Chernobyl Diaries

Of all the questions expats ask of each other, what do you do is probably right up there as the most common. I’m in finance. I’m in sales. I’m in publishing. Package expats, those working in Hungary for a multinational, are a breed apart from the freelancers, the English teachers, the artists. And while the paid pensionable positions significantly outnumber less lucrative take-the-work-when-you-get-it (in my experience), there’s an undercoat of artistry and creativity seeping to the surface.

I first came across British artist Michael Pettet a couple of years ago. At the forefront of digital art, Pettet embraced the challenge of imbuing the product of technology with soul. He showed me how his canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop. He approaches his digital paintings much as he did when he used traditional materials. The end result evolves from the interweaving of thought and inner dialogue and, as with any art, the magic lies in its interpretation.

With his environment a major influencer of his work, Pettet’s portfolio can be categorised by location. One of my favourites, Lament, harks back to memories of his childhood holidays in Scotland, a series entitled Scapa Flow. Another, one I still covet, is from the Sala de Uyuni (salt flats) from his time in Bolivia.

A huge fan of his work, I was intrigued to hear of his Chernobyl Diaries, most likely because Chernobyl is the bogeyman in my life, the personification of a danger that has indelibly tainted the power of nuclear in my mind. In the aftermath of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Irish activist Adi Roche went to help with the children who had suffered the consequences and in 1991, set up Chernobyl Children International. That the environment was damaged is a given. But the lasting human scars, the legacy of that radioactive explosion,  removed from the abstract of news reporting and made all so real to the Irish of my generation by Roche’s work are something nightmares are made of. It may have happened over 30 years ago, but the disaster that is Chernobyl isn’t going anywhere.

The CCI website says:

Two million people in Belarus, of whom 500,000 are children are high-risk, still live in heavily contaminated zones. Continuing low dose exposure through the food chain remains a huge risk for the populations: Some areas of land will be radioactive for 24,000 years, as much as 1 million hectares cannot be farmed for 100 years.

Pettet recently visited the ghost town of Pripyat. What he saw there left a lasting impression, an impression he has diarised in his art, covering the explosion and its aftermath and the faint attempt at rejuvenation. But his artistic commentary isn’t limited to one incident and its consequences. Pettet’s latest series holds up a mirror to our global self-indulgence and reflects the consequence of our failure to adjust our lifestyle to mitigate climate change.

That we are ignorant of what might be in store is no longer credible. The evidence is there. Science has spoken. That we are ignoring the signs of what the future holds speaks either to a seriously misguided optimism that it’ll all work out or a carpe diem lassitude that takes living in the present a step too far. Twenty-first-century hedonism has little regard for consequences. Consumerism is our new mantra, smartphone screens our preferred landscape. We’ve eschewed both the broader picture and the microscopic viewpoint, preferring to live in echo chambers of our own making. Our complete disregard for nature, our wanton destruction of our natural habitats, and our reckless depletion of our natural resources mark us as misguided idiots, at best. For Pettet, Chernobyl embodies the

conflict between humanity and nature, how we are going to manage our existence with ever increasing energy demands and how things can go horribly wrong if we cut corners or become complacent.

The pieces that make up the Chernobyl Diaries include broad sweeping images of an empty world and smaller compositions of the minutest detail that suggest atoms at play. Each one speaks to the viewer and positions itself in their memory, coloured by their recollection and knowledge of what happened in 1986. Pettet deliberately plays to our fears, tapping into the concerns that riddle our collective consciousness.

Although no stranger to the topic of war and disaster [most of his work is about conflict, even his portrait series, which deals with internal conflict as we enter the age of real vs virtual existence], the Chernobyl Diaries are more about the tenacity of nature rather than the horror of nuclear disaster.

I decided not to challenge myself to deal with the horror as above all I wanted to impress that whatever we do to the planet, it will survive us. It may take many thousands of years to recover from our parasitic consumption of its abundant resources, but nevertheless, recover it will.

