2018 Grateful 32

Wednesday. May 23rd. The day John Malkovich came to Budapest and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. Right now, I’m trying to decide if it was worth the experience.

In true marketing fashion, I made a rash purchase (4 tickets) and am now trying to rationalise my decision. Apparently, this is what we consumers do all the time. It’s what keeps the marketers in business.

The facts I had at the time were:

  1. John Malkovich was coming to Budapest for one night only.
  2. He was performing what was billed as one of the top 10 shows in the world (I can’t recall where I read that snippet)
  3. If I didn’t see the man this time, I was unlikely to cross paths with him again.
  4. The cheapest tickets I could get were 20 000 huf (~€60 / $70).
  5. We were expecting visitors and I thought it would be night for them to rememeber.

And it was, but probably not for the reasons I imagined.

We rocked early to Budapesti Kongresszusi Központ, in plenty of time to have a pre-show drink and take our seats at a leisurely pace. I was all excited. I’ve had a thing for the bould JM for just about ever. What a voice. The 26-piece string orchestra – Danubia Orchestra Óbuda took their place. And the show started. No sign of the man himself. But I didn’t panic. Perhaps, I thought, he’d enjoy a grand entrance. Above the stage, rain was being projected onto a white screen. I quite fancied that I saw his face in the droplets and given the title of the programme – Report on the Blind – my imagination began to run riot.

Maestro Dirk Brossé was conducting and violinist Ino Mirkovic also made an appearance. Now, had I done my homework, I’d have been all the wiser. But I hadn’t. And I wasn’t.

Psycho Suite by Bernard Herrmann and the Adagio (To the Unknown Soldier) by Dirk Brossé and still no sign of John. My blood pressure began to rise, slowly. I could feel the anxiety setting in. I began to wonder if we were in the right place. I drew a map of the venue in my mind and decided that there were no other gigs on that night (and it would have been strange, anyway, not have to have been ousted from our seats had we been in the wrong place). The rain at this stage had turned to snow and the images of frosted glass and the ice patterns provided only a mild distraction. The avalanche footage was quite compelling though. But 45 minutes in and still no John.

Then a man appeared on stage – and I breathed a sigh of relief – a short one. On closer inspectection I saw a face that was too round, a body that was too slim, and a hairline that wasn’t quite far back enough. Not John. They danced. At one stage he blindfolded himself and hope rose within me briefly – I was grasping at blind straws. I tried to control the angst. And then came the intermission.

I left my company inside and went outside to calm my nerves. Everyone seemed to be wondering what was up. I wasn’t the only one. Then I heard that this was just the prelude. The warm-up. The man would make his appearance in the second half. And he did.

Accompanied by pianist Anastasya Terenkova, Malkovich took us on a rollercoaster ride, his voice doing more than the 26-string orchestra could have done. He was quite something. He posited some theories:

  1. God does not exist
  2. God exists but he is a bastard
  3. Good exists but falls asleep and his nightmares are our existence

I quite liked No. 3. I thought ‘wow – he wrote this stuff. Amazing.’ But he didn’t. It was a chapter from Ernesto Sabato’s novel On Heroes and Tombs. Malkovich played the protagonist Fernando Vidal who reckons that blindness drives the world. It was mesmerising. Mesmerisingly short. Just 30 minutes, if that. And it was over.

It’s taken me a week to process it all. Am I glad I got to see and hear the man in person? Yes. Am I glad I didn’t pass up the opportunity? Yes. Do I reckon it was worth the guts of €250 – which is a plane ticket somewhere – I’m not sure.

But I learned a lot about myself. If I have no expectations at all – which is generally the case – I can’t be disappointed. My mother tacked that one on as the ninth beatitude. But if I have expectations, and I’m thrown off course, then I get ansty and anxious. I let it consume me. I tried to enjoy the music in the first half, which was stellar by the way, but my heart was racing and my mind was all over the place. I had brief moments of enjoyment but peppered as they were by a sense of being utterly lost, I barely remember them.

