2018 Grateful 23 | The annual Village Day

It was a no-bark, three-shirts-a-day weekend. The village dogs couldn’t be bothered barking as I went by and even with three showers a day, I was still melting. Add that to the extremely annoying biting flies that have fallen in love with my ankles and you might see why I was having a rare moment of WTF – what was I doing here? That said, the annual Village Day on Saturday made me take a step back and appreciate the value of village life in Hungary.

The villagers were out in force. The day’s programme landed in our mailbox on Thursday so we had a full list of events from morning till night. Everything was scheduled. The Karate demo got 20 minutes from 1.40 till 2 pm. A local drama quartet had 15 minutes for their sketch that I think had something to do with cheating wives and watermelons. Some operetta singers visiting from Pécs got a full 45 minutes, every one of which they did justice to. And it all ran to schedule, marshalled ot the minute by the local librarian who’d get my vote for Prime Minister. We had singers, dancers, and musicians as entertainment but I suspect this was to mask the more serious business of the gulyás cooking competition. I can only assume that the judge was not a local judge; living in the village after having chosen between the team from the Mayor’s office or the young pensioners could be dangerous.

The traditional costumes with the hand-pleated petticoat skirts and beaded headdresses were out in force. And my heart went out to them. The Holy Souls were flying out of purgatory at an alarming rate given the mountain of heat trapped between those layers. Full-legged tights and long-sleeved shirts had to make it hotter than hot. Fair play to them for sticking with it, though. Fair play. I’d not have done half as well and certainly wouldn’t have lasted the pace.

Hungarian folk costume

Hungarian folk costume

They clapped. They laughed. They sang. They embodied the community spirit and made sure that the songs and dances would live on. Young and old alike took to the stage and in the wings, some even younger dancers took their cue from the professionals.

It’s nice to see tradition alive and well and lived rather than displayed. This wasn’t an exhibition. This was real. And despite the heat and the flies and the discomfort, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been. For this, I’m grateful.

Hungarian folk dance

Hungarian folk dance

Hungarian folk dance

Fait accompli

I’ve been a little out of sorts for the past few days. Nothing I could put my finger on. Just grumpy and monosyllabic. I’d have been downright cranky, had I the energy to give to it. Yes, it’s been hot, but this wasn’t my usual heat-related funk. It had a different flavour.

I tried sleeping for 12 hours straight and that helped a little. But while I could see the edge I needed to get myself over, sleep alone wasn’t going to pull me through. I needed something to do. Something physical. Something that I could start and finish in one day. Something I could see completed.

When you work, as I do, it’s rare that you see a finished product that’s of your own making. Lots of contributions made to the greater good, no doubt, but seldom something that you can lay claim to. And that’s what I needed. Something I could start and finish, by myself.

We inherited lots of old but serviceable furniture that we’ve mostly gotten rid of. A couple of pieces – homemade jobs strung together with random pieces of wood – have been living on the terrace for a couple of years now. One a horrid brown, the other a more appealing green but a green that didn’t really go with my master plan.

With a pot of white paint, a smaller pot of blue paint, and a sander, I got to work. I wanted to transfer my unsourced distress to the furniture and clean them up while making them look shabby. There’s a logic there somewhere. It’s not something I’d try on good furniture, but this table and bench seemed willing to be my guinea pigs.

Now, I’ve seen JFW do this and he spends ages on his pieces. I don’t have his patience or his attention to detail. I’m all for immediate satisfaction and a quick return on my time. There’s good and there’s good enough and good enough would be better than what I had.

The bench was first. It was in that green that seems to have been mass produced in Hungary in the 1950s. It’s everywhere. I’ve unearthed a couple of spice racks in a similar shade in the barn and it’s a common enough sight at the local markets for what’s now being labelled ‘mid-century’.

I sanded off the rough stuff. Slapped on a couple of coats of white paint. And then took the sander to it again to get some of the green showing through. I’d wanted to try my hand at stencilling but only had blue paint, so I held off.

I was pretty pleased with the result.

Next up was the horrid brown table with one gammy leg. I had himself cut off some inches as I don’t trust myself with an electric saw and while it’s now shorter than it was, it works. The sanding on that was a lot more difficult, so I hit it in patches. Then slapped three coats of white and instead of taking the sander to it and letting the brown come through, I smudged some blue drips (my version of a speck of blood) and added a chicken to look at it longingly.

Neither piece will stand up to close scrutiny, but they’re both way easier on the eye than what was there. I sweat bucketloads in the doing, cursed the living daylights out of an annoying horsefly that saw me as lunch, and bashed my little toe in the process. But do I feel better? Way better. Grumpiness gone. Lethargy gone. The dark mist has lifted. Let the weekend begin.

 

2018 Grateful 24 | A baby came to mass

A strange thing happened this morning. After a night laden with thunder, lightning, and teeming rain, the village had a clean feel to it as we walked to mass. The thunder was still making itself heard and rain threatened but it was warm enough. The congregation was smaller than usual, probably to due with the weather. We slotted into our usual seat and then, just as mass started, a young couple with a baby arrived and sat in the seat in front us.

I’ve seen them around before and think I’ve sussed out the connection – his mother (I think) lives locally, and they visit on occasion.