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 3 (92cmx93cmn

Viewed through this lens, this body of work is both inspiring and chastening. Each piece, like a single diary entry, can be taken alone, but together, they tell a story of evacuation and desertion driven by radiation and destruction. They tell a story of reclamation and rejuvenation. They tell a story of resilience, of how the planet will recover, of how it will survive, despite our best efforts to destroy it.

The Chernobyl Diaries are the result of a conversation between the artist and his subject. The exhibition facilitates a conversation between the viewer and Pettet’s art. At first glance, they’re gripping. But when viewed a second or even a third time, something shifts. It’s this fluidity that marks his work as special. Through this body of work, Pettet’s ‘realisation of just how small and insignificant we are and yet how dangerous and threatening we have become’ shines through.

On exhibition at The Studios, BrodyLand (Vörösmarty utca 38) until 23 April, Chernobyl Diaries then moves to Fuga Art Gallery (Petőfi Sándor utca 5) opening 4 May and running for three weeks. One not to be missed. Check him out at

First published in the Budapest Times 12 April 2019

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 5 (60cmx60cm)

First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2019


2019 Grateful 39: Intergenerational Communication

Something strange and wonderful happened this week. I turned a corner to face the realisation that I’m of another generation. I’m the X in the XYZ of generational clusters, morphed by circumstance and defined by having lived both with and without computers. I can still remember the magic of receiving my first Fax and being blown away that an image could be sent across telephone lines. When I recall that, I feel old, and yet it’s been a long time since I was the oldest person a room of nearly 200. Read more

Derelict building not far from the North Strand

North Strand to North Brunswick Street

I was in the North Strand in Dublin. I wanted to get to North Brunswick Street. I checked with Google and saw that taking public transport would save me less than 10 minutes, so I walked. And I rediscovered a part of the city I hadn’t been through in years. Read more


2019 Grateful 40: Kis-Balaton Tour

I’ve driven the road from the village to Sármellék and on to Balatonszentgyörgy often enough to comment repeatedly on the dead trees and reed fields that follow it on either side. I knew the Kis-Balaton (Little Balaton) was once drained to increase the amount of available agricultural land in the area but when the Balaton waters started to suffer because of it, it was reflooded to act as a much-needed filter for the lake that is the backbone of Hungary’s domestic tourism.

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Monkey business, Brexit

I went Up The North today, to catch up with an old mate in Co. Down. I had my directions memorised. But it didn’t stop me getting lost. That’s not the story though.

I crossed the border without evening knowing it. I’d the radio on and was listening to how the Gardaí had raided a halting site in Finglas, finding guns, drugs, and a very expensive live caged monkey. Photographs of the monkey showed it looking very bored indeed. Subsequent reporting talked of how the value of the monkey (€2000) is indicative of how much money there is in the drugs business. The story then moved to other examples of exotic animals owned by drug kingpins. And the old story of a captured mobile phone showing a prisoner in Portlaoise Prison sharing his cell with a budgie named Shrek. It’s no wonder I was distracted.

When I finally focused on where I was going, I noticed that the white registration plates in front of me had morphed to yellow, the green post boxes had turned to red, and the speed limit had gone from kilometres to miles (I hope I noticed this in time). The price of petrol had dropped dramatically, too, but it would, as I was now in sterling country.

It was only then that the full force of Brexit hit me. Yes, I’ve been keeping up with what’s going on (or not going on) and yes, I’d been concerned about thoughts of a hard border, but it had all be quite superficial. I’d not really stopped to think what it would mean if we went back to the days when you couldn’t move from Ireland to Northern Ireland without noticing.

Granted, back then, the border was political in the extreme. A Brexit border would be more about customs checks than dodgy customers. But that said, anything that impinges free movement between the two countries can’t be good.

Next up on the radio was a report from Killybegs, Ireland’s fishing capital, where a whole slew of boats has been docked till next January. Why? Most of them fish for mackerel. They fish in Scottish waters, off the coast of Orkney because that’s where the mackerel are when they’re at their oiliest. And oily fish is what the Japanese want. Usually, they keep some of their quota till the autumn so that they can spread out the profit and keep more locals in jobs in the processing plants. But this year, uncertain as to what Brexit would bring, and unclear whether they’d be allowed to fish in UK waters post-April, they caught their full quota and now have nothing left to fish for.

