Valentine's Day, London Brige, Lake Havasu

A Valentine’s Day to remember

Sad really. Neither of us could remember what we’d done for the last three years on Valentine’s Day. Nothing memorable obviously. Himself would rate himself as more of a romantic than not, but perhaps in thought rather than in deed. Pragmatic runs to my core – romance is the stuff movies are made of. That said, I always appreciate flowers, no matter the occasion, but having surreptitiously checked whether a dozen long-stemmed roses would fit in the console of the rental car, I nixed even voicing that wishpectation.

We set out from Palm Desert California this morning shortly after 8 am expecting to be in Williams Arizona by 3 at the latest. We planned to see the iconic Route 66 town and then have dinner somewhere special. That was the plan. When we left, it was teeming with rain. The electricity was cutting in and out. And the day was shaping up to be quite miserable. We opted for the longer route along the Colorado River as the shorter one involved windy roads through a mountain pass and given the infrequency of heavy rain in the area, I didn’t trust the local drivers to stay in the lanes or the runoff to stay off the road – flash flood warnings in effect for the day.

Valentine's Day General George Patton Museum Chiriaco Summit

We stopped for breakfast at Chiriaco Summit around 9.15 and lost two hours there at the fabulous General Patton Museum. It was so great that it deserves a post of its own, and that’s saying something, as I’m not a great lover of big guns and bigger tanks.  We thought we’d gotten ahead of the bad weather, but by the time we surfaced, it had caught up with us.

Valentine's Day, London Bridge, Lake Havasu

We were headed to Lake Havasu to see the famous London Bridge. A bridge that once spanned the River Thames in London was taken apart, stone by stone, shipped to the USA, hauled to Arizona, and put back together again.  It was purchased by Robert P. McCulloch (him of the lawn and garden machine fame – we have one of his strimmers) for $2,460,000 on 18 April 1968 from the City of London. The things some people do with their money. It took until 1971 for it to be completed and since then has been a major tourist attraction. We lucked out. We got the bridge and the British weather. It was pouring. And cold. But not as cold as it would get.

We stopped for lunch and looked at the map to see the quickest way to get to where we were ultimately heading. We were now about 2 hours behind schedule. I noticed Route 66 was an option and on it, the little town of Valentine. I figured that if we went to Valentine on Valentine’s Day, we’d never forget what we did on 14 February 2019. We decided to decide when we got to Kingman.

 

Valentine's Day, Freeway entrance to 40E

And it took an age to get there. The low-lying fog/cloud you can see is the rain we had to drive through. Us and every articulated truck that had anywhere to go other than home. It was nasty. But when the rain eased off a little, the desert colours were gorgeous. Pinks, yellows, greens, purples, and every possible shade of brown.

By the time we got to Kingman, we’d copped that we’d lost an hour having crossed a timeline somewhere along the way. There was no way we’d get to Williams in daylight so we decided to take the high road and head across on Route 66.  I love driving that road. The mother road. I feel other-worldly when I do.

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

When we got to Valentine, we pulled up beside the sign. Another van was parked there. We figured they’d had the same idea. Turns out, it was a TV station from Phoenix who’d come expecting to find something going on. But it was still raining heavily and it was cold and there was no one but us around. They’d visited the general store in Hackberry and had then wandered around Valentine itself before parking at the sign waiting to see if anyone would stop by. We asked Kim Powell, the reporter, if she’d mind taking our photo. I know, I know. I don’t often do it, but given the day and given the place, I simply had to. Anyway, she did. And as one good turn deserves another, she asked if she could interview us. Sure, it’d have been rude to refuse. It’s pretty safe to say that if we did make the telly, no one we know would be watching. But we did… or at least the web.

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

It got dark somewhere on the Hualapai Indian reservation. We rolled into Williams about 8 pm and it looks quite the quaint little town. But after 12 hours on the road, I was ready for my prime rib dinner. Turns out though, our hotel restaurant didn’t quite stretch that far and it was too wet and too cold to go wandering. So I settled for a French dip. But I’m on a promise. Prime rib is something that needs crossing off my list before I leave.

So, from General Patton and his tanks to a relocated London Bridge, to the sleepy town of Valentine, it was certainly a day to remember. Oh, and yes. I did get chocolates. A box of maltesers from a truck stop on 95N. The boy knows me well.