We had a priest this week. I’ve given up trying to figure out the roster between our village and the neighbouring ones. Most weeks we have a deacon, who although has only half the mass to say (the Eucharist and such having been prepared earlier) still takes longer than the regular padre. Give a man a pulpit and you know not what you’ll get.

The usual pattern of little old dears surrounded us. Normally, these women wouldn’t crack a smile if  Ági Néni went up to Communion with the hem of her skirt accidentally tucked into her knickers. They’re serious about their prayer and come to mass armed with prayerbooks so heavy they all walk with a slight tilt – and they use them. But when the baby arrived, everything changed. The priest was no longer their sole focus. God was forgotten. Their faces broke into broad smiles as they sneaked surreptitious glances at the child, who was tidily seated in his buggy in the aisle.

All was going well until he got bored. And he started making noises. The parents smiled indulgently at him. I had to hold my blood pressure in check. It’s a pet peeve – why people allow their kids to make a ruckus in Church but wouldn’t think of allowing them to do so at, say, a theatre. I can’t believe I’m saying this… but when I was young (yes, I’m cringing!) and too young to go to mass quietly, mam went to one mass while Boss minded us; he went to another later or earlier. There’s a mass on the hour in any of five neighbouring villages so there’s plenty of choice. I found myself asking why… why didn’t one of them go to 9 am in the next village over? They could bring the baby down after mass to meet the nénis.

He wanted out of his buggy and mam obliged. The priest was showing mild evidence of irritation (I’m with you, Father) as he tried to compete, volume wise. The little old dears were bending over backwards in all sorts of contortions trying to make the kid smile. It was at once annoying and amusing. The mass was lost on them. Their prayers forgotten. Everyone was focused on the kid.

When it came to the offering the sign of peace, the Santa Claus lookalike who sits opposite traversed the aisle to shake hands with the toddler, a big smile on his face. This ageing church had been imbued with new life. And as everyone filed out after the final blessing, there was a noticeable spring to the collective step.

I’ve lived a life without issue. That particular door never opened and for that I’m grateful. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anyone other than myself in this life. But every now and then I get a glimpse at what I might have missed. And I smile. I smile a smile tinged with ‘if only’ but laced in gratitude. Yep – even I was making faces at the toddler in the end.

Manifesto

We have a saying in Irish  – cuir ar an mhéar fada – which is what we do when we put something on the long finger, i.e., put it off till whenever. I do this a lot – too much. And as a result, I lose out on vouchers and gift certificates. Despite my best intentions, 9 times out of 10, by the time I get around to it, they’ve expired. I’ve been meaning to go see Cate Blanchett in Manifesto for a few weeks now, ever since it opened at the Magyar Nemzeti Galéria back at the end of May. It only runs till 12 August, so I was cutting it fine, but I finally got my act together this week. And went.

I had a vague notion of what it was about. From German artist Julian Rosefeldt come 13 short video clips of Blanchett playing different roles, reciting from various manifestos that had a huge impact on art and politics. Think Dadism, Surrealism, Communism and a host of other isms perhaps less well known (to me, at least) like Vorticism, Stridentism, and Situationism that have shaped our today. Shot in just 11 days in and around Berlin, each of Blachett’s characters speaks English but with different accents. She appears as a homeless man, a stockbroker, a mother, a punk, a eulogist, and more, each role convincingly played. Years ago, in another life, I remember being fascinated seeing a closeup of Kevin Costner in some movie or other and wondering why, with all his money, he didn’t get his teeth fixed. Seeing the 12 very different sets of teeth that Blanchett’s characters wear (we only hear her voice in the prologue) has me now thinking that those teeth belonged to his character and were not his own. Will I ever know?

I was pushed for time and had figured just over two hours to see all 13 vids, so I didn’t spend as much time as I might have reading the timeline of the various manifestos Rosefeldt read (said to be 50 in all) when he was researching this piece of work. I went straight for it, expecting to walk between 13 separate rooms or semi-closed spaces. Or perhaps we’d each get headphones. But no. The videos played side by side with no signalling as to when they’d started. That really upset my sense of orderliness and from the outset, I was out of sorts.

I can multitask with the best of them but when it comes to listening, I have a hard time drowning out background noise. I work in silence. No radio or music playing in the background. I read in silence. No music or TV. I walk in silence. No headphones or other distractions. I like my silence. One of my most jarring memories is stepping outside the airport terminal in Chennai, India, at 2 am and recoiling from the wall of noise that met me. Another was opening the door into FunGalaxy and hearing the screaming kids inside. I really have a hard time with noise.  So I skipped the first two videos (I came back to them later) as both were going at what seemed like full blast and I couldn’t focus. I found one that I could actually hear.

Once I got into the swing of it, though, I enjoyed it. But I can see why some people might give up trying in the first 10 minutes (and admittedly, by the end, I was flagging). That said, it’s worth persevering. Especially if you can get in the groove and catch the videos as they start (all bar the first one are about 10.30 minutes long). This isn’t a must, of course, but if you veer towards pedantry like I do, I suggest you try it.

That Blanchett is a multi-award-winning actor, I had no doubt. But I hadn’t really appreciated how talented she is. Each of the 12 roles she plays is as convincing as the one before (in the first, we don’t see her, just hear her voice). I was particularly taken with her portrayals of a homeless guy, a punk, and a newsreader where she interviews herself.  Blanchett’s personal make-up artist Morag Ross worked miracles. Even if you’ve no interest in the spoken word, just seeing the 12 different faces and hearing the 13 different voices is worth the entrance fee.

