Hey Mr Squirrel

Photo courtesy of Marcus Frakes

The last time I sat in a room listening to a man with a guitar, a mouth organ, and a sense of humour was on a rainy night in Dublin. The man: Kris Kristofferson. The venue: the Point Depot. Fast forwarding about six years to a rainy Saturday night in Budapest, I found myself in another room, listening to a man with a guitar, a mouth organ, and a sense of humour. The man: Bob Pike. The venue: Manga Cowboy.

You’re mad, I hear you say. You’ve lost all sense of scale. The Point holds thousands; Manga holds maybe 40. Kris has billions of fans; Bob, well, maybe not quite as many….yet. Kris has sold millions of albums; Bob has yet to cut one. Kris has a beard. Bob has a shadow. No matter. Both have a story to tell, if you want to listen.

I don’t mind, if you don’t mind. We’ll take our time till closing time. Last call!

Last night at Manga Cowboy, in the first of a series of acoustic gigs at that venue, Bob met his public. Outside, pedestrian umbrellas battled it out with the wind and the rain. Inside, Bob battled through the emotional upheavel of marriage, divorce, and Irish dancing. I’m no expert but I know what I like: a good tune with thoughtful lyrics; a song that both sings to me and talks to me.

I’ve had my fill of Babe Ruths; I want your apple pie

Some were listening; some were passing notes; others were chatting amongst themselves. Some were dancing quietly in their chairs; some were tapping out a beat with chins and hands and heads and feet; others had just come along for Manga’s American fusion food and excellent Hungarian wine.  But when the lyrics hit home, you could see it: the momentary start of surprise at hearing your thoughts in song; the quiet smile acknowledging a shared experience; the quick flash of memories revisited; the out-loud laugh at something that traversed the ridiculous to the sublime.

Hate to see you go

I cried in public when I heard that Johnny Cash had died. I’ve missed this sort of music; these sorts of raw lyrics. I’m tired of being told what to think, and what to expect and how to feel. I’m sick of authors who signpost their books; playwrights who leave nothing to the imagination; scriptwriters who fill in all the blanks. Show me, don’t tell me. Give me a melody that I’ll still be humming a week from now; give me a lyric I can quote; give me a story I can relate to. And show me that you mean it.

He says he hasn’t done this in a while. Voice a little rusty? Maybe. The man himself a little reticent? Perhaps. As his wit was watered, he seemed to relax. The humorous asides, the short explanations, the clever commentary – all added to the music in what was a marathon set. But I wanted more of it: that conversation between the man and his public. I wanted people to shut up and listen; to give the man his due.  I saw him wow the audience on stage on Wednesday night at the Gift of the Gab speech slam with his take on nose hair and being Bob.  Last night, that witty, irreverent, piss-taking comic was replaced by a thoughtful, introspective, slighly zany singer/songwriter. Both equally clever. Both equally entertaining. Bob Pike, boys and girls, is one talented man. I’m glad I dug out my umbrella!

The Catch 22

 I am not political. I have never been political. The permutations and combinations that need to be worked out in order to decide who gets to sit in parliament, any parliament, are way beyond my simple maths. I have yet to understand the nuances that lie beneath the political rhetoric offered by opposing sides: to me, it all sounds the same. In Ireland, the differences between political ideologies are slim enough to be practically invisible and to my unpoliticised mind, the same could be said of many other countries. The end goal of any party seems to be pure, unadulterated power. And so, for the first time in my apolitical life, I find myself a little concerned. Actually, I’m downright nervous about the idea of one political party, any political party, in any country, having a majority that will effectively allow them to change the Constitution without referendum. For a nation’s people to be so powerless is scary. But then again, I’m not a politician.

Before I cast my vote, I’d like the answer to two questions: Why – in a country that has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners, a notable collection of writers, artists, composers, scientists and mathematicians – are teachers so underappreciated and horribly underpaid? Don’t they hold the future of this country in their classrooms every day? G. K. Chesterton said that ‘without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously’. Now, more than ever, we need our children to be educated to think for themselves, to form opinions, to question the status quo, to learn right from wrong, to forget about how it has been done and to think about how it should be done, to face up to their responsibility as citizens of this great country.

Gullible or naive?

