Free books and where they take you

My brother turned me on to BookBub when I went over to the Darkside and bought a Kindle. You fill in your details, check some boxes to build a reader profile, and then each day you receive an email with book offers listed on Amazon. Most days there’s at least one book on it that’s free, with the most expensive hovering around the £3.49 mark. My selection is fixed for crime novels, whodunnits, and detective fiction and rarely do I shell out more than a quid. My kindle is my escape. My serious reading I still do in the old-fashioned format.  I’ve picked some appalling offers that on a good day wouldn’t pass for anything approaching a decent read, but I’ve also chosen some gems. The best in recent months is the discovery of Kathryn Guare’s Conor McBride, a find worth sharing as it ticked a lot of boxes for me.

A box set of globe-trotting espionage thrillers! Conor McBride has a simple life — until MI6 transforms him into a deadly operative, propelling him into a world of international intrigue and dangerous secrets.

This was the blurb. And it was free. At most I’d lose 15 minutes of my life. That’s all it takes to know if I want to see the book through till the end.

Set in Kerry, London, Mumbai, Vermont, and Prague, the storyline is made for the big screen. Someone, sometime, has to nab the film rights. And while it might be a stretch of even the most fertile imagination to travel with this violin-playing Kerry farmer from a milking parlour in the south-west of Ireland to the backstreets of Mumbai to the concerts halls of Prague, I had no difficulty at all. Guare is a convincing writer. Her characters are credible, their antics (no matter how far-fetched) are strangely believable. And I loved the banter. Sometimes, in these types of books, the romantic element is overdone, underdone, or just plain awkward. But again, Guare nails it. It complements rather than detracts and adds depth to the story and the characters.

For a week, I followed my man Conor halfway around the world, rarely letting him out of my sight. Questions around trust, reliability, and dependability came to the fore. I found myself engaging with the characters and the story by asking myself if I’d have believed X when they said Y.  And that level of engagement is rare. I wondered if I was identifying too much with the Irishness of it all and how well Guare seems to understand the Irish psyche [‘The Irish had spent centuries perfecting the art of cursing as poetic expression’]. Perhaps. Amongst the passions listed for Guare in her standard web-bio are ‘all things Celtic’. The bits of Gaelic that pop up are well placed and appropriate, with none of the usual artfulness I’ve come to expect from North American writers. In my experience, capturing this Irishness, this essence, is a rare thing for someone born and raised outside of Ireland. Guare is a third-generation Vermonter who has travelled a lot in Europe and India. She’s obviously called on her experience in shaping the life of Conor McBride.

While I had no difficulty in believing that what I was reading was real and no problem buying into all that double-crossing, lying, and subterfuge, I had a real problem with this:

‘Terror makes for strange bedfellows, Kate.’ Frank crumbled some Stilton over a slice of apple and handed it to her.

Given what I know of the North American hangups about double-dipping, Kate must be one special woman to eat cheese handled by someone else 🙂 I liked her. And Conor. And Frank. And Winnie. And all the other characters who went everywhere I went for a week.

If you’re looking for something to read this Christmas, and like intricate plots, believable characters, and a rollicking mystery, then this box set is worth checking out. The BookBub offer is over so you’ll have to pay for it – a whopping £5.99 (UK) $7.68   (USA) for all three books. A steal at twice the price.

 

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 6 | Making the Move

Things have been a little scatty lately. What with my recent memory blank and other odd stuff going on, it felt like the puppet master was tugging a little too heavily on the strings. I was a tad discombobulated. Something was off and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Back in Budapest for a few days after a quick trip home to see the folks, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. They congratulated me on making the move.

What move, I asked?

To the village, they said. I hear you’re now living down there during the week and just coming to Budapest at the weekend.

That stopped me in my tracks. I’d no idea that I’d moved.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I had … mentally. I’d shifted from living in the city to living in the village. Budapest is somewhere I have a flat I can use when I’m working in the city or travelling in or out of it. The village is home. And with that admission, the discombobulation recombobulated and life suddenly felt okay again.