At one stage, each character starts chanting in a strangely monk-like fashion. This happens at the same point in all videos so the rooms are filled with intonation. At other points, the narration from a video showing beside the one you’re watching will seem to eerily fit the film unfolding before you. It really is all very clever. Confusing and confrontational, certainly, but really very, very clever.

I’m with Glenn Kenny of the New York Times: As an installation, it may seem like a sensory onslaught. Yes, Glenn, it does. But now I want to see the movie and I really don’t think I’d appreciate it without having seen the installation. If you’re in Budapest between now and 12 August, it’s worth the money. Curated by Zsolt Petrányi at the National Gallery up in Buda Castle district, it’s definitely one to see. Love it or hate it, you won’t be able to not talk about it.

Julian Rosefeldt: Manifesto

[As an aside, I went to read an article in the LA Times = The 13 faces of Cate Blanchett: How Manifesto went from art to ….. – and got a note: Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism. The long reach of GDPR, no doubt. If anyone’s reading in the USA and can send a PDF, I’ll admit to being curious.]

 

Day trips from Budapest

Occasionally, when friends or friends of friends are planning to come to Budapest for more than the usual weekend break, I’m asked for recommendations on where they should go, once they’ve ‘seen the city’. This amuses me; after 10 or more years, I’m still finding places in the city that I’ve not seen. But anyway, they’re usually interested in places that are easy to get to from the city and have something ‘worth seeing’. Worth seeing…mmm. That very much depends on what you’re interested in, but rather than get involved in a litany of likes and dislikes, I’ve chosen three of my top picks, accessible by the HÉV (commuter rail) from Budapest.

Ráckeve

The train journey from Budapest to Ráckeve takes about 75 minutes on the H6 HÉV from Közvágóhíd (the last stop on the No. 2 tram heading out of Budapest). Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days and so are good times to go. The market runs along the side of the Danube and sells everything from ducklings to rosary beads. It’s a walkable town, with lots to see and do. My favourites are the cemetery and the church. Odd choices perhaps, but there’s a story. One of the first books I read when coming to Hungary was Petőfi Sándor‘s János Vitéz (John the Valiant)…written in poem form, all 370 verses make for a fast-paced story of love and intrigue. He based this character on a real person, one Hórvath János (1774-1848), who is buried in the cemetery in Ráckeve. Each year, in June, on János Viték Napok, the locals come together and act out the poem. Both the book and the grave are worth a visit.

Back in 1994, when artist Patay László (1932-2002) was preparing to paint a fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist in Ráckeve, he used 170 kg of tehén túró cheese when mixing his paints. The results are spectacular. About 600 square meters of walls space is now home to a glorious feast of colour, blending beautifully with the baroque paintings and the glitter and gold that are features of Catholic church decor worldwide. This rivals the best of what Budapest has to offer. Try to refrain from licking the walls just to see if you can taste the cheese.

To wet your whistle while you’re wandering around, stop off at the Old Buttons Museum and English Tea Room on Szent István tér, 12. Say hello to the lovely Sylvia Llewelyn, author of Old Buttons and Hungary’s resident expert on all things button-related. Her collection of retro Hungarian folk art is worth checking out and she makes a mean pancake.

Gödöllő

Getting to Gödöllő is easy – take a regional bus from Puskás Ferenc Stadion (M2 line) or take the H8 HÉV from Örs vezér tere (end of the M2 metro line).  The town’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Royal Palace, once a favourite of Sisi, the inimitable Elisabeth of Bavaria and wife of Franz Joseph I. The Baroque palace was built between 1694 and 1771 and its theatre, in particular, is something to behold. Check the programme when you’re visiting and you might be lucky enough to catch a performance. The Palace is open 10 to 6 at weekends and 9 to 5 on weekdays. The Castle Church is open to the public on Sundays for a church ceremony, a great opportunity to the see the fabulous Rococo altar.

The local town council really has its act together when it comes to making things easy for visitors. Its website maps out four walks you can do from the town centre to take in the 70+ sights that have been identified as worth seeing, ranging from the  Castle Park with its Tree of Life to the statue of a boy scout marking the 4th World Scout Jamboree that took place here in 1933. More than 25 000 scouts from 46 countries camped out on Sisi’s lawn. The town also hosts the world second-largest collection of agricultural machinery and the only one of the five World Peace Gongs (a present from Indonesia)  to reside in Europe.

If you want to get away from it all, take a restorative walk through the Royal Forest. And if you’re in need of sustenance, and have become a Sisi fan, try Erzsébet Királyné Étterem és Kávézó on Dózsa György út 2.

Szentendre

Catch the H5 HÉV from Batthyány tér or  Margit híd, Budai hídfő to Szentendre, which is perhaps the most popular destination as a day trip from Budapest. The journey takes about 40 minutes, compared to the boat trip departing from Vigadó tér which can eat up 90 minutes on the way down and an hour or so on the way back. Once there, wander the cobblestone streets and spent time browsing the art galleries, museums, and craft shops. Pay a visit to the eighteenth-century Greek Orthodox church with its ornate interior. If you’re into cars and know your Warburg from your Zhighuli, or fancy a look at some motorbikes from the old Eastern bloc, pop into the Retro Design Center on Rev utca 4. While some of you might have little problem remembering the 1970s, your kids might get a kick out of seeing LPs and tape recorders.