If Brexit happens, the UK will no longer be bound by the Russian embargo on EU agricultural and fish products. And next to or above the Japanese, the Russians are big consumers of mackerel. So UK fishers will be able to sell all that lovely early oily mackerel to Russia, upping the prices, and thus killing off the Irish mackerel market and the livelihoods of lord knows how many as collateral damage. The Japanese will hardly want the less oily mackerel that make it into Irish waters.

As a complete aside, the growing mackerel population is apparently responsible for the high salmon mortality rate at sea… the number of salmon returning to their Irish rivers to spawn is down 70%. Anyway, those interviewed were rightly upset. Fishing is the scaly-headed stepchild that no one really cares about. That said, the lads interviewed seemed impressed with Michel Barnier, who has been pushing to include fishing under the general trade banner.

Until today, Brexit has been a pretty abstract phenomenon for me. I’ve been watching from the sidelines at the idiocy of it all. I’ve read the news. Listened to the debates. Watch the reporting. But I’ve been one step removed. I woke up on Friday, 24th June 2016, as shocked as the rest of the world at the result of the referendum but until today, I’d never really felt anything about it. It was all in my head, not in my heart. This evening, I’ve a newfound empathy with my remainer British friends. And am certain that no one has fully come to terms with the magnitude of it all, of the changes it undoubtedly will bring. The old adage of not appreciating what you have until you no longer have it comes to mind.



Gary Lukatch

On not waking up: RIP Gary Lukatch

The expat community in Budapest is reeling at the news that long-time resident Gary Lukatch has died in his sleep while on holiday in Beirut.

On 28 March last, he posted on his Facebook page

Once more into the Breach, Dear Friends!

Yes, I’m off on another amazing adventure. This time it’s a week in Beirut, Lebanon. Will be out of touch until April 3, so no need to respond to this message. Watch for photos and upcoming blog when I return, unless you see me on the evening news first, wearing my keffiyeh and babbling an incoherent confession for something.

Until next week…..

Gary was a staunch supporter of Gift of the Gab when it was in its infancy. He made a great judge. He’d show up, usually, alone, but once there, he was never short of company. The title of his blog Travels with Myself speaks to how comfortable he was with himself; the tributes pouring into his Facebook page show how comfortable others were with him. I didn’t know him very well – and we certainly disagreed on what makes an Irish pub Irish – but if we turned up at the same event, we’d chat, swapping stories on where we’d been and where we planned to go next. I’m not around Budapest much these days so it’s been a while since we’ve run into each other – the last time was at the Caledonia when he happened to pop in while I was there and he joined us for a beer.

He expected to come home from Beirut. Everyone expected him to come home. I was looking forward to reading his blog posts as it’s on my list of cities I want to see. That he won’t be around to bump in to is something that’ll take getting used to. But man, what a way to go. In his sleep, on his travels, doing what he loved to do most: explore.

I grew up among aunts and grandaunts who listed in their nightly prayers a prayer for a speedy death, a quiet death that caught them unawares. It’s my prayer, too. Death is something we can’t escape. Not all of us will drop dead of a heart attack on the 17th green after sinking a putt for an eagle. Or die in a deckchair while sitting in the evening sun listening to waves lap the beach. Or in our sleep in a hotel room in Beirut.

But those, like Gary, leave a legacy of goodwill and fond memories. RIP teacher man. Safe travels. And thanks for the final lesson: Live life to its fullest, as you did, because we never really know the morning we’ll wake up for the last time.

2019 Grateful 41: Mothering Sunday

Today is Mother’s Day. Despite Farmers Market having achieved apostrophe-free status in recent years, Mother’s Day will never be free of it, because

the original campaigner for creating Mother’s day, Anna Jarvis, explicitly wanted an apostrophe, and she wanted it to be before the “s”: … it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.

