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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

motorbike in Thailand

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I’ve never been so grateful to have faith, to believe in my God. I needed Him this week more than I have in a long time.

Sitting on the back of our Thai motorbike, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago, when living in California: God on a Harley. High literature it ain’t. The hunking-up of Jesus (just call me Joe) didn’t sit too well with me. But I remember that for all its kitschiness, it repeated the basic tenets of good living.

  • Live in the moment
  • Take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others
  • Don’t build walls
  • Be real
  • Everything is possible
  • Keep it flowing – if you get/have then give

This week, in Thailand, I read Barry Dunning’s account of how religion is waning in the west and waxing in the east. From my experience over the past month or so, Thailand has a very active religious population. Compared to the half-empty pews of Irish churches, temples and mosques are relatively full. One argument in the comments section noted that the richer we become, the less need we have of religion. I wonder.

Surveys and census tell us that an increasing number of young people say they have no religion. I find that incredibly sad. If I had no faith, no god, to whom would I turn in times of crisis? In whom would I trust? I need to believe and while I recognise that this isn’t for everyone, it is very much the case for me. Call it what you will. Disparage me. Think me mad. But I’d be lost without my faith.

On Koh Yao Noi, the only feasible way to get around is by motorbike. Each day, we’d take off, somewhere. Himself would drive. It’s been on his bucket list for a while. I’d ride pillion, hanging on for dear life, repeating my mantra – Oh most Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in Thee. I mantra’d myself into a fugue and thanked the good lord every time we arrived at our destination unscathed. We only ditched it once. No harm done.

Other drivers. Other bikes. Flash rains. Potholes. Muddy patches. Ruts in the road. Old machines. Old-lady racers. None of these made for a relaxing journey. Relinquishing control didn’t help either. But then, I’ve been so scatty lately that I didn’t have much faith in my hand-eye coordination and I didn’t want to drive myself.

Although helmets are mandated by law, few locals wear them. Few tourists, either. But I insisted. We might be puttering along way under the speed limit being overtaken by 10-year-old veterans, often three or four on the one bike, but I had to have a helmet. Last month’s concussion is too recent to have been forgotten.

I know I was being selfish. Himself wanted to release his inner ‘Easy Rider’. It can’t have been easy for him to see the kids whizz by but thankfully, he’s not one to care much about what others think of him. So each day, for a couple of hours, I’d stay home and let him away, to go as fast as he liked, to lay flat turning those corners, and be lighter on the brakes going down those steep hills. I’d stay home, praying that he’d come back in one piece and trying to decide if I’d bring back his body or just cremate him if he didn’t.

He felt better. I felt better. And I’m sure God was having a right laugh, used as He is to riding a Harley.

Scream, Shout

I’ve had a string of bad news lately. Death and dying are featuring heavily in my conversations. Death notices are more frequent than marriage announcements and funerals more commonplace than weddings. It sucks.

It sucks to see people spirited away before they’ve had time to finish what they’d started. Granted, many of us haven’t a clue what it is we want from our time on this earth, other than some vague notion we have to be happy. More of us as so focused on the next goal that we lose sight of the life unfolding around us. All too few of us manage to strike a workable balance.

Thinking about drive and ambition, what came to mind was a seesaw, with that duo balanced by the twins, value and worth. I recalled an interview I did about a year ago with a 22-year-old from Gyomaendrőd who was set to take the music world by storm. She goes by the name of AGGI (the caps are all hers). What struck me about her was her determination to be herself, not a carbon copy of some other 22-year-old, pressurised by expectations to fit someone else’s preconception of who she should be. She didn’t want to be told what she should or shouldn’t do with her life. She had a plan. She knew what she wanted. In need of affirmation that the world was working for someone, I thought I’d see how she was getting on.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

She’s still writing, still recording, still singing. She went back home in April and topped the bill at the Gyomaendrődi Nemzetközi Sajt és Túrófesztivál and was thrilled to see her 91-year-old great-grandmother up front and centre along with 700 or so proud locals who’d come out to see their girl on stage. In May, she played a more intimate live gig at Legenda, and in September, she opened for The Hooligans when they played Barba Negra Tracks. That’s some progress. AGGI comes into herself when she’s on stage. She has stuff to say and she wants the world to hear it.