Szentendre, though, is probably best known for its skanzen (open-air museum). The first of its kind, and the one which lent its name to all subsequent museums, opened in 1891 in Skansen, near Stockholm.  The one in Szentendre is on Sztaravodai ut. This historic village setting is home to many original buildings from various parts of Hungary, transplanted along with other interesting stuff representative of architecture and culture from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s. It’s quite the trip back in time

And if you fancy eating some of that history, check out the Szamos Museum Confectioners on Dumtsa Jeno utca 12.

Enjoy your stay.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 July 2018

Wedding in the Algarve

2018 Grateful 25

I’ve been to a fair few Irish weddings in my time and there’s a sameness to the proceedings that seems to be favoured. A pattern. A few scoops in a bar close to the church beforehand where everyone gets together before heading to the ceremony. Then the meet and greet in the churchyard with a subsequent meet and dissect afterwards. Didn’t the bride look amazing? Wasn’t the priest just great? Did you see what so-and-so was wearing?  Then it’s off to the hotel for the wedding breakfast, the reception. Usually there’s a drinks reception in the grounds, weather permitting followed by the traditional wedding fare: Soup or prawn cocktail followed by a choice of beef or salmon (no doubt the inspiration behind the name of the racehorse who won the Punchestown Gold Cup in 2004 and was three-time winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup). Dessert might be baked Alaska or even profiteroles. Then tea and coffee to go with the wedding cake. The wedding band would get everyone on the dancefloor after the speeches and the DJ would kick off the afters, when those not invited to the main event would show up for the hooley … and the cocktail sausages. The party would no doubt continue in the resident’s bar till the wee hours, making breakfast the next morning a rather turgid affair. And then we’d all be gone. Home to send in the rolls of film and wait two weeks to check the photos.

Give or take a few details and menu choices, this format is pretty standard, even today. But Irish weddings in Portugal? They’re of a different sort.

We turfed up in Burgau late Thursday afternoon. It was our first time in the Algarve and we’d taken our time getting here, driving down from Malaga across Andalusia. Most of the wedding party were staying in Praia da Luz, a few short miles from our fishing village. That evening, the bride’s parents hosted a BBQ in the villa they’d rented for the duration. [It’s on the market for a cool €4.5 million, and the mosquitos are included at no extra cost.]  Some two years earlier, many of the same crowd had been at another family wedding in Portugal, so it was a case of remembering names and faces and putting them both together. After that, it was as if the two intervening years morphed into a matter of weeks. What a pleasant change it makes to catch up with people at weddings rather than at funerals. Most of those there were making a holiday out of it, using the wedding as the focal point and then doing their own thing before or after. That’s one of the many plusses of getting married abroad. It’s a natural sift – those who really want to be there make the journey.

Igreja da Luz de Lagos

Photo: Steve Jacobs

On Saturday, Kelly’s Pub was the meeting point from 12.30 with the ceremony set to start at 1.30 in Igreja da Luz de Lagos, just around the corner. The yellow-and-white facade was set off beautiful by the Portugese sun and the photo opportunities, no longer obstructed by the trampoline set that usually lives in the churchyard, were many. The style was quite something with a couple of the lads wearing rigouts that might net them a prize at the Galway Races.

The local priest was an animated chap, not at all backward about coming forward. The bride, nearly 30 minutes late in arriving (only so many hairdryers can be run at the one time, ladies), came in for some good-natured rebukes as did we, the congregation, who were far too chatty for his churchiness: music or chat, he said, not both. Fair play though – he gave a great homily, with a humourous lesson for us all, something akin to my bullet theory.

Once upon a time, David went calling on Melissa. He knocked on the door.
She asked ‘Who is it?’
He anwered ‘It’s me.’ Nothing happened. She didn’t open the door as he expected.
Somewhat disconcerted, he knocked again.
And again she asked ‘Who is it?’
And again he anwered ‘It’s me.’ But still she didn’t open the door.
Now, David, being a smart lad, figured that giving the same answer would in all likelihood get the same result. So he decided to change his approach.
He knocked again.
And again she asked ‘Who is it?’
But this time he anwered ‘It’s you.’ And the door opened…

Padre José Manuel Pacheco reminded us that the secret to a successful relationship is that each puts the other’s happiness before their own. [As an aside, apparently 15/16 of the weddings he has slated this year are foreign (mainly Irish and English) with only one Portuguese. Church weddings, it would seem, are no longer that fashionable in Portugal. It was surprising at first but then even in our village of Burgau, you’d be hard pushed to find a local native who seem to have given over their space to French, English, Irish, and Dutch.]

The newly married couple exited to the La Bamba played by String Quartet Solutions with the rest of us in tow. Waiting outside were glasses of champagne with strawberries. Again, the photos. And the oohs and aahs. And all the emotion that goes with seeing a couple so obviously well matched start out on a journey that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. They’re a well-balanced couple, who like their champagne, their Hendicks gin, and their Dominoes pizza. And they have a sense of humour – true Dubs, the entire wedding party was decked out in the GAA blue of the Dublin team.