I wanted to see him so badly that I didn’t think to check what it was he’d be doing. I could have. It’s out there. I could have done my homework, perhaps before I bought the tickets. But I was blindsided by fame. Still, though, as a lover of oratory and the spoken word, I think Malkovich would be hard to match.

I’d like to see  Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters. The interview with photographer Sandro Miller makes for fascinating reading. And I never knew that JM owns a restaurant in Lisbon, speaks fluent French, and lost millions in Bernie Maddoch’s Ponzi scheme. For the background reading, I’m grateful. For the opportunity to hear the voice in person, I’m grateful, too. I only wish he’d spoken for longer and that I’d known what I was letting myself in for.

 

Obsessive cherry disorder

I’ve too much respect for those who suffer from OCD to claim that I even have a modicum of it myself. I obsess, that’s true. But it’s not compulsive. It’s out of some weird choice that I blame on the nuns – I blame everything on the nuns. Confronted with pots of ripe cherries, I couldn’t rest until they’d all be disposed of.

The village has had a lot of rain recently – Wednesday was horrendous apparently, with ditches filling in 20 minutes. We escaped because we didn’t arrive down till Thursday evening. And we went straight to the sweet cherry tree, visiting Americans and all. Buckets were doled out, Ladders were put in place. And we picked for 90 minutes straight. Much of the fruit was lovely – firm, ripe, and tasty, Some of it was fuzzy with a weird mold. And more of it again was water-logged and soggy. But we picked the ripe stuff as far as we could reach, discarding the moldy ones, and offering the fruit-laden high branches to the birds and the cherry gods.

I hadn’t expected them to be ready so soon. Or to all come ripe together. Freezer space is minimal right now and left with buckets of the stuff, I was faced with the eternal cherry question – what to do with them all. Last year, I distributed them among by neighbors in Budapest. But these won’t last till I go back. Thankfully, visiting PL had plenty of ideas and pretty soon we got to pitting and canning.

That evening, we canned nearly 7 quarts in a light syrup and are hoping they’ll keep. They’re stored in the back of a press in the coolest room in the house. We didn’t do the whole canning boil as a) they wouldn’t fit in my biggest pot and b) they’re not canning lids. So, we packed them away with a prayer or three. The rest we left overnight. Which wasn’t a great idea. Forget bad apples. There’s nothing like  bad cherry to turn the good’uns around. A shopping trip was needed for more jars and some cheap balsamic vinegar. We were also looking for lumber for a new barn door – but that’s another story.

 

Back at the house, we had friends dropping by on their way from the north shore and time was of the essence. I found an old palinka bottle and filled it with whole cherries – the good ones – before covering them in cheap balsamic vinegar – as the recipe called for. They’re parked for 3 months and then we’ll see. Supposedly it’ll make a great dressing for salads.

The rest was mush – good mush, tasty mush, but mush nonetheless. We needed a recipe for cherry mush. The  plugged-in PL came up with one and while I pitted she cooked up a cherry jam that didn’t quite set the way jam should so we now have a lovely cherry sauce that goes great with vanilla ice-cream. There’s something very satisfying about spending a day in the kitchen processing the fruit from the garden. That sense of satisfaction that comes from surveying the fruit of our labour was quite something.

And while it’ll take a while to get rid of the cherries stains on clothes, nails, walls, and floors, it’s been worth it.

2018 Grateful 33

I like the road of least resistance. I can be quite lazy. If you can do it better, quicker, and more effectively than I can, then have at it. I’m not one to feel I have to prove a point. Usually, when confronted with an easier, equally moral option, I’ll take it. I see this so often when it comes to using my pitiful Hungarian. If I’m with someone who speaks it better, I simply don’t try. If I get a firm nem (no) to my initial inquiry as to whether the other party speaks English, which, by the way, is just about the only complete sentence I can pronounce pretty near perfectly in Hungarian, I usually thank them, hang up, and have someone else call for me.