It’s 1 degree outside. It’s snowing. And we’re just back from a rather silly venture. I had the bright idea to go check on the walnut tree we spotted last year on the track that runs along the lake at the end of our property. Walnuts are in short supply. It’s been a bad season. But I figured we might strike it lucky. What I didn’t figure on is that they’d be impossible to find, buried as they no doubt are beneath layers of fallen leaves. Sometimes I seriously doubt my intelligence.  But it didn’t matter. We were out. It was bracingly cold. And it was snowing.

We came across this lovely red-stemmed bush with bunches of black berries. The red really stood out against the browns and golds of the dried leaves around it. And the grape-like clusters of berries looked good enough to eat. And I would have, had himself not pulled me up with a word of caution.

They’re low. There are deer tracks. And the deer haven’t eaten them. You sure you want to try?

I couldn’t fault the man’s logic. So I checked WebMD.

Pokeweed, aka American Nightshade. The root is supposedly used in medicines to treat a range of ailments from acne to ringworm, from achy muscles to syphilis. It’s used in food and wine a colouring agent and in manufacturing to make ink and dye. I was already seeing the possibilities. But then I read on, on the same site:

All parts of the pokeweed plant, especially the root, are poisonous. Severe poisoning has been reported from drinking tea brewed from pokeweed root and pokeweed leaves. Poisoning also has resulted from drinking pokeberry wine and eating pokeberry pancakes. Eating just 10 berries can be toxic to an adult.

There went my pokeweed jam idea. Unless I wanted to cause vomiting, cramps, diarrhoea, incontinence, and more along that vein. [Could there be a market in that?] Apparently, even touching it can cause harm. Getting mixed messages and not willing to believe that this luscious crop of berries couldn’t end up in a jamjar, I checked Poison.org. Yep, pokeberries are definitely not good for you.

Although disappointed I couldn’t put them to good use, I was pleased that I’d make a discovery. That I’d learned something new. As the snow blew across the fields, parallel to the ground, I felt the crispness of winter. I was cold. I was wet. And I was happy. This week, I’m grateful to be home.

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 7

I caught the last train to the village on Thursday night. I’d been in a workshop all day and then to the doctor that evening but I was on time, with 30 minutes to spare. I settled in to my seat, a whole carriage to myself. The joy of late-night train travel. I double-checked my messages. Yep – I was to get off in Balatonszentgyörgy where himself would pick me up.

Fast forward the 2 hours and 15 or so minutes the train takes, and we pulled into the station. I got off. No sign of himself on the platform, which was unusual. No sign of the car in the car park, which was downright worrying. So I rang.

M: Where are you?
H: On my way to Zalakómar. Where are you?
M: In Balatonszentgyörgy.
H: What are you doing there?
M: This is where you told me to be.
H: But then you called and insisted I go to Kómar.
M: I did not. We haven’t spoken since this morning.
H: Yes. We did. You called me after your workshop.
M: No. I didn’t.
H: Yes. You did.
M: FFS!

I ran back, crossed over in front of the Keszthely train getting an earful from the station agent for my trouble. The train splits in Balatonszentgyörgy with half going one direction and half another. My half was beginning to roll down the tracks but the shouts of yer woman berating me for my near-suicidal dash across the tracks pulled up the driver. He leaned out the window and shouted:

D: Hová mész? (Where are you going?)
M: Kómar!
D: Rendben (OK), thumbing back to the carriage.

I jumped on and he took off. {I’m available for stunt work.}

The friendly ticket conductor was curious.

C: Do you know where you’re going?
M: I know where I was supposed to be. But my husband, he’s in Kómar. [Relax – it’s just easier]
C: Ah, us men, we’re always wrong.

And bless him, he didn’t charge me for the extra leg.

So, I get to Kómar and there’s himself. On the platform, phone at the ready, to show me the record of our call. And yes. We had talked. For 3 minutes. I didn’t have the faintest recollection of the conversation. And that scared me shitless.

I am terrified of dementia.

Dementia is a syndrome, not a disease. … Dementia is a group of symptoms that affects mental cognitive tasks such as memory and reasoning. Dementia is an umbrella term that Alzheimer’s disease can fall under. It can occur due to a variety of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.