Wedding in the Algarve

Then it was off to Quinta dos Vales wine estate for the reception. The place is a relatively new winery, with the first vines planted in the 1980s and the first wines sold commercially in 2003. Today, it’s a winery, a sculpture garden, an event venue, and a place to stay. Mixing and mingling in the courtyard gardens before the breakfast, we were serenaded by a fab sax player, entertained by the variety of sculptures on display, and libated with champers and white sangria. I was particularly taken with the wooden furniture made from wine barrels, tooled by the hands of Serhiy Khomyak. One of his benches is now on my lotto list. Parasols were provided to sheild the fair Irish skins from the sun and with the fairly breezy day we had, more than one passing reference was made to Mary Poppins.

Wedding in the Algarve

The breakfast was a far cry from the traditional Irish fare with a selection of local meats and cheeses to start with followed by a choice of fish/meat/veg, and topped off by a selection of traditional desserts. ‘Twas a lovely take on a taster menu complemented by wines from the estate. The wedding cake was a cheesecake – 10 wheels of various cheeses stacked in a tower. A brilliant idea – one to be shamelessly nicked.

Weddings are a funny thing, when you think of it – a meeting of the ages, with the aunts and uncles and friends of the parents, then the friends of the bride and groom, and then their nieces and nephews. The band had their work cut out for them to cater for all tastes and styles. They were great craic. The photographers were kept busy as the jivers took to the floor with a dash and the kids did the Floss (a dance banned recently by one school in the UK).

By all accounts, the party went on till early morning. Long gone are the days when I’d be amongst the last ones standing. It then continued the following day in Praia da Luz at the Ocean Villas resort where a fully catered BBQ with an open bar and a roast pig on a spit worked the miracle cure a lot of people needed. The park, overlooking the ocean, was a perfect setting for the culmination of a perfect weekend.

Wedding in the Algarve

Wedding in the Algarve

This wedding was perhaps the first time I was conscious that I’ve graduated the oldies – the friends of parents. My staying power certainly ain’t what it used to be, although I can still give a night a good run for its money. But when I’m reminded in conversation that they’re only 23 or 25 or 27 or 30 and realise that had I taken a different path, I could have kids that age, I see tomorrow in a different light.  And while I might have, on occasion, spoken with the voice of experience, I was also reminded of things I don’t want to forget.

The young lad who mislaid his passport on Thursday and had decided not to ruin his weekend by stressing about it. He’d deal with it when he got to the airport on Monday, he said. Fair play, I thought, as I flashed back to the meltdown I had when I lost my passport in Las Palmas a few years back. The young lady who worked as a healthcare worker with dementia patients has a book of advice and empathy in her for those new to the illness. If my mind ever fails me, I hope I have a nurse like her. The newly graduated teacher soon to start their first job and full of ideas to imbue the Irish language with new life and make it a language their students choose to learn.  If I had kids, I’d want them to go to their school.

Many of the couples I met had been together since they were 15, or 18, or 21. Ten years and more. They’d known each other since they were infants. They were sure and certain and comfortable in their relationships. The older couples had an energy and a molliness that was enviable. Some of the stories are best left unwritten. After a long weekend of sun, sea, and spirited singing, I came away with a renewed optimism for tomorrow and a rejuvenated faith in the sacrament of marriage.

And for this, I’m truly grateful.

For more on the Grateful series.

For more on the trip across Andalusia.

 

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 26

It’s bloody hot. And instead of cooling down, it’s getting hotter as the day goes on. It’s to hit 39 by 7pm this evening. Welcome to Córdoba, the prepping ground for Seville where temps are to be even hotter. We’re on a road trip through Andalusia and today has been the first day that I’ve really felt the heat – enough to do the Spanish thing an stay inside in the afternoon: la siesta and air con – a heady mixture.

Another mixture I’ve discovered is the famed 50/50 from the Bodegas Mezquita winery. It’s a mix of their white Fino, a lovely staw-coloured dry wine made just like sherry but for DO reasons can’t be called sherry, and a very sweet Pedro Ximenez. When you mix them, half in half, you get the best of both worlds – dry and sweet.

After reading somewhere that a Japanese tourist had what he called his best meal in all Spain in their restaurant on Cruz del Rastro (they have three in the city of Córboba), we had to try it. And while the service seriously rated (the delightful Pepa was on the ball), it didn’t quite beat the experience at Antonia’s in Jerez.

But they have a great motto:

Lo mejor de la vida siempre se comparte ¬ the best of life is always shared.

And how true that is. For many years, I preferred to travel solo. And not from some super-considerate desire not to inflict my travel self on someone else but because I didn’t want to deal with someone else’s preferences, particularly if they didn’t coincide with mine. On my first ever sun holiday, my friend wanted to spend all night partying and all day recovering by the pool or at the beach. I wanted to get on a bus and see the mountains. I wanted to do stuff. But she wasn’t remotely interested. I could, of course, have simply said as much, but in my misguided youth, I was loathe to do anything that would upset anyone. I thought going on holiday meant being attached at the hip. Instead, I feigned illness, waited until she left, and then on the back of my remarkable recovery, skipped out and went rambling for the day making sure to be back in time for tea. Ridiculous in hindsight but at 18 it made all the sense in the world.

From then on, I travelled on my own. Three weeks interrailing across Europe sealed my fate. The only thing deciding my day was the train timetable. I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, and I loved it. I did miss being able to share the moment though. Or to relive it months or even years later. But that was the price I paid for having it my way – all the time.