 

Juli and Flo Catch Budapest

Catch Budapest – Learning Hungarian

I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve made a determined effort to learn Hungarian. I’ve gone to classes twice a week. I’ve taken an intensive course and even got an A on my final paper. I’ve had private tuition with various teachers. I’ve tried CDs. I’ve bought books. And still, so many years later, I’m still struggling.

I have great conversations in my head and I think they’re more or less grammatically correct, but when I open my mouth, a combination of timidity and accent marks me as a külföldi (foreigner) and my interlocutor immediately switches to English, or if we’re in Zala, to German. It’s frustrating.

Shortly before Christmas, Catch Budapest caught my eye. I signed up for their word for the day which comes into my inbox each morning. It delivers a new word with three possible meanings. I get to choose. I’m rarely right but I have fun trying. These aren’t your basic, beginner-level words – they’re more complex. Lelkiismeret is one that comes to mind – conscience. I got it right on my second attempt. And then I received a full explanation of how the word is composed [lélek = soul; ismer = to know; literally: the knowing of the soul, to know your soul]. And it didn’t stop there. I could click to hear how it’s pronounced and then read some examples of how to use it in a sentence,  complete with a further explanation of the rather convoluted Hungarian word order. And I got more still with a list of related terms like igazságérzet (sense of justice). It’s impressive stuff and very effectively explained.

Curious to know more, I tracked down the brains behind the outfit, Flo and Juli, and asked some questions.

The brains behind Catch Budapest

Flo is Italian, originally from the north of Italy. He spent half of his 38 years in neighbouring Austria before coming to Budapest a couple of years ago, after meeting Juli in Vienna. He fell in love with the girl, the city, and the Hungarian language.

Twenty-seven-year-old Juli was born in Hungary but grew up in Germany. She moved back to Hungary with her parents when she was 10. She did part of her business studies in Vienna and it was there, while working with a multinational corporation, that she met Flo.

Juli and Flo Catch Budapest

The pair decided to quit their jobs and travel the world for a while. They spent time in South East Asia and India and a number of other European countries before choosing Budapest as their home base. Both have a passion for languages. Both have a passion for people. Both have a passion for Budapest. What began with them co-authoring an alternative guidebook to the city and publishing Miklos Molnar’s 33 Hungarian Stories has turned into Catch Budapest. Working closing with a study group of what they describe as ‘ambitions Hungarian learners’, Flo and Juli have developed a Smart Hungarian Audio Course for people who are struggling to master the language.

There are plenty of resources out there for students of Hungarian, but a lot of it is old and dated and in dire need of renovation. Some is impenetrable. Most of it is downright boring. As Flo tried to get his head around the language, the pair saw a need for a different, more versatile approach. The constant reminder to create memory hooks to embed the vocabulary or tips on how to use Hungarian films and radio programmes to improve comprehension – it’s all a far cry from traditional learning and pretty much made for me.

As expats, we’ve all experienced that visitor thing. We live here. We think we know the place. And then we have visitors. We show them around and see the city anew. We find something different, something we hadn’t seen already, something we hadn’t understood before. They ask us questions that if we cannot answer, we research. Living abroad comes wrapped in lifelong learning. Together, Flo and Juli explored the city, did their research, and identified a gap in the market. While there’s plenty of information about the city, it’s all taken on a certain sameness. They’ve focused on offbeat tips like hidden courtyards, art nouveau buildings, non-touristy bars and cafés, and a personal favourite, the oft-overlooked Wekerle Estate.

After they’d published a few articles on Budapest, Flo and Juli realised that interest in Hungary and Hungarian wasn’t confined to those living here. Or even to those visiting Budapest. They soon collected quite the following of people living abroad who had a connection with or experience of Hungary and the language. This is their audience. And their goal is not a modest one – at least not from my perspective.

What Catch Budapest offers

They want to show people the hidden corners of Budapest (okay, that I can see as doable) and to teach them the language in a natural way through their Smart Hungarian Audio Course, daily word emails. and mini language lessons (a far greater challenge). The places they write about often don’t make it to the guidebooks. The words, expressions, and pronunciation they teach don’t always make it to the phrasebooks and dictionaries. But this is their reality. They showcase both the places normal, everyday Budapestians hang out and how they talk, normally and every day.