I’ve recently heard Hungarians I know recount stories of faking diplomas, having someone else sit their exams, paying someone to write their thesis or dissertation and then being coached by them to defend it. Any minute, I thought, the candid cameraman will jump out and laugh at me for being so gullible as to believe it all. But he never did. Perhaps this happens the world over…and ‘naive’ is my middle name! But I was shocked. And I can’t help but thinking that if teachers were given the respect their responsibility deserves and paid accordingly, if the disease were treated, and not merely the symptoms, then education might once again be something to be proud of and the future might look a little less bleak.

Health is wealth

That brings me to Question No. 2. Why are doctors and nurses paid so little? Society’s obligation to its elderly, its sick and its infirm surely goes without saying. Recent conversations with doctors, specialists and medical staff have left me flabbergasted. When a man in an Armani suit gets to jump the hospital queue and the little old lady has to wait for yet another hour, there is something not quite right. When families are subsidising their doctor sons and daughters so that they can work the wards, something is wrong. When patients are giving backhanders to ensure a level of healthcare that is their right, something is very wrong. When countryside practices lie empty because those who might have staffed them have gone abroad to countries where their expertise is valued and rewarded accordingly, something is very, very wrong. Who will take care of those left at home?

The buck stops here

To my unpoliticised mind, it’s not the alphabet army of CEOs, CFOs, and COOs, or the politicians who should be earning the big bucks; it’s the teachers and the doctors and the nurses. Those people whose very job it is to nurture society, to educate it, to keep it healthy and strong, and to care for it as it grows older. For only with a strong, educated, and healthy mind, is society in a position to effect change: to right the wrongs, to grow its economy, to take its place on the world stage. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about: a future in which we abdicate responsibility to whatever political party has come up with a majority; a future in which citizens are in danger of losing control of their Constitution; and even worse, where they are too worn out and apathetic to care one way or another.

But the Catch 22 is that in order to accomplish anything, the government needs money. And for this to happen, people need to pay taxes. But for this to happen, the tax system needs to be reformed and the government’s accounting made transparent. A flat rate would be a start, followed by society disowning those who avoid their responsibility as citizens. But hey, what would I know? I am not political.

First published in the Budapest Time 15 February 2010

Walk left, stand right

There is a debate raging in Budapest that has nothing to do with politics, religion, or the price of a tea in China. The proponents and opponents of this particular issue cannot be divided by race, class or creed. Unless you’ve been dragged into this debate by someone eager to bolster support for the side they happen to be taking, you’re probably unaware that it’s going on. Yet it’s consuming an inordinate amount of time in conversations around the city; time that used to be spent talking about things that actually matter, like politics, religion or the price of tea in China.

Right, left or in the middle?

So, where do you stand…on an escalator? On the right, on the left, or in the middle?  More importantly perhaps, why do you stand there?

If you stand on the right, do you do so because a) you’ve been institutionalized: walk left, stand right is pretty much universal and why should Budapest be any different; b) you’ve read the safety reports and know that the safest way to ride an escalator is to stand on the right and hold on to the rail; c) you value your thinking time and don’t want it interrupted by a constant stream of elnézésts as those trying to get fit, stay fit or in a hurry pass you by; or d) you don’t want to stand in the way of progress.

If you stand on the left, do you do so because a) this is the only opportunity you have to stand beside your friend and chat; b) you’re anti-establishment and never follow rules, even those that involve social etiquette; c) it’s an escalator, damn it, and if people want to walk or run up or down, they should take the stairs (if you lived in Washington DC, people would call you an ‘escalump’ – the human equivalent of a speed bump; or d) you live in Hungary because it isn’t the UK or North America and you see this conformity as the first step down the rocky road to sameness.

If you stand in the middle, do you do so because a) you have friends on both sides of the debate and don’t want to alienate anyone; b) you’ve been working out and have bulked up so it only looks like you’re standing in the middle – really you’re standing on the right; c) you’re indecisive but believe in taking ‘average’ to new heights; d) you have no friends and by standing in the middle, you’re guaranteed that someone will talk to you, either to ask you to move right or to engage you in a spate of escalump bashing.

Or perhaps you don’t stand at all – you move – but you want other people to stand on the right so that you can keep moving.

The laws of motion

A typical argument from the static left is that escalators, unlike moving walkways, are not designed for walkers or runners and therefore it shouldn’t matter where they stand. This is combated by the moving left, who maintain that an escalator is, in effect, a stairs, and people don’t stand still on stairs, now do they?