But on Friday last, something clicked in…or clicked off. Perhaps the lazy gene is on sabbatical.

The electricity lads have been after me to do a meter reading. I’ve been away each time they’ve called and their notes were getting slightly more frequent. They dropped a note in my box sometime Thursday to say they’d call Friday between 4 and 6. I  didn’t see it till Friday lunchtime – I don’t check the mail daily because it’s usually window envelopes and junk,  neither of which particularly rock my world. Anyway, I was meeting a mate for a coffee at 4 and didn’t want to reschedule. Himself had plans, too. So I took a deep breath, picked up the phone and rang the number.

The chap who answered, answered simply with a harried Igen (Yes?) I wondered if I had the right number. No mention of the company at all. I asked, haltingly, ELMŰ? Another igen. This time a little softer. 

I asked if he spoke English and got a firm nem for my troubles. I was about to thank him and hang up but a voice in my head taunted me. It’s been a while since I was called a scaredy cat!

So, in pitiful Hungarian, I explained that I didn’t speak the language very well (another sentence I can say almost perfectly!) and that I was slow, hoping that in Hungarian it didn’t have the same alternate meaning as it does in English – there’s nothing wrong with my intellect – just my language skills. He laughed. So perhaps it does mean the same.

Anyway, I went on to say that I had a letter in my mailbox saying I had an appointment that day but that I wasn’t at home. It said that they could come on Monday, even though Monday was a holiday, so I asked when he could come then. He suggested Saturday instead. Now this is where I got a little cocky, I tried my hand at banter. I think I said that working on a Saturday wasn’t a good thing. I got another laugh. Man, I was on a roll.

I asked what time. He said 10am. And then he took off… a fast roll of three consecutive sentences that I completely missed. But I wasn’t even listening. I was on a high. We said our goodbyes. I thanked him for his patience. And as I hung up, I wondered if he’d come.

The next morning, I was out. But himself was here. And they came to read the meter shortly after 10am. Score for me!!!

I’m ridiculously pleased with myself, which is sad really. Ten years and this one successful conversation is what I have to show for it. But perhaps this is the start of it all coming together. Regardless. I’m grateful that I can chalk up a Hungarian language success, however minor.

Rules of engagement

One of my friends doesn’t have a smartphone. She doesn’t have a mobile phone of any sort. She has that rare thing that is rapidly becoming extinct – a landline. We keep in touch by email, which she checks every other day…maybe. If I’m in-country, I might call her at work. She’s not on Facebook. She doesn’t Tweet. And I doubt she’s ever heard of Instagram. When we meet, I’m never late. Not that I’m ever late anyway, but with her, there’s no last-minute texts to say I’m running 15 minutes behind. An arrangement with her is an arrangement that will be kept. She isn’t plagued by random offers, group posts, irrelevant conversations to which she doesn’t want to be party but is reluctant to opt out of because she might miss something. And I used to think she was missing out on lots of things – on invites, on events, on last-minute, spur-of-the-moment decisions. But I’m beginning to think that her way might be the better way. Everyone knows her rules of engagement.

My relationship with Facebook is a love-hate one. I first joined to play scrabble. I log in a couple of times  day to check what’s going on in the world, what’s happening with my peeps. I don’t have FB on my phone and I don’t have FB Messenger on my phone either. I’ve been  missing out on stuff lately though as people seem to be using Messenger more and more. And if something comes in, in between log-ins, then I don’t see it in time. But I can’t complain about not being told. The message was sent. I just didn’t pick it up. WhatsAp and Viber are my preferred choices but they’ve been quite quiet lately as the masses migrate to Messenger.

If I’m in company, my phone stays in my bag so I don’t read texts when they come in. And afterwards, I’m unlikely to check my phone until it rings again or until I go to Google something. When I’m at mass or in meetings, I put my phone on silent and it could be hours, sometimes a day or more before I remember to turn the volume back on. When I’m working, my phone is often in another room. I might not hear it beep or ring and it could be a while before I think to check it. The result? I miss updates. I miss messages. I miss calls.