I asked what their overarching goal is and they agreed that it’s to ‘convey authenticity – to show the authentic side of Budapest and the language to all those people who have or want to establish a deeper connection with either.’

I’ve not spent nearly as much time with Catch Budapest as I’d have liked. It’s already February and my resolution to dedicate an hour each morning to learning more of the language waxes and wanes. But I’m optimistic. I think I may have finally found the practical guide I’ve been looking for, one that not only gives me things to learn but teaches me how to do so.

Check them out at www.catchbudapest.com

First published in the Budapest Times 12 February 2019

2019 Grateful 48

It’s Sunday night. I’m sitting at the table in the Jungle Mansion. One of their 13 friendly local racoons is messing around outside. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s an unseasonable California. The talented SRP is playing the piano. She’d asked what my favourite piece was. I didn’t have to think. Panis Angelicus. She’d not heard it before, but went online, downloaded the sheet music, and played it. Beautifully. Such unpretentious talent is humbling.

Getting a glimpse into how other people live their lives is a privilege not to be taken lightly. I’d not seen my mate J for more than 25 years and had never met S, although I’d been following the Facebook posts since they’d reconnected some years ago. Social media has a lot to answer for. It creates a virtual familiarity that’s so real that when you meet the person for the first time in real life, it’s straight to hugs and chats.

I remember being in Geneva a number of years ago and telling a colleague how well they looked, commenting that it’d been a while since we’d met. They reminded me that we’d never actually met, other than online. I was shocked. It had all been so real. Coming back to Torrance after all these years, reconnecting with old friends, well, it’s been a tonic.

Visiting (and having visitors) can be hard work. It’s hard to tell how comfortable you’re going to be, and how relaxed they’ll be with you around. But not an hour into the visit, I was helping myself to milk duds from the fridge. ‘Nuff said.


They asked what I’d missed about living in SoCal. I said In’n’Out. We went and got burgers from the family-owned chain that has been a feature on the California fast-food plate since 1948. And they still taste as good as they did all those years ago. The next night, himself had a craving for some decent Mexican food. We went to their local, La Capilla, another family-run venture with four restaurants to their name. I liked this local feel, this sense that America is more than multinationals and multi-state conglomerates.

We sat around and chatted, swapping stories of what we’d been up to in the years since we’d last met, moving inside and outside as the sun permitted. As the stories ebbed and flowed, stories that don’t make it on to Facebook or into blogs, the years melted away. We talked of movies and music (I hadn’t much to contribute to either conversation but thoroughly enjoyed listening to the accounts of happenings that made screen names real.) I came into my own when the scrabble board came out. They recorded me reading The Wonky Donkey for the first time – the first time I’ve read it or recorded it. [If you’ve not heard it before, this Scottish granny knocks great craic out of it.] After we’d eaten some home-made Australian meat pies, S played some more piano and the lads sang.

Evenings like these are what memories are made of. At the end of what’s been a mad week that saw me touch down in six countries, it’s nice to feel at home. I’m grateful that friendship can survive years and years and still be as strong as back in the day. And that it can multiply.

 

2019 Grateful 48 – Fr Hilary Tagliaferro

January has been a busy month. I was in Hungary doing communications/public speaking workshops each Tuesday and then doing the same in Ireland each Thursday. My brain is addled. I’m now in Malta gearing up for more of the same. I’ve been preaching the importance of vocal variety, eye contact, body language, facial expressions, gestures, pauses, voice projection and the myriad other elements that go into good communication and watching participants improve week on week. All very rewarding.

In my layperson’s capacity, though, I’ve marvelled at how professional preachers don’t do justice to the time they’re given. Each Saturday or Sunday, they have anything from 3 to 15 minutes in front of a captive audience – and for the most part, in my experience, that time is wasted.

A few years back, I got so teed off by this criminal waste of face time that I recorded sermons I’d have given were I a priest or a vicar or a pastor. No longer than three minutes each contained what I liked to think of as relevant stuff.

I’m a regular mass goer. I’ve had mass in a host of different languages. And while I might not understand what is being said, so much can be gleaned from said eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, body language, and so on. But it would seem that it’s my lot to be constantly disappointed. Apart from a mass in Geneva some years ago, one in Bangalore a lifetime ago, and one in the village late last year, I can’t recall any that have been close to riveting, let alone relevant.