My anxiety levels were rising and no matter how he tried to steer the conversation, I kept coming back to the fact that I had zero recollection of a phone conversation that happened less than five hours earlier. Bless him. He really has the patience of Job. I was nearly hysterical. I had a knot in my stomach the size of a pregnant orange. On the 10-minute drive to the house, I messaged a good mate of mine in the UK who is studying memory issues and told him what had happened. Thankfully, he was online. He asked me if anyone had commented on any changes in my behaviour recently. I checked with himself. And yes, apparently I’ve been more forgetful than usual. I asked him if he could run a preliminary check on me. We fixed a date for Sunday evening.

It’s been hovering in the back of my mind the whole weekend. I’ve been watching myself like a new mother might an infant child, the anxiety eaten up by what ifs. What if those three minutes were is alibi for some heinous crime himself was wrongly accused of? I wouldn’t be able to swear on a Bible that I’d spoken to him… the most I’d be able to muster is that my phone records say I did, your honour. What if this is the start of it? What if I’m losing my mind? What if I can’t remember who I am in a year’s time? Or worse, what if I can’t remember who anyone else is!

We did the test – ACE-III – and I got 99%. The cut-off is 83%. No sign of memory issues. Man, was I relieved.

So why the complete blank? Knowing better than to suggest I was burning the candle at both ends, he told me of a patient who had been spinning too many plates in the air and had experienced similar blanks. When he’d cut back on his commitments, when he’d stopped running around so much, when he’d taken time to do nothing, the blanks stopped. Enough said.

I’m grateful it’s that simple. I’m already paring back on the weeks ahead and considering what I can do to take some of those plates out of the air without breaking any. I got the fright of my life. And while there may be far worse things that could happen to me, at the moment it’s losing my mind that I fear the most.

Save this man

In 2013, when the Hungarian government first criminalised homelessness, the  BBC reported figures from The civic group, the City Belongs to Everyone, estimating that 10,000 people lived on the city’s streets or in shelters they had fashioned in the forests on the outskirts of the capital. Yet, they said, there were fewer than 6,000 places in hostels, a serious shortfall. But the government said there was ample shelter available, almost 100%.

In 2018, it’s difficult to tell what the real figures are, but a simple walk around the city shows that homelessness in Budapest is pervasive. Last month’s amendment to the Constitution which now reads ‘Habitual residence in a public space is forbidden’ has flooded social media channels with opinions for and against the edict.  Those supporting it want the streets cleared, conscious as they are of the approaching winter and of the inherent aesthetic blight; those against say it does little more than criminalise poverty.

But shouldn’t the issue be how to prevent homelessness in the first place?

Meet A_. Born in 1964 to a music conductor and a socialite mother, A_ has been beset by illness since he was a baby. His mother, more concerned with her social standing than the wellbeing of her baby, left him out in the rain in his pram for a day. His kidneys never recovered. A_ trained as a cook and worked in restaurants in the city and also inherited some musical talent from his father. He was, he says, quite a good bass guitar player. Life was good. He had a job, a doting father, and his music.

At 30, A_ was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and sentenced to life in a wheelchair. His father bought him a tiny house in Páty village in Budapest county. He managed okay until his father died, leaving him alone in a house he was unable to maintain. His wheelchair sentence was miraculously commuted; he regained some of his mobility, but not enough to do the necessary maintenance on his home. His disability pension didn’t stretch to paying anyone to do it either.

Two months ago, A_ had a heart attack while in the village. An ambulance took him away. Had he been at home, he’d surely have died. My friend in Páty noticed he hadn’t been around and knowing he was short on relatives and friends, tracked him down. She took him money, clothes, and food. He was well looked after in the hospital and came home with a new pacemaker. But his living conditions had deteriorated in his absence.