I used to have Skype turned on when I was online but that got to be too much. Constant interruptions. So now, I schedule Skype chats and log in only when I need to. I check my emails at least once a day on the premise that there’s no such thing as an urgent email – you’d never email the police to say you were being burglarised. And while my response time might fall well short of modern-day expectations, it’s still pretty decent.

I’m beginning to resent these expectations. The ticks, the read reports, the sent confirmations – they all contribute to this. And somewhere along the way, we lose our sense of reason. I send you a message on WhatsApp. I see the two ticks, so I know it’s been delivered. When they turn to blue, I know you’ve read it. So why don’t you reply? Immediately? Hey! I’m talking to you! I disregard the myriad rational explanations that run the gamut from you just sat on the dentist’s chair to you’re dealing with a clowder of cats and a carton of spilled milk and instead, I go immediately to you can’t be arsed, Now that says a lot more about me than it does about you. That’s scary. So I’m now beginning to resist the immediacy that’s inveigling its way into our communication. I’m thinking, seriously, of disengaging. Like my friend.

But because I have a presence, because I’m online, because I text, tweet, and FB, going cold turkey would be akin to a virtual death. I think I’ll start by changing my expectations of you: If I want an immediate answer from you, I’ll make a phone call rather than rely on SMS. If I’m running late or have changed my plans, I’ll call. If there’s something you need to know, I’ll talk to you. If I send a message, feel free to reply at your leisure…or not. And then I’ll stop the apologies – apologies for not reading a text, for missing a call, for not checking in on FB. In time, it will be known that I’m not on messenger, that I  can take days to answer FB messages, that I only occasionally check my phone for SMS. And like my friend, you’ll know to call or email if you want to get in touch.

 

 

2018 Grateful 34

“‘There’s a James Thurber cartoon I’m very fond of …’ He turned to Shaw then, the face relaxed, honest, and open. ‘Thurber – you know Thurber?’ Shaw nodded. ‘He sketched this graveyard, glimpsed through railings, the pavement crowded with determined men and women walking to the left, to the right, clutching shopping bags, briefcases, pushing prams. The caption read simply: Destinations. Devastating, really.’” This conversation is from Death on Demand, by Jim Kelly.

“It reminded him of one of his favourite cartoons, by the humourist James Thurber, depicting a street full of determined men and women striding to their next appointments, against a background of a cemetery. The caption read simply: Destinations.” This reference is from The Funeral Owl, also by Jim Kelly.

Were I cynical, I might scream Lazy! But I like how Kelly writes and I enjoy his characters (Valentine & Shaw and Philip Dryden). This is something that obviously resonates with him. And now that I’ve come across it a second time, it resonates with me, too.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to slow down, to stop occasionally and smell the grass cuttings. I ran into someone I knew from my early days in Budapest who took to country life a lot sooner than I did. We compared notes, Both of us in our day had been medium-sized fish in a very small pond and had enjoyed a certain measure of fame and attention. But neither of us miss it. Both of use have crossed the half-way point and probably have fewer years ahead of us that are behind. Perhaps that has something to do with the mellowing. But this Thurber cartoon sealed the few cracks that might have been lingering in my perspective. Life is simply too damn short to keep up that level of manic candle-burning.

I’m readying my jam-jars as the cherries ripen. I’m culling recipes for preserves. I’m noting bookings in the diary as friends make plans to come visit.

But recognising the danger of becoming too insular, too settled, too comfortable, I’ve decided it’s time to go somewhere I’ve never been before. The itinerary changes daily but Thailand and Indonesia are on the cards later this year. It’s never too late to try Paniki (a dish made from wild bat) or Belalang goreng (deep-fried grasshopper) but I might just draw the line at Tikus panggang (grilled rat).

Am grateful this week for the life I’m living and the adventures to come.