On 10 May, 1908, Jarvis held a service to commemorate her mother who had died three years previously. She wanted a day that would celebrate her mother and for everyone else to celebrate theirs. She campaigned against much derision from male senators and in 1914, US Congress made the day an official holiday in the USA. The profitmakers soon saw an opportunity to capitalise on sentiment and from the 1920s, Jarvis fought them, calling them

charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.

Driving to the market this morning (I love sunny Sundays in the village), the inimitable JFW, a bottomless font of trivia, said in passing that today is actually Mothering Sunday, a religious holiday in the UK and Ireland, where people once returned home to visit their mother church (and presumably stopped in to see their mother mother, too). It must have been a Protestant thing, I said. I’ve never heard of Mother’s Day being religious – and I practice this, a lot. He assured me not. And he was right. It’s a Christian thing. And it’s always the fourth Sunday of Lent. The things you learn, eh?

Depending on what source you consider, the Mother Church is the main cathedral in the diocese; parish churches are considered daughter churches. Others have it that the mother church could be the one in which you were baptised, the parish church, or the nearest cathedral. Who knew? And from what I’ve read, it’s thought that this sixteenth-century practice of returning to the Mother Church once a year led to domestic servants getting a free half-day to visit their family. Back then, I suppose, most were in service locally and wouldn’t have had that far to travel.

And while mothers in Ireland and the UK today are enjoying the attention, the retailers are laughing all the way to the bank. Last year, the UK spend on Mothering Sunday was estimated at £600 million. In the USA, some $813 million was spent on cards alone. Mad money, Poor Jarvis must be turning in her grave.

I’m happier knowing that Mothering Sunday originally had little to do with mothers and that the commercialisation of Mother’s Day disgusted its founder. I’ve always been slightly peeved that those who’ve never had kids (either by choice or circumstance) don’t have their offical day, too. But anyway, with a nod of gratitude to mothers everywhere, including my own, here’s one from Irish poet Lola Ridge (1873-1941),


Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors . . .
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.

You are less an image in my mind
than a luster
I see you in gleams
pale as star-light on a gray wall . . .
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.



Anniversary of death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day when the last fires will wave to me and the silence will set out. So wrote American poet W.S. Merwin, in his poem For the anniversary of my death.

I thought of him today as I remembered my bestie, Lori, who died this day seven years ago after a short but traumatic illness, her miraculous recovery more a delayed departure. It was her time. Earlier this month, Merwin died, too. He was 92. Lori was 49. The whys and wherefores of death defeat me. Why some are chosen earlier than others I have no clue. I believe we get our allotted time and while I would very much like to believe the fortune teller who told me years ago that I’d live till I’m 87, I have no idea when my time will be up. But it fascinates me to think that on one particular day of the year, I might be remembered by more people than usual.

I think of Lori regularly. Not every day, but regularly. I associate her with Mexican food; she’s the one who got me started. When I was living in Alaska, she once FedEx’ed me three fat carne asada burritos from my favourite burrito joint in San Franciso. And whenever I make Mexican eggs (her version of huevos rancheros), we have quite the conversation. We had some good times and even if months or years went by without us catching up in person, it always felt like yesterday. Before she died she’d bought a ticket to come to visit me in Budapest. We’d planned the trip, mapped out the cities she wanted to visit (Prague was her No. 1), booked the trains and hotels, and then she got sick. A few weeks later she was gone.

If I don’t think about Lori for a week or so, she nudges me. Something will happen to remind me of something she said or did, a time we shared, a fight we had. Today, for instance, we took a tour of the protected areas of the Kis-Balaton conservation area (more on that later). All the while we were there, we were followed by a Marsh Harrier. Himself and CE might tell you that it was a different one pointed out to us each time, but I’m convinced it was Lori saying hi, marking her day. And while after-death communication (ADC) is most common in the following 3 to 15 days, who’s to say they can’t pop back occasionally to say hello.

I’m glad I believe that people are never really gone as long as their spirit is alive, as long as their name is spoken, as long as they’re remembered. I can’t imagine what it would be like to believe otherwise.