Today, the roof of his cabin has a gaping hole. The only thing stopping the rain and snow from coming in is a thin sheet of plastic.  There is no insulation. No bath. No shower. No kitchen. No gas. No heating. No chimney. Just about all it has, in addition to its four walls, is running water and electricity. But last month, the electricity failed. A_ has paid his 300 ft bill each month (he uses just one 25w lightbulb) but his system has worn out. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years. To bring it up to code will cost at least 120 000 ft. This has to happen before ELMÜ will switch his electricity back on.

A_ is resilient. He’s a survivor. He can take the hunger, the dirt, the cold but he cannot handle the darkness. A passionate writer of short stories, freestyle poems, and self-reflections, writing has become his life, his raison d’etre. But he cannot write in the dark. Preferring to go hungry and be cold, he spends his money candles. If neighbours offer to bring him food and clothes, he asks instead for typewriter ribbons.

His future looks bleak. Although intelligent and well read, A_ has some psychological problems that make him incapable of arranging complicated things like the electricity reconnect. It won’t be long before his house falls down around him, leaving him homeless. As for moving to a shelter, he says he’d rather freeze in the dark than give up his independence.

A_ visits my friend regularly. She washes his clothes and feeds him. They chat about books, films, and music. He recites chapters from his favourite novels and verses of his favourite poems. He’s very positive, she says. Although he’s in constant pain, always cold, and most probably hungry, he still has a sense of humour. That, and his passion for writing keep him going.

A_, like so many others, is just a hair’s breadth from being homeless. But with help, he can live with dignity, maintain his independence, and keep on writing. And if this help is immediate, local, and well-directed by someone who cares about his needs and dignity, A_’s home can be saved.

Christmas is just around the corner. The ads are out. The tinsel is in. The shops are gearing up for the inevitable tide of mass consumerism. Hundreds of euro and thousands of forints will be spent on presents often neither wanted nor needed. My decision was an easy one. When my friend told me his story, I knew immediately that helping to keep A_ housed and warm and writing would be a better use of my Christmas budget. I made the transfer to help sort his electricity problem so that ELMÜ will reconnect his power. But his roof still needs fixing and his house still needs heating.

Are you disillusioned with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? Do you realise that but for the grace of whatever God you worship or whatever force you believe in, you could be in A_’s shoes? Do you believe that local solutions to local problems work better than the overly costly, unnecessarily legalistic, and very quickly political solutions introduced by state bureaucracy? Would you like to help save one man’s home, and in doing so, save his dignity? Let me know. I’ll put you in touch with my friend in Páty who is working to make sure it all happens.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 November 2018

 

2018 Grateful 8

I was at home at the weekend. A brief in and out to see how the folks were doing. I went to Saturday evening mass, something I usually don’t like to do as I prefer to save my mass till Sunday. Somehow, going on Saturday doesn’t feel quite the same. Yet I was driving in from the airport, and it was on, and they were at it. So I stopped in.

It made a change to be able to understand what was going on. I’m usually straining to catch words I understand and then patching together the essence of what I think is being said. Boys from the village national school were being enrolled in the Confirmation programme, which explained why the church had fewer empty seats than usual.

I sat mid-way down the church. As one of the teachers called out the names of those being enrolled in the programme, they stood up. Amidst the expected Tadhgs and Jameses and Padraigs was a healthy smattering of names I couldn’t pronounce. Amidst the gingers, the blondes, and the brunettes were some fabulous coiled, coarse, and curly locks, including one fab set of dreads. Ireland wasn’t the only country standing up to be counted. I was impressed at the level of diversity in the school.

Back in my day, some 40 years ago, the diversity banner in our class was carried by a lone American. Her name was Phoebe Eaton. She lived in a house out the Dublin Road that was rumoured to have special plug sockets to take American hairdryers and toasters and kettles. For some weird and wonderful reason I’ve still not discovered, I found that fascinating. I’m not even sure if Phoebe made her confirmation with us, I just remember from primary school, an exotic little thing with massive eyes who twanged when she spoke. Strange. I haven’t thought about her in years. And years. [Out of curiosity I googled the name and found a Phoebe Eaton in NYC who is now a journalist. I wonder if they’re one and the same.]