When in Malta, I stay in St Julian’s. It’s handy for pretty much everywhere. I stay in the same hotel close to Paceville. I have three churches to choose from and on Sunday, I chose Imqaddsa Marija, Omm tal-Parir it-Tajjeb (Our Lady, Mother of Good Counsel) as 11.30 mass was in English.

They had an MC, a chap who came out on the altar and explained that the large screens would show the order of the mass so that people could follow along. It was a very international congregation and I noticed more than one person glued to the text, perhaps, like me, having difficulty quickly spoken Maltese-accented English. He pointed out the crying room and suggested that parents with young children, parents who were concerned the children might disturb the congregation during mass should use is (a relief).

The priest, an energetic man in his eighties wearing a headset mic, owned the altar. He asked us all to say hello to those around us before he began. He then talked briefly about how it’s enough to want to be a better person, to try to do good, to be kind. In two short minutes, he nailed the rapport, established who we were, and gave us a reason to care.

The second reading was from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, one you’ve no doubt heard if you’ve ever been to a church wedding. This he focused on his sermon.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I’ve heard that passage a million times but until Fr Hilary Tagliaferro re-read it in his sermon, its meaning had never quite sunk home. I’d always equated it with romantic love – not the commandment of love, not how I treat everyone I meet, every day. In an arresting performance, he asked if we were ready to live it. To try at least. He made it all so relevant. He spoke with a passion and enthusiasm that’s been missing from my church experience for a while.

Fr Hilary Tagliaferro

I was so taken with this model of excellence when it comes to public speaking – he had form, content, engagement – that I asked the lady next to me who he was and then I went to Google. I discovered that Fr Hilary Tagliaferro used to be a sports journalist and was a great friend of Brazilian footballer, Pele. And that he ministers at my favourite church in Malta, The Millennium Chapel, open 24/7 in the heart of Malta’s nightlife (Paceville) – known locally as a pit stop for inner peace. I can see why he’d be popular with the younger contingent. This wasn’t a rote performance. He wasn’t going through the motions. Every word he spoke during the entire mass was imbued with a faith that was palpable.

At the end of a long month, I’m grateful that I got to hear Fr Hilary Tagliaferro in person. He was quite the tonic.

For more on the Grateful series, see the first post from 2011.

Interesting reads

Love in the Bible: From God’s love to the most romantic scriptures

Mass times in Malta

Fr Hilary Tagliaferro

Cripple of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan

I’m secretly in love with Martin McDonagh. I’ve never met the man but I did live in his neck of the woods in London for a while and I like to think that we might have reached for the same carton of milk in a corner shop at some stage. Or perhaps we sat sipping coffee at our respective tables, scribbling away. I like the way his mind works – the quirkiness of his plots and pieces. He got me playwise at the Beauty Queen of Leenane and won me over heart and soul with his movie In Bruges. I saw his play, The Lonesome West in Hungarian (Vaknyugat), with English surtitles, and was blown away at how well it translated and how much the Hungarian actors got him. They could have been Irish. I only recently saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, a movie that set me on the trail of the talented Sam Rockwell – but I digress.

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Passing through Dublin last Thursday night, I scored a single ticket for the Gaiety production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, another McDonagh oldie, and joined some friends who’d had tickets for ages. With no one beside me to chat to, I paid more attention than usual to those around me. A night at the Gaiety oozes civility. You can order your interval drinks before the show and then sit during the intermission at your assigned table, avoiding the crowds bellying up to the bar. The theatre itself, while nowhere near the grandeur of the Urania in Budapest, is steeped in history.

The curtain first rose on 27th November 1871 and since then, the Grand Old Lady of South King Street has been entertaining the masses. I wish the management would ban the sale of sweets, though. Or only sell ones that come in boxes. There’s always someone who needs to rustle in a crinkly bag just when something important is going on, on stage. On the night that was in it, a man behind me lost the run of his maltesers, each one falling to the ground and rolling forward … and forward… and forward. But that wasn’t the only noise of the night.

McDonagh has a way with words. His characters in The Cripple of Inishmaan have a turn of phrase that would make sensitive women blush and I’d a few of them sitting behind me. The nervous titters and the strangled gasps evoked by the crude bantering between parent and child, brother and sister, aunts and nephews, and lines such as this amused me no end.