Thanks, my friend, for popping by.



Intelligent films

Many years ago, I was at a musical in Dublin with a mate of mine. At the interval, we went outside. I asked him what he thought of it so far. Expecting a comment on the singing or the acting or the story, I was completely taken aback. He’d sat beside me through the first half looking at the same musical but through a completely different lens. He builds sets. He sits with producers and directors and listens to what they want on stage. He asks questions to make sure he understands their vision and then he goes and realises it. I write stories. So while I was caught up in personalities and voices, he was talking about backdrops and backflaps and flying bars and other terms completely alien to me. I’ve never quite looked at a staged performance in the same way since.

Last weekend, I went to the cinema three times. The first time, on Saturday morning, was to an invite-only screening of a diploma film, The Freelancer, written, produced, and directed, and starring the inimitable Steve Collison. For the 35 minutes or so that it ran, I was fully engaged, trying desperately to figure out how it would all end. I read more than my fair share of detective novels and crime fiction, so I’ve gotten quite good at figuring out plots (says she, immodestly) but he stumped me. I didn’t see it coming. And I was all about the story.

In the Q&A afterwards, though, there was talk about shots and angles and scores and all sorts of stuff that left me reeling. I was immediately back outside that theatre in Dublin listening to my mate go on about the sets.

On Sunday, I went to see the Granny Project (Nagyi Projekt) in Kino Mozi. Directed by Bálint Révész, it’s

… a seven-year-long investigation of three young men coming to terms with their heritage through the extraordinary lives of their grandmothers: an English spy, a dancer from Nazi Germany and a Hungarian communist Holocaust survivor. These guys move back and forth across Europe at the same time as their grandmothers set off on a virtual journey of memory. They transport their grannies back to their youth and in doing so provide us with an insight into the transcendental connection between grandparents and grandchildren, on the verge of the 21st century.

I’d double-checked to make sure it was subtitled – and it was – in Hungarian. English to Hungarian. German to Hungarian. And Hungarian as Hungarian. Perhaps because my understanding of German is limited to a handful of words and my Hungarian doesn’t stretch to fast conversation (the only story I fully understood was that of the English spy), I found myself looking at shots and angles and listening to the role the score played in the telling of the story. I even noticed the use of natural light. It’s an excellent documentary, by the way. Worth watching.

Then not an hour later, I was around the corner in Cirko Mozi watching Rossz Versek (Bad Poems), directed by (and starring) my favourite Hungarian director Gábor Reisz [remember For Some Inexplicable Reason?] and my favourite Hungarian actor, Zsolt Kovács. It got a rave review at the Tallinn Black Knights Film Festival and I loved, loved, loved it, too.

This is a film about a grown-up man longing to live his childhood dreams, and constantly wondering how his life would be had he done things slightly different. This [is] also a film about the frailties of masculinity, and how to grapple with them.

But again, I wasn’t paying as much attention to the story as I was to the shots and the angles and the sequences, things I’d never have noticed before. My silent wowing was in danger of spilling over into audible gasps. It’s bloody brilliant.

That filmmakers can see each shot in their mind’s eye and then tie a tattoo from one frame into another half an hour later. Or thread a piece of red cord throughout the film just so it can tie it all together in the end. That sort of visionary stuff is mindboggling.

Are these art films because they’re shown in art houses, small independent theatres? I don’t know enough about the genre to comment. For me, what makes them different from the ones that gross millions, is that they’re intelligent. They’re clever. They’re the type of film that I could watch repeatedly and always find something new. And that’s just what I plan on doing.
bird's next that looks like the sleeve of a wolly jumper

2019 Grateful 42: Driven by likes

I’ve had a few conversations in recent weeks with others (more) active on social media. And I’ve been reading with something close to concern at how users are conflating their worth with their stats. One contributor to a travel forum I follow asked if anyone knew of a free tool like a social blue book [the blue book in the USA gives the value of used cars] that she could use to calculate her worth. Yes, I know she was talking about companies using her to advertise via her blog and social media accounts, but it did make me wonder. Read more