Already a regular on local and national radio, a sponsorship deal from a Japanese guitar company, Guyatone (and another with their US parent company DeMont), led to AGGI getting lots of airplay in Japan of all places. They love her. She has a regular slot on Radio FM RaRa (in English) on the third Saturday of each month and judging by the amount of fan mail, her 10-gig Japanese tour scheduled for spring 2019 will be a sell-out. ‘My voice is in Japan’, she told me, understandably excited. People 9000 km away have heard her sing, like what they hear, and want to hear more.

In February, on her birthday, she got the present of her dreams – a record deal from a record company in Italy. But AGGI chose not to unwrap that particular gift. Rather than jump at the deal just to have a deal, she and manager Terry V decided to hold off and wait for the right one to come along. And it will. It’s just a matter of time. The girl has plans. And she’s making them happen.

Last time we spoke, she told me she was doing her dissertation on Stephen King’s novel, Rose Madder, in which he deals with the bruising issue of domestic violence. I remembered that she’d had a keen interest in gender issues and woman power and was determined her voice would be heard.  I asked her if she’d graduated, if she’d finished the dissertation. The completer-finisher in me was a little disappointed to hear that she’d taken a gap year to focus on her music, and was only now returning to complete her final year of study. ‘But’, she said proudly, ‘my voice was heard.’ She and Terry V had written a song to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Scream, Shout was released on 25 November and for a few hours that day, AGGI’s video featured on the UN website. It tells the story of a young woman who takes back control and finally says Enough! It’s a simple, powerful video that stands on its own.

Although she’s not yet a household name, AGGI seems far too grounded to let the recognition that comes with national and international airplay, the sponsorship deals, the live gigs, the upcoming tour, the strong video following on YouTube, and her growing fanbase go to her head. But while she likes the intimacy of smaller gigs, she thrives on big crowds. When facing a teeming audience visibly engaged with what she’s doing on stage, she’s in her element. ‘It’s feedback’, she said. ‘I need feedback.’  At one gig, a former colleague came up to congratulate her on how far she’d gone since they’d worked together. She was chuffed. A classmate who’s also studying music told her that hearing her play gave the younger girl the confidence to keep pursuing her own dream. Her family is still as supportive as ever and goes to all her gigs. Her brother and sister have been in both her videos. She’s playing to nobody’s tune but her own.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

AGGI, along with her co-writer and manager, Terry V (guitar), Bence Kocsis  (drums), and Benedek (Beni) Nagy  (bass), has been busy doing what she told me she’d do. She’s making things happen. Listening to her music, it’s evident that she has a very strong sense of worth. At 23, she knows what she wants and knows the hard work it’ll take to get it. But most importantly, she wants it all for the right reasons: She has a voice, she has something to say, and she’s determined to be heard. Music was her hobby. Now it’s her life.

Is the world working for AGGI I wondered? I think it’s more case of AGGI making her world work for her. An example to us all. Catch her at Dürer Kert on 22 November.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2018

Ko Yao Noi bungalows

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We’re more than half-way through our four weeks in Thailand and I’m missing home, just a tad. It’s a peculiar feeling, not one I’m used to. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly I’m missing though. It’s not as if I’m completely disconnected from the world or even travelling solo. I’ve had lots of train time to think and I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’m missing is stuff I do routinely and take completely for granted.

Today is the third successive Sunday that I’ve not been to mass. I’m what others refer to as a pick-and-mix Catholic and perhaps disagree more than agree with the Church’s teachings. But I’m fully aware that it’s a man-made institution and therefore don’t feel bad at all about not subscribing blindly to all its tenets. But going to mass breaks up my week. It marks the end of one and the beginning of another. For a freelancer who doesn’t have a set Monday to Friday workweek, that’s more important than I’d imagined. For the last few weeks, I’ve never been quite sure of what day it is. And mostly, it didn’t matter. But on occasion, when that loss of centre comes to ground, it’s important.

I’m still working. I’m never completely off the clock.  I’m keeping an eye on stuff from regular clients and doing what I can when the Internet allows. Yet I find myself missing it. Wow. That’s definitely something that would never have happened when I was working in the corporate world. I must like what I do to be missing it.

Right now, we’re on the island of Ko Yao Noi having made our way from Bangkok to Ayutthaya by train. Then north to Chiang Mai by train. Then to Chiang Rai by bus, Kanchanaburi by plane and car, and here finally by songthaew, local bus, train, car, and boat. We’re clocking up the miles.  And the experiences.