Another argument from the static left is that running or walking doesn’t save you time so why bother…you’re really only rushing because you want us to think that you have places to go and people to see. But, say the moving left, you have no idea why we’re running? Maybe we’re getting fit, staying fit, or in a hurry home. Why are you so interested, anyway?

In Budapest, almost 10,000 people have joined the Facebook group Jobbra állok a metró mozgólépcsőn. BKV’s terms and conditions of travel state: ‘Travel on the right-hand side of the escalator and leave the left-hand side free for passengers in a hurry to pass you.’ In other words, walk left, stand right. But in Toronto, in 2007, the Transit Commission removed all signs suggesting the walk left, stand right practice from their 294 escalators after a safety inspection agency told them that they were condoning unsafe behaviour: apparently, moving on an escalator can be dangerous! So who’s right? Or wrong? And does it really matter?

For me, there’s no contest. The etiquette of standing right, walking left makes perfect sense.  You never know, one day I might get the urge to exercise and it would be nice to have a clear left lane so that I could act on the impulse before I have time to change my mind. But, more importantly, on the escalator in Moszkva tér in particular, it means having an uninterrupted 1.56 minutes to think about important things in life, like politics, religion, and the price of tea in China.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 February 2010

Irish goulash or Hungarian stew?

Way back in 1957, American author James Michener immortalized a little bridge on the Hungarian/Austrian border. In his book, The Bridge at Andau, Michener chronicles the reality of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution using a series of both composite and real characters, with names changed to protect the innocent. I think I’m safe in saying that in 1957, not many Irish people had been to Hungary, but Michener must have had met his fair share of both nationalities as he came to the conclusion that, at least back then, the Hungarians were the Irish of Eastern Europe. I’ve just come back from a longer-than-usual visit to Ireland and if Mr Michener were around today, I’d love to sit him down and have a chat about this. If anything, I think the Irish are becoming the Hungarians of Western Europe!  

The long and the short of it

Hungarian is a lengthy language. It takes longer to say mass in Hungarian than it does in English, even though the translation is the same. I know. I’ve timed it. Well, over on the island, Ireland has gone mad adding extra words where they’re not needed…and I’m not talking about the traditional story-like embellishments for which we’re famous. Those don’t count.  I’m talking about slipping in ‘do’ and ‘would’ and ‘like’ where they’re simply not needed. RyanAir staff saying ‘We do hope you enjoyed your flight, and we do hope that you travel with us again …’ The Gardaí (the Irish Police) saying ‘We would ask drivers to slow down…’ And every young one old enough to wear high heels saying ‘Yeah, like, it was, like, a great night, like…’

Brace yourself, Bridie!

The Irish are not known for being openly affectionate. Just ask anyone who has dated someone Irish in the last century. When Pope John Paul II stood in front of a crowd of 200,000 of Ireland’s finest back in 1979 and shouted ‘Young people of Ireland, I love you’  it was the first time that four-letter word had been aired in public. With the advent of the EU, the more upwardly mobile Irish social set replaced the traditional handshake with a peck on the cheek but, still, this public display of affection was usually reserved for maiden aunts and grannies. With the birth of the Celtic Tiger, air-kissing became de rigueur for anyone with a second mortgage! Hold out your hand in Dublin these days and you’ll be dragged into a two-cheek kissing frenzy that has crossed all class boundaries and age groups. Everyone’s at it. Now, just as in Budapest, it takes an age to say hello or goodbye to a group of people. And there’s the added trauma of that split-second decision as to whether you should or shouldn’t go for broke… I mean, how well do you have to know someone before you get familiar with their cheekbones?

Whose round is it?

A gang of us met up in our local pub in Dublin last week. It was a typical Friday after work and the recession had taken the night off. The place was heaving. We had stools but no table and when there are more than four involved, a table is essential to focus the conversation. Next to us sat a young couple chatting away over a remarkably clean and empty table dotted with pristine beer mats and not a drink in sight. Surreptitious glances on our part gave way to open stares until someone voiced what most of us were thinking. They had to be foreign.  I went one better and reckoned they were Hungarian. Budapest is the only European Capital in which I’ve seen people who have the wherewithal and the fortitude to sit in pubs with an empty glass in front of them or without a drink at all. In Ireland, the sight of the level of beer in just one glass on the table sinking below an inch is enough to start a mad reach for the wallets and a dash to the bar. The thought of not having another pint primed and ready before the first one is drained is enough to stir the coldest corpse. But there’s no mistaking a Dublin accent. When they finally left and said their goodbyes, the pair turned out to be Irish.