Over the years, I’ve mellowed a little. I’ve gotten a little better at compromise. I have friends I can travel with – those who are happy enough to do their own thing and let me do mine and equally happy to spend time with me if both things coincide. I’ve lucked out with himself, who shows no compunction about taking off on his own, leaving me time to myself. We have similar thoughts on where to stay and what to do. I drive, he navigates. I sleep in, he goes out and gets coffee. He likes the heat, I don’t. And if I want to see something that he’s not remotely interested in, or vice versa, there’s no question of feeling obliged. Right now, he’s off out in 35 degrees sussing out somewhere for drinks later. And I’m inside, with the aircon, loving the cold. What’s not to be grateful for.

 

Unicum

If you wear galoshes, you’re an émigré

When it comes to museums and stately homes, I’m not one for do-agains. Other than Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, which I visited many times during my year in Oxford, I can count on one hand the places I’ve gone back to a second time, let alone a third. Once I’ve been, I’ve been. I will happily wait outside as my visitors wade through the history and experience all on offer, but I don’t usually have the bandwidth for  a do-again. In Budapest, though, I’ve made an exception; I’ve found my Blenheim Palace in the Zwack Museum in Budapest’s IXth district, on Dandár utca 1.

Each time I visit, I learn something new. During each viewing of the short film that introduces Unicum to visitors, something different resonates. I hadn’t realised, for instance, that Unicum has its own music, a Foxtrot, composed in the 1930s and performed by the Holéczy vocal ensemble, extolling the medicinal virtues of the drink as a cure for an upset stomach.

Unicum barrell

And I hadn’t realised that the giant Unicum barrels were commandeered in WWII and used to build a temporary bridge over the Danube. One of the original barrels remains – dating back to 1937 and holding a massive 16 000 litres.  I quite fancied that the barrels should have names. They seem to have a life and spirit of their own. We threw out some suggestions and Bóri, our guide, had the winner: ‘Why not call it Grandmother?’ This I found interesting because, apparently, I mispronounce it: my mangled version of Unicum sounds like unokám, which translates to ‘my grandchild’.

Zwack Riserva

I was curious about the typical consumer. I’m told that the classic Unicum is a favourite of men of about 35 and older. Unicum Szilva, the happy product of a marketing promotion whereby slices of plum were handed out with shots of Unicum, has a younger fan base. And the latest addition to the Unicum family is Unicum Riserva may well covert me.

Unicum Riserva is doubly unique because it is aged not once but twice in two very different and special casks. The Unicum is aged first in the largest and oldest cask in the distillery which has been in the cellars for eighty years. Over the decades the wood has acquired a coating of what we call “black honey” which gives the Unicum still more depth and character. In the second phase the Unicum is put into a Tokaji Aszu cask where for years this legendary wine has aged in the cellars of Tokaji. Once the familiar bittersweet taste of Unicum encounters the sensuous sweetness of Tokaji, Unicum Riserva becomes mellower but at the same time spicy and fruity, with hints of dried apricots and an elusively herbal, minty taste like a cool breeze. Finally the 2007 vintage of Tokaji Aszu from the Dobogo Winery is blended into the Riserva to further enhance this uniquely unusual blend of flavours.

Of course, Unicum isn’t the only stave in the Zwack liquor barrel. Its apricot brandy has fans all over the world, the most famous perhaps being Edward, Prince of Wales, who, back in 1933, said that with soda, it is better than whisky and in tea, it is better than rum. I also hadn’t registered that there’s a Zwack Palinka Distillery in Kecskemét, but now that I know it’s there, it’s on my list of places to visit.

Anne and Peter Zwack

While walking through the gift shop, I spotted a book, a memoir of Peter Zwack (1927-2012), written by his wife, Anne: If you wear galoshes, you’re an émigré. Since my first viewing of the short, introductory biopic a number of years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the man and curious to know more about his life. The blurb described it as ‘the unique and compelling story of an émigré who lost everything except his galoshes and his accent and, in the new Hungary, was to win it all back’. Here was my opportunity.

What spare time I’ve had since then has been spent curled up on a chair reading. A Kindle convert, it’s been a while since I’ve read a real book with a hard cover and paper pages, but it seemed fitting – I don’t think Peter Zwack would have had much truck with electronic books, but I could be wrong. Written back in 2001 (and so a little dated), it’s an intriguing account of the life of a man who was not in ‘the least afraid of dying’ but didn’t ‘want not to live anymore’.  It chronicles his rather privileged childhood and teens [a life that he himself described as consisting of ‘town houses and country mansions and an elegant lifestyle’] to the family’s flight to the USA in 1948 when the Communist regime nationalised the Unicum factory. At 22, after a month on Ellis Island, Peter Zwack found himself living in the Broncs in New York. In 1956, with his friend Tibor Eckhardt, he founded First Aid for Hungary, a charity to help Hungarian refugees of the 1956 Revolution. Indeed, the family (and the business) has always had a strong sense of corporate and social responsibility, perhaps another reason I’m drawn to him. He says that while his childhood made him ‘culturally and emotionally a European, America gave [him a] liberal viewpoint and positive outlook’. Not a bad mix.