Today, himself is off exploring the island by motorbike. I’ve opted to stay back and do some work. Sometimes difference needs to be metered by sameness. Sometimes the familiar is more appealing than the new. Sometimes reality is a welcome intrusion.

This week, I’m grateful that I enjoy what I do and get to do it pretty much wherever I am in the world, as long as I have an Internet connection. And while both my offices in Hungary are in the smallest and darkest rooms in the flat/house, I’m getting a kick out of working outdoors, by the water, with a view. Wouldn’t want to do it every day, but today, it’s good.

Catch up on my travel stories on www.anyexcusetotravel.com

Santiburi, Chiang Rai, visitor or tourist

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I’ve been trying to figure out how long it’s been, he said. Seventeen years, I replied. Almost to the week, I added. Mad really.

Having bumbled around Bangkok, assimilated Ayutthaya, and cooked in Chiang Mai, we arrived in Chiang Rai earlier this week as visitors rather than tourists. And there’s a difference.

Visitor or tourist?

As tourists, we’re at the mercy of guidebooks, search engines, and guest reviews. We read other peoples thoughts on what to do and where to go not knowing if we share similar tastes or ideals or are complete opposites. We make educated guesses as to what we’d like to do and see based on the experiences of others. Perhaps we’re guided by a Top 10 list of things to do or Top 10 list of things to avoid. Perhaps we’re simply into ticking boxes, taking photographs, and then tweeting the world to let them know what we’ve been up to.

Our meals are usually taken with our fellow tourist(s). Our conversations revolve around what we’ve done today and what we’d like to do tomorrow. We become each other’s world. Our phones, giving us audible directions, betray us as strangers. The maps that we fold and unfold mark us as tourists. We’re on a mission of sorts, a mission to see and do and record that same seeing and the doing.

But when we visit friends, even friends we haven’t seen in 17 years, we’re visitors, not tourists. We share their days, their routines. We see places not on the tourist route, places locals go, like a tiny Thai restaurant that only opens on Fridays to serve fresh pizza until they run out. Or a local pub owned by an ex-copper, where you bring your own whisky and buy your soda there. Or a small shop, packed with handmade traditional skirts and shirts and teas and all sorts, where fair trade is a fair deal. We get the inside scoop on protocols and preferences. We get to hear about life and living and how cultures mix and mingle. We get to relax, knowing that if we don’t get to see it this time, we have a bigger reason to return.

So much has changed in both our lives in the years since we last met in Valdez, Alaska. There’s a constant catch-up going on that involves rather than excludes our partners. Backstories become part of the explanations. A mutual appreciation grows. I came to meet one friend and will leave with two. Evening meals have turned into cooking lessons for me. I’ve Pad Thai down, and Lad Ka, too. We will, of course, reciprocate their hospitality when they visit Europe. I’ll need to brush up on my pörkölt and my csirke paprikás and learn a little more about Hungary’s history so that I do the country justice. I’m already looking forward to having them stay.  

So, visitor or tourist? Well, I enjoy travelling. And I enjoy being a tourist. But I prefer being a visitor. This week, I’m incredibly grateful to J&P for being so generous with their home, their time, and their knowledge of all things Thai. Kapun ka.

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This day, about 13 years ago, I was lighting candles in St Thomas’s Cathedral in Chennai. The lovely SF was very ill at the time and I was lighting one for him, even though he’d told me repeatedly that he wasn’t a believer and that the candles I lit were for me and not for him. All was good. As I touched the taper to the wick, time stood still and I was overcome by an anguish I’ve not felt since. I went from smiley, happy, to gut-wrenching hysteria. A quiet hysteria though – I wouldn’t have wanted to make a scene. It was over in seconds. I hadn’t a clue what had just happened.

Later that day, when we got back to the hotel, I had a message from SF’s mate to say that he’d died earlier about the time I was lighting my candle. I reckoned he’d passed through on his way over just to say Ha! Told you!

This week, while in a temple in Bangkok, I came across a prayer bell of sorts. People had bought charms and hung them from a bell-shaped form to create a bell of prayers. Many had written their names and the date on them; more again had written their prayer. And from those I could make out, career topped their list above health, wealth, love, and family.