While I was sharing my theory with a Hungarian friend earlier this week, I illustrated the similarities further with the famous WB Yeats quote: Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy. You could easily switch ‘Irish’ for ‘Hungarian’, I said. And what about Sírva vigad a magyar they asked… wouldn’t Sírva vigad az ír work just as well?

I rest my cutlery.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 January 2010

‘Tis the season…

It’s snowing in Budapest. It’s like living in a fairy tale. Beautiful. And bloody cold! Temperatures today hit -7 C. God be with my Alaskan days when I would have considered that positively balmy! My blood has thinned and I’m older now – I’m feeling the cold.

But as I look out my window at the snow-covered trees of Ulloi út, I wouldn’t change a thing. I love loving here. I love my flat, my friends, my work, my life. I couldn’t ask for anything more… well… maybe just one thing, but that would be telling!

Assuming the planes are flying tomorrow, I’ll be winging my way home to Ireland. I still consider it home strangely enough and I wonder how long that will continue. Our choice of words can be quite telling. The last time I was home, I spoke of going back to Budapest. Never of going home to Budapest. Remember when I thought that buying a flat would settle me? Would give me roots? It has, in a way, but not in the way I imagined. Although I feel very much at home here, the Irish in me will always win out.

I’m happy; happier than I’ve been in a lot of places. There’s an energy in this city that makes you climb out of your box and do things. It makes you want to try stuff. It makes you get off your arse and get out there.  Despite the ups and downs medical wise , this year has been a great one for me. The speech slam is up and running and going from strength to strength. I’ve given a number of public presentations, competed internationally and have even tried my hand at stand-up comedy. My Carrie Bradshaw dream has been resussicated in the form of a bi-weekly newspaper column. Through the ministrations of the indubitable GM, my podcasts are publishing regularly and are slowly taking root. Although failing miserably, I even auditioned for a couple of voice-overs. I’ve gotten out of the city and into the countryside taking road trips towards the Ukraine and Slovakian borders. My voluntary work with the ESR has taken me to Slovenia, the Czech Republic,  and Belgium. I’ve visited Slovakia, Spain, Wales and England. Visitors still continue to drop by for extended weekends and I get great satisfaction from showing them my city.

I’ve met lots of interesting people from all walks of life. Can you believe that I now network! Me, whose worst nightmare took the form of a conference coffee break. Hey, I even started exercising and scarier still…I enjoy it! My Hungarian is much better than my Russian (which is non-existent). I’ve laughed and cried; I’ve been angry and sad; I’ve been fortunate and unfortunate. But most of all, I’ve lived. My needs are few, my wants even fewer. I am truly blessed. 2009 was a great year. 2010 is shaping up to be even better. I can’t explain it, but I can feel it in my waters. I have no idea what’s in store, or where I’ll be this time next year, but no matter. It’s the journey that counts and this one is going to be a good one!

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir

Hotline to heaven

I was born and raised an Irish Catholic. My baptismal certificate might say “Roman Catholic” but I prefer to think of myself as “Irish Catholic”. A subtle distinction perhaps, and one many people fail to recognize unless they have been on the wrong end of a dose of Catholic Irish guilt! We have a peculiar logic that almost defies reasoning; at times, we even find it difficult to understand it ourselves. I survived 12 years of Catholic Irish Convent School education and have lived to tell the tale, even if my therapists are still reaping the rewards!

Since I first left Ireland in 1990, I have managed to observe the weekly ritual of going to mass on Sundays. At first this religious observance was because I didn’t want to have to lie to my parents if they asked…even if I was living 6000 miles from home and long since an adult in the eyes of the law. But gradually, going to mass on Sundays became an established part of my life; a part of who I am. Sometimes, of course, it simply wasn’t possible to go. I’ve lived in places that only had visiting priests once a month; where avalanches closed the only road into town and snowstorms prevented planes landing.  I’ve been on airplanes and trains when the bell for mass was ringing and I’ve also heard it from my sick bed.  Sometimes, when I simply can’t find a church, I will spend an hour or so alone, in conversation with my God. Whatever works.  