Chapter after chapter I read and as I read, I learned. Peter Zwack was born a Catholic and educated by the Cistercians, as the family had converted to  Catholicism in 1917. He didn’t realise he was Jewish until 1944 when Eichmann came to Hungary. Having to hide out from the Arrow Cross and wear a Yellow Star must have come as quite the shock. A fastidious diarist, the book features many of his own words, bringing his voice to life. [In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Anne Marshall Zwack says of her husband: ‘Something unwritten has never happened for him. If he loses a diary, he is distraught, because it means that he has lost a week of his life.’]

One account of how Lars Berg from the Swedish Embassy rescued the family when the Arrow Cross came calling gives a glimpse of the carpe diem man he would become.

There was no doubt in my mind that we were all going to die. I had been given a huge bar of chocolate as my ration to last me the rest of the war. I hadn’t eaten any of it. […] The Arrow Cross were stamping in front of us, needling Wunschi [his aunt Mitzi’s second husband], and I started to eat the whole thing right there. I thought it was the last bar of chocolate I’d ever see. The Arrow Cross used to round people up and march them to the banks of the Danube and shoot them there. They would tie them into groups like asparagus and then shoot one whose weight would drag the rest of them into the Danube where they’d die by drowning. It was a way of economising on bullets.

His marriage to Iris, with whom he had five children; their subsequent divorce; and his marriage to Anne, with whom he had two children, are described with just enough detail to make them real. The figure of a man who liked his own company better than that of his fellow man emerges. Minor details like the Russians stealing his father’s shoes (and never in pairs) and bayonetting their books, all add to the fascination. As does the account of his year as Hungarian Ambassador to the USA. For a man who believed that ‘only salesmen travel in a suit and tie’ the pomp and ceremony of diplomacy was something to be reckoned with. His ambassadorship was short-lived, though. The world wasn’t yet ready for him. It was such a shame because his speeches apparently inspired international companies to invest in Hungary and his appearances did a lot to dispell the myth of the Big Bad Wolf that lived in the Eastern Bloc.

As I read the book, I stopped occasionally to look up other articles on the web about Peter Zwack. And with each read, his place at my heavenly dinner table became more secure. In an interview with the New York Times in 1989, he said:

People think I showed faith in Hungary when not too many others did […] they had been fed this picture of a fat capitalist who smoked cigars and beat up the workers, and they saw me, a skinny guy who doesn’t smoke, wears beat-up clothes and behaves more like the workers than the Communist bosses did.

That same article said this about him:

He is steely enough to have survived, indeed thrived, for 40 years as an exile. He is bold and imaginative enough to have gambled, when the winds of change now blowing through Eastern Europe were the merest zephyr, on the ability of a capitalist emigre to come home at last and do business with the Communists he hated. A Role Model for Hungarians.

Anne Marshall Zwack met her husband on a blind date in Milan. She was a 26-year-old, well-travelled translator; he was a 44-year-old divorcé with five kids. His mother proposed to her, asking her if she’d like to marry her son. When Anne said yes, her future mother-in-law replied: ‘Then we’ll arrange it.’ And in Peter Zwack, the apple didn’t fall far from that particular tree.

As I read, I found myself wondering what Peter Zwack himself thought of the book. There’s very little by way of varnish and plenty by way of veracity. Anne Marshall Zwack writes with an objectivity threaded with love. It is, indeed, a compelling read. If you have an interest in post-War Hungary and its transition to capitalism or just fancy a peek at how the other half lived back in the day, it’s a bargain. Listed on Amazon for some serious money, you can pick up your copy at the museum shop for less than €2. And while you’re there, take a tour – get acquainted with Unicum and enjoy this unique little museum. Open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, Dandár utca 1.

 

Sunflower Sutra

Nothing quite lifts my spirits like a field of sunflowers in all their glory. Last year, a field outside the village was set in flowers; this year, it’s in corn. I have to go further to find my fix but there’s no shortage of them in Zala county. I’m not quite sure what it is about them that is so restorative. Perhaps it’s the whole heliotropism thing: they follow the sky from East to West when they’re young but as they age, they stay fixed towards the East. And they’re the only flower with ‘flower’ in their name.

The Internet is rife with sunflower seedlings:

SunflowerThey’ve inspired artists like Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Klimpt. They’ve inspired poets like William Blake. But my favourite find in my reading today is the Sunflower Sutra by Allen Ginsberg – too good not to share.

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, sur-
rounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
machinery.
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just our-
selves rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust–
–I rushed up enchanted–it was my first sunflower,
memories of Blake–my visions–Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes
Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black
treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the
poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel
knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck
and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the
past–
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset,
crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog
and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye–
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like
a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face,
soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sun-
rays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried
wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures
from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster
fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O
my soul, I loved you then!
The grime was no man’s grime but death and human
locomotives,
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad
skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black
mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuber-
ance of artificial worse-than-dirt–industrial–
modern–all that civilization spotting your
crazy golden crown–
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless
eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the
home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar
bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards
of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely
tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what
more could I name, the smoked ashes of some
cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the
milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs
& sphincters of dynamos–all these
entangled in your mummied roots–and you there
standing before me in the sunset, all your glory
in your form!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent
lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye
to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited
grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden
monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your
grime, while you cursed the heavens of the rail-
road and your flower soul?
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a
flower? when did you look at your skin and
decide you were an impotent dirty old locomo-
tive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomo-
tive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a
sunflower!
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me
not!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul
too, and anyone who’ll listen,
–We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re bles-
sed by our own seed & golden hairy naked ac-
complishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sit-
down vision.
Berkeley, 1955