 

To A Bird Another Bird

Much has been in the news in recent times about Hungary and Hungarians, about keeping the former as a stomping ground exclusively for the latter. If I weren’t made of stern stuff, I might take offence. It’s a little like running with a crowd of friends for years before finally realising that you’re only being tolerated and that life, for them, in their eyes, would be much better if you buggered off and went back to where you came from.

When Ireland’s social landscape went from being predominately white and Catholic to the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic Ireland of today, we didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with the changes wrought by new faces, new cultures, new creeds. We’re still learning. There I was a host, here I am a guest. And as a guest, I feel welcome at a grassroots level. But when I raise my head above the dandelions, I wonder if I’m here under sufferance. But what of the richness that entertaining non-nationals can bring to a country, any country. The different skills and experiences, the varied perspectives and views. These guests often become brand ambassadors for their home-from-homes, selling the world on all that’s good. By way of illustration, Harlan Cockburn is a case in point.

British-born Cockburn arrived in Budapest back in 2008 via Africa and America. His CV lists a plethora of professions, including video director, writer, musician, and producer. Hungarians might know him for his radio show Talking Music with The English Guys, which ran on Radio Q for seven years. Football fans of great vintage may know him as the name behind theme songs he wrote for Arsenal FC. He’s worked with the Queen Mother, Bill Clinton, Nick Cave, and many Captains of Industry, and is apparently descended from Queen/St Mary of Scotland. Who wouldn’t want to invite him to a party, let alone have him stay awhile?

Cockburn has been asked the question so many of us are asked: Why Hungary? Why here? I’ve noticed that the question has morphed recently from why I’m here to why I’m staying, a sad reflection of the fact that so many Hungarians (and expats) are choosing to leave. But Cockburn has settled here. He’s here to stay. Yet that doesn’t take from his near daily effort to understand this home from home and the people who have taken him in. ‘I want to understand the country I live in and the suffering that people have been through, with Nazism and Communism being the latest historical examples. Hungary is at a cultural and political crossroads. It’s full of secrets, piled on secrets. Hungarian people seem complex and guarded in many ways, but also proud of their ability to survive.’

His latest book, To A Bird Another Bird (writing as harefield), looks at this culture through the eyes of an alien, in this case, an American Talk Show host (Eli) who makes his first visit to Hungary to trace his dead father. He soon discovers that almost everything he believed about his family is untrue. Drawn into secrets which involve the history of three nations, the massing of refugees, and a hoard of weaponry, he takes the reader on a journey through the various facets of the Hungarian psyche.

There’s a shape to the characters that crosses the line between fact and fiction. Some are horrible people, others are nice, all of them ring true. There’s a palpable sense that even relatively peripheral characters, like Eli’s wife, or his neighbour, or the hospital doctor, have a backstory, even if, as readers, we don’t get to hear it.

I’m drawn to mysteries that also educate. Rather than reading travel books, I read novels set in cities and countries I plan to visit. I like a good story. And central to this story is a riddle that must be solved. Last year, some time before the book published, Cockburn test-marketed it with a group of Budapest writers. One person cracked it, and so the evil Kálmán was named after him, as a sort of reward. The riddle had to be crackable, he said, but not too easy. It had to work for a Budapest person (Hungarian or otherwise), or a stranger to the city. Like all riddles, once you know the answer it seems so obvious.

All writing requires collusion between the writer and the reader; To A Bird Another Bird is no exception. A certain amount of imagination is asked for, but the history is true, and the depiction of modern-day Budapest is also true. People really do walk past underground bunkers in Budapest every day on their way to work. Perhaps unknowingly, but the bunkers are there. There really were ‘Little Moscows’ spread across the country. And there really were vast arms dumps left by the Soviets. Going even further back, the Todt Organisation created extraordinary underground structures across Europe, and after WWII, both America and Russia co-opted Todt’s star engineers.