When I first moved to Budapest, I rented a flat in District V. Within a ten-minute walk from my front door, I had a choice of seven different Roman Catholic churches, each with mass at different times. This is one of the many perks of living in such a lovely city. I was spoiled for choice….mass on the hour every hour from 8am to 8pm. I had no excuse, nor did I need one. I’ve sat through mass in any number of languages and although the words may differ, the song is pretty much the same. The ritual, the observances, the protocol… it rarely changes. One irreligious friend of mine likened mass to an international aerobics class and, to the uninitiated, she may have a point. Truth be told, I quite like not being able to understand the sermons; it gives me a chance to make up my own!

But when it comes to confession, it’s a completely different story. In order to get absolution, the priest needs to understand what it is you’re confessing if for no other reason than to be sure that the penance fits the penitent. I would feel rather hard done by to receive three decades of the rosary for a sin that warranted no more than one Hail Mary!

A few years ago, in Rome, I had a very hard time finding confession in English. I could have recited my litany of sins in any number of languages but unlike many of my friends here in Hungary, my linguistics skills are minimal.  In Budapest, the vast majority of Catholic services are in Hungarian…which is only to be expected. My Hungarian isn’t anywhere near the point where I could confidently confess:  ‘én vétkem’ might start me off well but it wouldn’t take me very far! So on the rare occasion I go to a mass conducted in English, and find a second priest in the confessional hearing confession, it makes for a good day indeed.

One particular Sunday, I struck lucky.  During the sermon, I slipped into the confessional, knelt down, and readied myself to begin. The priest drew back the screen and welcomed me. Through the mesh, I could see the unmistakable blue glow of a computer screen. I did a double take. Yes… there… plonked on his lap was a laptop. In confession! Well, I know the Hungarian Neumann János was around at the start of the computer age but this apparent ‘hotline to heaven’ was truly one for the books. Was the priest going to enter my sins in a global database which would then compute the appropriate penance? Or would he simply instant message heaven if he needed a second opinion? Either way, I knew I had to make this confession a good one.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned…

I have paid my taxes in full and on time… I have made my customers feel welcome and appreciated… I haven’t dodged one tram or bus fare this since my last confession…

This article was first published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2009

Saps and saplings

I have amused myself to the point of inanity in recent months trying to work out a pattern to BKV’s seemingly random staffing of controllers at my local metro station. Just when I felt I was on the brink of some major discovery, after nearly five months of mental note-taking and complex calculations, they’ve disappeared. And they left without even saying goodbye. For two days now, I’ve had to brave the escalators into the wider world without their customary cheery jó reggelts and köszönöms. I feel like my right arm has been cut off… the one that’s itching to wear one of those armbands.

I’ve heard tell of those who’ve passed through the jegyellenőr gauntlet with the same ticket twenty times or more; or those who’ve travelled for weeks on an expired pass. So I have to wonder what exactly is it that my friends with the armbands think they’re controlling. I’m not the first to wonder why the BKV doesn’t just install ticket machines at metro stations. Or have front-entry buses? And I certainly won’t be the last sap to ask why not? So why not?  

Sledges, skis or saplings?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the BKV. I really am. It’s one of the best public transport systems I’ve encountered in my travels. Its detractors should trying living in cities where buses travel in bunches, if they travel at all, or where timetables express hope rather than intent. Perhaps we’re both on the same cycle but I’ve rarely, if ever, had to wait more than five minutes for a bus, tram or metro to come get me. There are clocks to tell me exactly how long I can expect to be kept waiting. The journey planning tool on the website has demystified Budapest for me making even the remotest parts accessible. And the English-language instructions about what I can carry with me are simple and to the point: one sledge, one pair of skis, one wrapped sapling tree or a pram.

Back in the early days when, although a seasoned traveler, I was a BKV novice, I thought that as long as I stayed underground my ticket was valid. I changed lines and didn’t validate a second ticket. I was nabbed at Nyugati, my book of tickets confiscated, and demands made on me for my passport and 5000 ft. I had neither. I asked to go to an ATM to get the money and by the time I got back, the lady with the armband (the one I’m itching to wear) had vanished. I reckoned I owed the universe about 3000 ft (the fine minus the cost of a book of tickets), a debt I duly discharged using the next homeless man I met as my broker. It wasn’t an experience I particularly wanted to repeat. So, after calculating that I’d cover the cost of my pass by Day 17 (I can be a little dim at times), I decided to cross over to the other side of the tracks and go the Havi Budapest-bérlet route. I also corrected that unwitting mistake I made when first recounting this story: my ticket wasn’t inspected…I was controlled!