 

Festetics Palace Hungary

2018 Grateful 27

I have a newfound respect for homemakers, those who don’t venture into the world of paid work but rather stay home, keep house, and look after their families. I’m not talking about the wealthy, tennis-playing, charity-championing socialites who’ve probably never lifted anything heavier than a Hermes Birkin bag (the one by Japanese designer Ginza Tanaka has a whopping $1.9 million price-tag). I’m talking about the likes of her-next-door; she who works every hour God sends tending to her crops, her vegetables, her chickens…and her ageing mother. It’s damned hard work for very little return (if you’re counting the forints). She ageless – not because she looks amazing but because I can’t put an age on her. She’s seen the better part of at least sixty summers, but I could be wrong on that. She’s an authority on all things rural and the other day popped in to give me an in-the-garden lesson on weeds. She’d seen me looking at the flowerbed wondering what to pull.

My cider vinegar hasn’t exploded. My walnut and zucchini bread was a hit with my weekend visitors. And all things cherry are still being enjoyed. And while the cuts on my fingers have just about healed, the callouses live on.

I’ve noticed that I’m getting a tad obsessive about the garden and what it produces. Given my druthers, I’d stay here all summer, experimenting with jams and juices and trying to find the sweet spot in the oven  – that minute between just done and done burnt. But I need to be careful. I’m an introvert. People require energy that sometimes I find difficult to muster. And if I give in to my natural inclination, l mightn’t talk to anyone (other than himself) from one end of the week to the next. So when I have visitors, I get out. I show them around. I go do stuff.

This weekend, we hit the market at Hévíz again, I was seriously attracted to a statue of Our Lady but my friends, practised marketers themselves, said that the 100 000 ft ($360/€312) the chap wanted for it was ridiculous; 15 000 ft would have been more reasonable. And, they said, it wasn’t 100 years old either. I’d done as I always do – I’d fixed a price that I’d have been prepared to pay for it before I asked how much it was. I’d 30 000 ft in my head. It was still there as we left. But I did spot a very unusual picture of Jesus and Mary. Unusual because he looks remarkably young – a teenager even. And she looks all of the 17 years she was when she gave birth. [The crucifix I was given by a mate who inherited it with his flat – it creeped him out.]

Jesus and Mary

Heart of Jesus, through Mary thy Kingdom come

From there we went to Keszthely, to see the ceramic studio of Szalay Imré. This master potter is famous for his tiled stoves. Such is his reach that a ceramics chap in Melbourne, Australia, has been working on introducing the traditional Hungarian stove down under. In our rather disposable world, littered as it is with cheap, mass-produced tat from China and Turkey, it’s great to see such traditional crafts becoming more and more popular. We have two chimneys, neither of which is in a room we want a stove. But if we can figure out a workaround for the winter garden, perhaps we could have one there.

Szalay Imré Hungarian tiled stove

Szalay Imré Hungarian ceramic tiles

We had the dogs with us, so we popped into Festetics Palace for a wander around the gardens. This Baroque palace began its life back in the mid-1700s and is really quite something. Such is its understated grandeur that it forces you back in time to think of days when it was a single-family residence and what life must have been like back then. [Upstairs. I’d have been upstairs.]

The last family members to reside in the Festetics Palace were Tassilo II’s son, George III (1882-1941) and his family. His wife, the Polish Countess Maria Haugwitz and their son, George IV (1940- ) left the palace in 1944.

We toured it a couple of years ago and I must dig out the photos. That was in the dead of winter. This time, we had the glorious sunshine of the Hungarian summer.

Festetics palace keszthely

Festetics Festetics palace keszthely

The view from the front lawn, though, is less than inspiring. Maria must have been long gone or else I’m sure she’d have lodged an objection to the monument to Communist architecture that drags the palace into the twenty-first century.

Grounds of Festetics Palace

I hadn’t appreciated the grounds before. They’re beautiful. And curiously, the occasional stone marker tells of trees planted by various heads of state from around the world. The one that grabbed me was a tree planted in 2004 by the then president of Vietnam. The Google translation I found of the event calls the tree in question ‘a sad lollipop’. Another calls it ‘a sad lizard’. Whatever it is, it’s a szomorú vörösfenyőt in Hungarian.

Festetics Palace Hungary

Festetics Palace Keszthely

The views of the palace vary – I had little trouble deciding what I would have done with my days, had I been in residence. Leisurely mornings reading under my choice of tree. Or perhaps taking tea in my choice of drawing room. Then planning the menu with the cook and deciding what I’d wear to dinner that evening. I might have spent some time in the library checking some random fact or other. Or even brought out my watercolours and tried to capture the house I called home. And this really was someone’s home in the last 80 years. How times have changed. I wonder what George IV is doing these days? Born in 1940, he’d be nearly 80. Curious minds want to know.

It was a busy week and a busier weekend. For the company of those who take me out of myself, I’m grateful.

Next week, I leave. We’re taking a road trip through Spain and Portugal, so this blog will be pretty quiet. If you want to come along, subscribe to email notifications of my travels from www.anyexcusetotravel.com. If not, I’ll see you when I get back.