Anyway, by the time I surfaced from my ruminations, a few of the boys were presenting banners representing the seven gifts of the holy spirit. As I watched and listened I noted that the seven boys standing on the altar as representatives of the Confirmation class, well, they were all obviously Irish. The diversity on display, such as it was, amounted to differences in height, weight, and hair colour.

Well, that set me off in a whole new direction.

Was I the only one in the church thinking that this was a little odd? Was I over-reacting? Was there a backstory I wasn’t privy to? Maybe the boys had volunteered. Maybe they had won a competition. Maybe they were being punished 🙂 Had diversity become so entrenched in the school that I, as an outsider, was the only one noticing that it was missing?

This week I’m grateful that my memory still works and that I’m still noticing things. And that Voltaire isn’t around to say ‘Judge a [wo]man by [her] questions rather than by [her] answers.’

 

 

Thai food

2018 Grateful 9

I like to eat out, to go out for dinner, to have a long lazy lunch. I am a great fan of early morning breakfast meetings. I like my food. I like the occasion of it all. But eating out day after day? After a month away, the novelty soon wore off. The menus all looked the same. Rice. Noodles. Coconut. Chicken. Beef. Shrimp. When JS told us we were going for pizza on a Friday in Chiang Rai, I baulked. It was early days. We weren’t even two weeks into our four-week stay and I was still appreciating the difference in Thai food. Pizza? How bloody American! But I went. And I enjoyed. Immensely.

Yes, you can find your French and your Italian, even on small islands like Koh Yao Noi. You can find pizza joints and steak hangouts in the bigger cities, too. But you have to look for them. And look hard. I’m sure if you had a kitchen you could get creative with the local market offer and turn out some nice dishes sans rice or noodles. But after a month of sameness, I began to appreciate what I regularly take for granted.

I live in a diverse part of the world. Ireland more so than Hungary, perhaps. Yet in both countries, I can find pretty much any kind of ethnic food I crave. Supermarkets offer all sorts of ingredients from all over. I’m not restricted to rice and noodles. I don’t think I’ve really ever appreciated the breadth of choice that’s on my doorstep and the contributions that migrants have made to the culinary offer here and beyond. When they move, they bring with them part of their home country. Speciality shops open to serve the growing communities and the local fan base eager to try their dishes benefits.

When we landed in Budapest on a Friday afternoon, my first port of call was to KFC. Yep. Fine dining it ain’t but there’s a comfort that comes in a bucket of wings that far outweighs their nutritional value. It’s my go-to food when I need to be wrapped in a hug of familiarity. For the next few days, I was all about Hungarian stalwarts, thanks to some lovely chicken and bean dishes cooked up by the inimitable ZsG. The first day back in the village, it was pork ribs from the travelling butcher, something I’d been craving on my travels. I was back to normal. All was good.

But then, oddly, when it came to inviting friends to dinner, I wanted to cook Thai. I’d been to the Asian shop near Fővám tér and stocked up on the myriad ingredients needed to do the recipes justice. I had my notes from my time with P in Chiang Rai and the cookbook from the class I took in Chiang Mai. I was set. And while I didn’t think my Lad Na tasted quite the same as P’s, they liked it. In deference to their tastes, I’d substituted sweet Thai basil for spicy Thai basil in my Pad Kra Prao (making it something else entirely) and it was delish. Thai cooking is all about flavours. A teaspoon of this, a tablespoon of that, and more of the other. Sugar is used to temper the spice. Sweet and sour work well together. There’s a balance to it all. 

I’m grateful this week that I could have a taste of Thailand at home in a small Hungarian village with four people, from four different countries sitting to the table. That’s my world.

2018 Grateful 10

Four weeks in Thailand taught me a lot about myself and how I view the world. I’ve always known that I’m impatient, that I don’t suffer fools lightly, that I have a sometimes irrational fear of getting lost. (But as the inimitable EK has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, I’m never lost if I know what country I’m in.) Thinking myself open to all religions, I was surprised at how out-of-place I felt on the predominantly Muslim island of Koh Yao Noi. I wasn’t expecting anyone but Buddhists, given that the country is predominantly Buddhist, and perhaps had I done my research, I’d have been better prepared, mentally prepared, but I was caught on the hop for the complete reversal in statistics: 96% Muslim.