Off tramway

My pass is like a front-row ticket to a series of vignettes played out in front of me at least once a day. As the controllers board and take a minute to get in costume, the actors take their cues. The martyred monthlies sigh in exasperation as they root through their bags and pockets, annoyed that their respectability is being called into question. Those on the precipice of pensiondom frown slightly, adding those all important extra wrinkles in their attempt to look just a little beyond the magic age of 65. Those who have already passed this mark smile a peculiarly self-congratulatory smile that admonishes ‘you, too, can travel for free when you’ve clocked up as many miles as I have’. The pubescent plugged-ins barely miss a beat as they languidly show their passes. And then there are the dodgers; highly skilled performers of a different kind.

The starers simply stare, be it out the window or into space or at their shoes, hoping the controller won’t be too persistent. The diversionists get on their mobiles and launch into a very important business call from which they cannot possibly be disturbed. The magicians disappear out of one carriage and reappear in another. The expressionists look amazed at the fact that their passes have expired. The innocents smile and simper…and make like tourists. It’s a Mecca for the method actor.

But because I’m concentrating on not behaving in a way which is scandalous or antisocial, and because I don’t get to wear an armband, I’m relegated to sitting quietly with my wrapped sapling tree and enjoying the performance.

This article first published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2009

Butterflies, tigers and Budapest bars

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it… or so said the legendary Frank Zappa…and I think he said it after one of his trips to Budapest. Whether it be the light features made from empty wine bottles in Köleves, the seats made from old bathtubs in Szimpla kert, or the complete interior remake from someone else’s trash in Csendes, the Hungarian ability to make something from nothing is artistic simplicity at its best.

I had the (mis)fortune to be in Alaska when the Celtic Tiger took up residence in Ireland. Happily ensconced in my log cabin, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, I was quite oblivious to its antics. Ireland had practically full employment; GDP was growing in double digits on a yearly basis; and for the first time in living memory, emigrants were returning in their droves. And I missed it all. While I was living off Copper River reds, frying up moose-burgers and chewing my way through last-season’s caribou jerky, Ireland was wining and dining in Michelin-starred restaurants, gorging herself on oysters and caviar, and becoming all too familiar with Dom Perignon and Ms Bollinger. And I was happy for her. Her day had come.

Pubs with soul

Before the Celtic Tiger was born, you could find pubs in Dublin where floors were covered in sawdust and used as ashtrays; where granny’s hand-crocheted anti-macassars decorated flea-ridden sofas whose patterns had long since faded into oblivion; where grandfather clocks signaled closing time. Pubs where musicians on their fiddles and tin whistles and bodhráns lulled us merry punters into a happy melancholy, providing a soundtrack for the heady Guinness-fuelled opinionating on everything from the state of world politics to the odds of Dublin winning yet another All-Ireland final. Pubs where elderly couples sat in companionable silence, having said all there was to say and the boys in the back played the odd hand or two of cards for a few quid to carry them over till payday. Back in the day, before the Celtic Tiger, pubs in Ireland’s capital had soul.

Everything measured, everything matched

But as the Celtic Tiger grew into an all consuming monster, the slow death of tradition began. I know we welcomed it with open arms…and who could blame us? After so many years of playing second fiddle to other EU states, it was time we had our turn on the world’s stage, and we relished it. But at what cost? Old pub interiors were gutted and replaced with shiny new wood and brass fittings. Quirkiness was replaced with more of the same. Designer candles took centre table. Cocktail menus offered screaming orgasms, sex on the beach and long slow comfortable screws up against the wall. Everything was measured; everything matched. Yes, the price of a pint had gone through the roof but sadder still, that witty deconstruction of the week’s events had been replaced by a dreary discourse on the price of property. With the smoking ban in place, smirting (smoking and flirting) outside in the freezing cold was nonetheless much better craic than staying indoors to be browbeaten by loud piped music and tales of killings made on the stock exchange.

A Magyar tigris

I moved to Budapest for many reasons and for no particular reason at all. Perhaps I was hoping to get in on the földszint of what I was sure was going to become another European success story. To see first-hand what happens when EU money swells the coffers of a relatively impoverished nation; when foreign investment wipes out unemployment; when talented emigrants return to the fold bringing with them a new perspective; when non-nationals flood to the country, armed with exotic languages and spicy foods. But now, two years later, there’s ne’er a sniff of a Magyar tigris. The only black and orange creature I’ve seen here is a butterfly. And when I sit in one of the many ruin pubs in Budapest, I give silent thanks.