Never having had a stable, trajectoried career myself, I found this difficult to relate to. I’ve never wanted solid, steady, secure, preferring the ifs and maybes that allow a little flexibility in the hours and days I work and the places in which I choose to set up shop. I like new. I like different. Or at least I thought I did.

Perhaps I’m still jet-lagged. Or maybe it’s the heat. Or then again, it could really be the strangeness, the newness, the difference that I’d thought I wanted, but five days into this Thailand trip, I woke up wishing I was in the village, in Balatonmagyaród, far from the teeming masses. I have a knot in my stomach the size of a baby elephant’s eyeball wondering if the train tickets we have for today’s 10-hour+ journey north to Chiang Mai are fake. I woke up anxious, no longer trusting my ability to spot sincerity and separate the genuine from the disingenuous. The events of the past few days have been a little  much. No threat to life or limb but my soul got a bit of a bashing. If I could fast forward 24 hours, I would. And that’s not good.

It’s been years since SF passed and yet my one wish for us would be that we could have just one more pint and say the unsaid. Had I added my prayer to that bell, it wouldn’t have been for career or health or wealth or love but for a little more time with those who matter, and more appreciation for the mundanities of life.

2018 Grateful 15

I’ve gone a whole week without doing myself damage – am impressed with myself. I woke up knackered this morning but I think it was because I was dreaming about chasing the recycling truck down the street. Exhausting stuff.  Temperatures dropped 13 degrees overnight from a lovely summer 27 yesterday to a cool autumnal 14 today. I’m not complaining. This is my time of year. I love autumn. That cool crisp air, the geese-laden skies, the frog chorus from the lake. All good stuff.

It marks a setting in, a holing up, a getting ready to batten down the hatches and hibernate. Mind you, I’ve never let the seasons affect my hibernation but still, autumn is when it comes into its own.

I spent a gruelling few hours each day this week readying the garden furniture for its winter holiday. They’ll all be packed away in the barn, newly oiled, for a well-deserved rest as I plan to get a lot of use out of them next year. Painting linseed oil on garden chairs is about as close as I can come to meditation. The mechanics of it all are mesmerising.

On Chair 1, it struck me that this week marked the two-year anniversary of picking up the keys for the place in the village. Two years. It seems like a lifetime ago, as if we’ve always been here. The general consensus was that we’d use it the odd weekend. No one was more surprised than I at how quickly I took to country living. I have to be pried out of the place. Reflections on life in the village set me up to tackle the table and the lounge chair. I was making great progress.

There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing a work in progress completed. As each rung of the chairs darkened I came one step closer to the end. A little like life really. I’ve been through the 18th birthdays, the 21sts, the engagements, the weddings, the housewarmings, the christenings, the noughty birthdays, the big wedding anniversaries.  Now I’m at the edge of the funeral era where funerals are the most common meeting occasions. I started on Instagram a few weeks back for one of my other blogs – www.dyingtogetin (be sure to sign up for email notifications of new posts) – and posted an image of a gravestone from a cemetery in Geneva. It put my school French to the test but what a lovely sentiment. I think it was on Chair 2 that I started wondering about my own epitaph, what it would say about me – and it wasn’t until Chair 3 that I remembered I’m going to be cremated.

The chicken from next door kept me company for Chair 4. She’s looking rather motley, a tad dishevelled, somewhat defeathered. I think the other chickens are picking on her and perhaps that’s why she spends so much time at ours. Or perhaps they’re picking on her because she spends so much time at ours. Or perhaps she’s just moulting. Like everything else, there are at least three sides to any story – mine, yours, and theirs. I’ve had to cut back on my tweet reading because I’m finding it hard to decipher the actual story these days for all the sides they have.

By the time I got to the final chair, my back was killing me. I was cranky and irritable, and beginning to feel like my nose was lined with linseed oil. I swore I wasn’t doing this again next year. I’d have to figure something out. I’m just not as supple as I used to be, not that I was ever supple at all, but I’ve been looser than I am now. And then I remembered that this time next week, I’ll be three days into a month of daily Thai massages. That’ll put the s back into my upple. And do my back the world of good. And get rid of the knots and the stress and the pains.

Ah yes, chairs oiled and ready for winter. Me, soon to be oiled and ready for pampering. What’s not to be grateful for.

 

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