I found myself wondering if I was dressed appropriately. Tank tops and vests were out but could I show my shoulders if wearing a knee-length dress? How long did my shorts have to be? Should I cover my head? I didn’t want to offend. I was very much aware that when in Rome … Buying booze in the village and being handed it in a black plastic bag accompanied by a frown of disapproval had me feeling like an errant teen trying to pull a fast one. I felt a strange unease at hearing the call to prayer as I lay on the beach, no doubt scantily clad by someone’s yardstick. That other tourists had no problem walking around in shorts and vests made no odds. I wasn’t feeling awkward for them – just for me. I missed the Buddhists and their temples. Those I felt almost at home in. Not here. And yet it was nothing anyone did or said. They couldn’t have been nicer. The smiles, though timid, were real. The welcome, while not effusive, was there. I wondered if I’d become conditioned to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and had absorbed some of the irrational fear it aims to induce.  I had a major rethink on my hands.

A few days in Doha on the way back added to my mental angst. But for that, I was prepared. I knew I was entering a Muslim country and had rejigged by thought patterns accordingly. I wasn’t walking around in shorts or sunbathing on a beach. I was covered. I had a handle on it. I was struck by the numbers – 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants are expats. Foreign. There are twice as many Indians as there are Qatari, with a fair representation from Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria and more. Fascinating. Such diversity. And yet the diversity wasn’t as obvious as I’d have expected, lost as it is in the religion. The majority are Muslim.

The Muslims I know are moderate in their religious practice, a lot like the pick-and-mix Catholic I am. And the Koran, like the Bible, is open to selective reading. [I came across this fascinating article in the Telegraph What the Koran really says about women.] Yet I’d never choose to live in a country whose societal rules and norms differed vastly from what I am used to. Azerbaijan and I didn’t part friends. But India and I have a lovely relationship. The outward trappings of the Muslim world are difficult for me to understand, to get to grips with. Would I want to feel this level of discomfort in my own country? No. Do I want to wake up one morning and find my church bells drowned out by calls to prayer? No. (I wonder, though, what that would sound like and if they could be scheduled at different times?) Do I want to find myself in a minority? No. Does that make me anti-migrant? Does it make me racist? Does it make me intolerant? I have a pain in my head trying to figure it all out.

The Dalai Lama was accused of bigotry when he suggested that refugees return to their home countries to help rebuild them and leave Europe for Europeans. It surprised me when I heard what he’d said, particularly as he himself is a refugee. Is that what this is about? The difference between migrant and refugee? The former someone who chooses to resettle to another country in search of a better life, the latter someone who has been forced to flee their home country because of armed conflict or persecution. I understand the Dalai Lama’s comments to mean that refugee status is temporary, until the situation at home is resolved and people can return safely. Migrant status seems more permanent. I’m an economic migrant, I should know.

As a new wave of refugees set forth on a long journey towards a better life, I’m here examining my conscience and giving serious thought to what’s going on in South Korea on the island of Jeju where Yemeni refugees are getting a less than hospitable welcome from conservative Christian groups. Yes. Those who by virtue of their faith should be welcoming are crying Go home. There’s no room at the inn.

I read the NYT and watched a short video following one woman heading from Honduras to what she hopes will be a better life in the USA. Another from Channel 4 following the caravan currently walking through Mexico. The debate about asylum seekers and economic migrants rages and the media are playing to the gallery. Could there be would-be terrorists in these groups? Certainly. Just as there could have been on the plane from Bangkok or Doha or anywhere. But is it really terrorists or migrants or refugees or Muslims or conservative Christians (or….) that we are afraid of? Or is it simply the uncertainty of the times in which we’re living? Would we prefer to switch back to our pre-globalisation days where few people travelled abroad and letters took weeks to arrive? What is that we’re really afraid of?

This week, I’m grateful that travel makes me question what I take for granted. That it forces me to examine not only what I think but why I think it. And that both, in turn, give me a more balanced take on the world.