She was as ugly as a brick of baked shite. Excuse my language but I’m only being descriptive.

First written in 1997 and set in 1930s Ireland, The Cripple of Inishmaan has some topical running themes. References to what priests might get up to in the sacristy other than pouring the wine gave pause for thought and a regular refrain of

Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if the Yanks (the French, the Germans, the dentists…) want to come to Ireland

had me thinking about immigration. The bits of news traded by the local newsman (gossip) Johnnypateenmike and the efforts he goes to, to get his news, called to mind the tenacity of the gutter press. He delighted in bad news and feuds because, as he said:

What news is there in putting things behind you?

The play opened last week in Dublin and is currently playing, too, in LA. One review says of the US production said that The Cripple of Inishmaan is…

arguably one of McDonagh’s most sentimentalized and obvious works — a blatant misrepresentation of Irish peasantry so reductive that it requires special handling to prevent it from crashing into caricature.

But we had Irish actors with Irish accents, even if they did move around the country on occasion. Funnily enough, had not the great Rosaleen Linehan (she who has seen 81 summers) played the part of Mammy, the rest of the cast would have carried it off. But good as they were, they paled a little in comparison. They played their parts but Linehan played it real.

That said, there’s a new band of actors coming on line. Ian O’Reilly (Padraic in Moone Boy) and Jamie Lee O’Donnell (Michelle in Derry Girls) are worth watching out for. As they come into their own, we’ll be in for a few treats.

For me though, the star of the show was the set designer Owen MacCarthaigh. He nailed it. I swear I could smell the turf fire, the seaweed, and the porter, as we moved seamlessly from the cottage shop, to the beach, to mammy’s bedroom. Magical.

For a country of some 4 million people, Ireland does incredibly well to sustain such a wealth of literature, art, and theatre. I miss it. If you’re in Dublin between now and March, it’s worth checking out.

Cripple of Inishmaan

 

St Brigid, a busy patron saint

I have fond memories of learning how to make St Brigid’s crosses when I was in primary school. The best part was finding the swampy grounds where the reeds grew. Growing up in Co. Kildare, St Brigid (aka Mary of the Gael) was a household name – our very own saint. Patron saint of the county and patroness of Ireland, she had quite the life.

The story I remember is that her dad was a pagan chieftain in the province of Leinster, her mother a christian. Brigid herself was born in Dundalk, Co. Louth, about 450 AD. She was a great fan of St Patrick, the chap who inspired her to become a nun, and is supposedly buried with him in Downpatrick (minus her head, which is buried in Lisbon). Brigid wanted to join a convent, but her dad was having none of it. He’d already married her off in his head to a rich local and had gone so far as to promise her hand in marriage to a bard. But Brigid pulled a fast one. She prayed to God to make her so ugly so that this chap wouldn’t fancy her. God did as she asked and her father gave in. And when he did, and she took her vows, God gave her back her beauty, and then some.

Brigid wanted land to build a convent. And she wanted to build it in Kildare. No idea why – perhaps because it’s so flat. Her dad, generous chap that he was, said he’d give her as much land as her cloak would cover. So she spread it out on the ground and miracle of miracles, it covered the 5000 acres that today form the Curragh of Kildare.

St Brigid’s well was a fixture on our school trips. There are sacred wells scattered all around Ireland, sites of great healing. Tradition has it that you should dip a clootie (a rag) into the water and then wash your wound. Then you should tie the rag to a tree as an offering. The faithful are healed. Other well, like Fr Moore’s, require you to walk around and across the water while reciting the rosary. I’ve worn my weight into those steps in my time. We’re a funny lot, us Irish.

Other than making crosses in primary school, St Brigid’s day, 1 February, went by unremarked. But apparently this year is different. According to an article in the Irish Times, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs is using the day to

showcase women in the Irish diaspora, and build a programme of international events offering an alternative celebration of Irishness to St Patrick’s Day.

Apparently, celebrations took place today in six European countries (Ireland, UK, Belgium, Poland, France, and Germany) and five US states, including Washington DC.  Looks like the woman, patron saint for babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, chicken farmers, children whose parents are not married, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, infants, mariners, midwives, milk maids, poultry raisers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travellers, watermen, and creativity scholars and poets, is finally coming into her own.

How to make a st Brigid's cross