If you like a good yarn and have the remotest interest in Budapest and Hungary, then this book’s for you. And if, as a Hungarian, you’re curious as to how other others might see Budapest and Hungary, then it’s one for you, too.

Cockburn’s third novel, This Is Me And This Is Wot I Am Get Used To It, will publish shortly. The autoblograffy of a 5-year-old president, it began as a howl against Trump and turned into something completely different. Earlier this year, his collection of 33 ultra-short stories titled In the Cafés of Budapest published and there’s a sequel of To A Bird Another Bird in the making which centres on what the character Dora does next. This one I’m looking forward to; I’ve grown quite attached to the incorrigible Dora and her antics. Cockburn is one of many külföldi who have fallen for Hungary and made this country their home. Despite the climate, it’s still a special place.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 May 2018

2018 Grateful 35

Usually I don’t get heat-cranky till late June but this hot weather is playing havoc with my schedule. The hottest April on record here since records began 218 years ago, the highest low temperature ever, and the highest morning temperature registered on 1 May.  We’ve skipped spring and leapfrogged into summer. Madness.

Over in Alaska, friends are waking up to snow-covered decks. They had summer last week and have now reversed back into winter. Avalanches are being forecast with 33 inches falling on Thompson Pass since 4 May. More madness.

In Dublin, they’ve had a rocking weekend with an Irish hot of 20 degrees. That’s practically a heatwave. I’d say it was madness, but sure they’re mad anyway 🙂

And with far more to complain about, friends in Hawaii are watching lava warnings after a massive earthquake the other day. Evacuations are underway. Lives are falling asunder. What’s happening in the world?

 

All I needed was some perspective. My lot don’t seem half-bad in comparison. I’ll quit my bitchin’ and deal with the perspiration. I’ll bring out the perfumed hankie to combat the rampant BO, and start planning a trip to the sea. Lots to be grateful for.

 

Stopgap Grace

Am excited. So excited. My man Neil McCarthy will be back in Budapest next week. Okay, so technically he’s not my man, but I feel a strange affinity to this purveyor of words who reintroduced me to the joy that is poetry. Many moons ago, when Treehugger Dan’s was a pillar of the Budapest arts scene, I went to one of his gigs and sat, mesmerised, by the life he imbued in his poems. That was back, I think, in 2009 or 2010.

At the time, I was feeling a little homesick – not for Ireland but for her people. For that rich and wonderful way we have of telling stories. For the calculated casualness with which we choose our words. For the pictures we paint with our imagery and the tunes we create with our turns of phrase. Even in the innermost of our inner cities, poetry is on the move. We have a way about us and McCarthy is better than most.

He sat onstage, with his trademark flat cap turned backwards, looking every inch the fellah who sits in my local at home, sorting the world’s problems over a pint or three. And a little bit of me fell in love with him. I’m not usually given to such flights of fancy but that night, I wanted to take his words home. I cornered him outside over a smoke and asked if he had a CD – I had visions of listening to him each time that hankering for all things Irish hit me. He was thinking about it, he said, but in the meantime, he had a booklet that he could send me when he got back to Vienna. And he did.

Fast forward a few years to 2012 and that CD came to be. I sent copies to friends in the States and in Australia. And I nearly wore my own copy out. With three chapbooks to this name, Stopgap Grace (published by Salmon Poetry) is McCarthy’s first published collection; it’s a joy to read. He has a way with capturing the moment, the mundane, and making it memorable.

I expected them to tell me that my bacon
had come from a happy pig, one that had had a full life,
was corn fed and had free range, did yoga in the mornings,
played the cello, spoke Latin and learned
to salsa dance while visiting relatives in Cuba.

McCarthy is coming to Budapest next week and will be reading from this collection at Massolit Books and Café, Nagy Diófa utca 30, in the VIIth district, from 7pm on Thursday, 10th May. One not to be missed. Copies of the book will be on sale and I’m sure he can be talked into signing them, too.

One not to be missed. Get there early to get a seat. It’s a smallish venue.