungarian customer had spotted his talent, listened to his dream, and decided to back him. A family man with a beautiful wife, Szandra, and two lovely daughters, Zoli’s decision was influenced by the need to take a step forward in his career. And so, Kisrabló Pub was born.

Well, not so much born as re-imagined. The Kisrabló name (trans. Little Robber) has hung over the door of Zenta Utca 3 since 1925. In the 1990s, it was one of the most popular upmarket restaurants in the city, with a very good reputation. It closed for a time from 2015 to 2017, having suffered from a steady decline in service, something Zoli and his crew are serious about rebuilding.

Unlike Jack Doyle’s, Beckett’s, and The Caledonia, Kisrabó is on the Buda side of the city, in a part of town that has plenty by way of cafés and restaurants, but not so much in the line of proper pubs. But it’s accessible from just about anywhere by the M4 metro, trams 4, 6, 19, 41, 47, 48, 49, 56, and buses 133e and 7.

The only light shining on Zenta utca, the two-storey pub has capacity for about 170 people. The main floor alone has seats for 110, with six TVs screens, and a sound system. It’s a haven for sports enthusiasts who can watch pretty much any sport that’s being screened. Zoli has made this a priority, focusing on the English Premier League and rugby. As host to OLSCH, the Official Liverpool Supporters Club in Hungary, every Liverpool game in the season gets airtime. [And if you’re not into watching TV, the pool table and the dart board are free to use, while the csocsó (table football) works with a 100ft coin.]

The lower-floor event room can host 60 customers with a separate bar and its own staff. Wired with a standalone sound system and TV, it’s calling out to tasting events, parties, family events, company nights out, and live music gigs. On 2 March, the Irish Hungarian Business Circle will host its monthly First Friday event there, with special guests from the Italian Chamber and music by the fab Green Spirit. This is the first of many such events Zoli plans for Kisrabló, events that embody the essence of what the pub is about – inclusiveness.

And while the whole pub experience is about far more than simply drinking, the drinks offer is quite extensive, including 10 draft beers with English ales and Irish stouts, Hungarian handcrafted beers, and Czech lager, too. It also boasts more than 30 different bottled beers and about 10 different ciders. And, I hear, the plan is also to focus on quality spirits, building the offer week by week.

I’ve been a few times when I’m in town and there’s a rugby match on. Zoli and Szandra always have a welcome and a word for me. But last week, Beni, one of the bartenders, called me by name. And something clicked. I felt at home. Cheers, lads! Here’s to many good years ahead.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 February 2018


Not since reading Christopher Moore‘s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal have I laughed out loud in public as much as I have in the last few days. And twice since, when I saw another reading commuter shake with laughter and checked what they were reading, it was that very book. I’m sure some might think that Moore’s humour borders on sacrilege, but my  God would enjoy it; He  knows how to laugh.

Another favourite author in the LOL genre is Janet Evanovich, whom I ran across again last year when I thoroughly enjoyed her Fox and O’Hare series. [Note to self: check to see if the next book in the series has published.]  I’d first read some of her Stephanie Plum series many moons ago while living in Alaska and had vague recollections of the character and her hapless career as a bounty hunter. She lurked somewhere in the dark recess of my reading brain, just one snippet of a collage of mad characters from madder pens. She might well have been knocked off her perch by Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak. I was a lot more serious then.

Now, though, now that I’ve stopped fighting the fact that the sky in my particular world is a delicious shade of orange with blobs of turquoise, Stephanie and me, we’re mates. I’ve even given up my pedantic need to read a series in the order in which it was written and published. When I’m catching up with old friends, I jump all over the place – my life retold is rarely chronological. So why should I impose such rigidity on my fictional friends?

I’ve just binged on three books in the 24-book series – Smokin’ Seventeen,  Explosive Eighteen, and Notorious Nineteen. And while I was a little put out (no, face it, Mary, you were mad jealous) that she’s been hooking up with Ranger all the while she’s been seeing Morelli, I was back to laughing out loud. One particular spasm was so bad it drew the attention of security in Munich airport.

Evanovich, in her bio, tells us that the realities of daily existence were lost in the shadows of [her] looney imagination. Yet barmy as they all are, her characters as real. Something weird happens as I read. It’s as if I’m in the book, watching their antics, listening to their banter, feeling their pain. I want to eat friend chicken at Stephanie’s mam’s house and go view a corpse with her gun-totin’ Grandma Mazur.

“When I was young. You got a boyfriend, and you married him. You had some kids, you got older, one of you died, and that was it.” “Jeez. No true love?” “There’s always been true love, but in my day, you either talked yourself into thinking you had it, or you talked yourself into thinking you didn’t need it.” (from Explosive Eighteen: A Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich)

I want to hang around with her and her sometimes partner Lula, an ex-ho with a penchant for spandex, just to see what the day might bring.

Lula can go all day in five-inch spikes. I think she must have no nerve endings in her feet. “How do you walk in those shoes for hours on end?” I asked her. “I can do it on account of I’m a balanced body type,” she said, hustling across the lot to my Escort. “I got perfect weight distribution between my boobs and my booty.” (from Smokin’ Seventeen: A Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich)

The various characters she gets involved with are all credible. No matter how off the wall they might seem, I’ve no trouble at all thinking them real. Perhaps that says more about my orange-sky thinking that I care to share.

Day-dreaming about who’d play whom in the movie, I didn’t get past Estelle Getty (of the Golden Girls) for Grandma Mazur. And I’m not the only one who could cast her for the part. Although the books keep on selling – and keep on coming – the movie based on Book 1, One for the Money, starring Katherine Heigl as Stephanie didn’t make the splash it should have. The only one who didn’t quite match what I’d imagined was Vinnie…. but I can live with that. And Morelli and Ranger have a little growing up to do as they’ve aged in my head. I’d like HBO or BBC or some TV series giant to pick them up and run with them. They’re solid gold, LOL funny, and so cleverly written that I’ve lost count of my ‘wish I’d said thats’.

If you’re in need of a laugh, treat yourself.