I dare not say aloud what I am thinking. Selfishly, I want the bars in Budapest to stay as they are. The collection of random furniture; the smoke-filled rooms alive with animated, intelligent conversation where music accompanies thought rather than drowns it out; long tables scattered with half-smoked boxes of cigarettes and novels in many languages; people moving effortlessly from Hungarian to English to German so that everyone is included in the conversation, the toe-tapping beat of gypsy jazz. Nothing matching; nothing measured; everything unique.

And then I look across the road and see the shiny modern interior of a new pub through huge, brightly lit windows…and the smudge on the glass looks remarkably like a paw print.

This article was first published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2009

Hungarian Roadtrip: Budapest to Sárospatak via Tokaj

It’s about 248 km from Budapest to Sárospatak if you take the highways and stay on course, but that’s what trains and bus tours are for. When you have a car (thanks to PM), you can stop and start as often as you like. See a church spire in the distance? An interesting road sign? An oddly named village? Check it out. That’s the beauty of driving. And I love it. We left Budapest by 8am on Saturday morning and met very heavy fog outside the city. It felt as if we were flying through clouds rather than driving on tarmac. We were on our way to see a man about some nutbirds and the man lives in Sárospatak, close enough to the Slovakian border.  Once called ‘the Athens of the River Bodrog’ , it’s in the heart of the Zemplén region of Northern Hungary.

On our way, we decided to visit Tokaj, one of Hungary’s more famous wine regions. I’ve been to Villany and was impressed. I was perhaps expecting a little too much from Tokaj and was a little disappointed to see that like its wine, it’s just a little too sweet for my liking. It’s not as if they’ve haven’t had time to practice. There are records of vineyards in Hungary going as far back as the 5th century. The sweet, white dessert wine from Tokaj is probably the country’s most famous export,  christened by Louis XIV of France as ‘Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum’ – Wine of Kings, King of Wines. I’m no expert… and as long as I have difficulty getting my head around drinking a wine made from grapes that have been infected by a fungus Botrytis cinera (Noble Rot), I probably never will be.  Mind you, were I ever trapped in the region and unable to escape, I’d live quite happily with its Furmint – a rather nice dry white with a distinct apple flavour. The jury is still out as to whether this grape came from southern Italy or Hungary. Bearing in mind that in the summer the place is most likely overflowing with tourists, on this particular Saturday morning in November it hadn’t yet woken up. Most of the cellars were closed but we still managed to get a taste or three in before actually making a purchase. The town itself is the centre of a much broader wine-growing region and on the road to Sárospatak, we passed many vineyards. To take full advantage, you need to bring a teetotal driver as Hungary is notoriously strict with its zero-tolerance drink driving policy.

Driving the country roads, we passed many Trabants and it really felt as if we had indeed driven back in time. The pace was visibly slower. It might well have been the late 1950s, when the first Trabant came off the line. The fog had burned off by now and the autumnal leaves  were majestic in the sunshine. Scores of fishermen lined the riverbanks and lakeside edges. Flasks of coffee and bottles of hazipalinka littered the picnic tables as they waited patiently to catch their supper. It reminded me a lot of Alaska. The quiet. The beauty. The solitude. KG is getting much better at navigating and we trundled along without anydifficulties at all. There are still river crossings in Hungary where you have to drive onto a large raft and be literally pulled across. What a way to go. The more I see of this slower way of life, the more I dream of upping stakes and moving to that cottage by the sea. There is something quite godlike about it all.

We made it to Sárospatak with plenty of daylight left to make a quick trip out to the National Cemetery in Karos. It’s supposedly the richest cemetery associated with the first Hungarian settlers in the Carpathian Basin. I am struggling to find any information on this in English, so if anyone reading has a comment, please share it. From what I could see and understand, it appears to be a major archeological dig – there are lots of staked signs which I think mark the sites where relics were found. There is a large circle of totem poles, or what look very much like totem poles, but again, I couldn’t make sense of it all.

Back into town then for a last look at Rákóczi Castle and a glimpse of time gone by. The older part of the town is rather lovely; the newer part, rather new. Famous for its Calvinist college, the town has turned out many famous students.  In fact, the education system at the college was organised by János Amos Comenius, a Moravian humanist, late in the seventeeth century. Comenius is probably more famous for writing the world’s first illustrated textbook for children, Orbis Pictus (World in Pictures).  The organic archictect Imre Makovecz has also left his mark on the city (and a little bit of me wishes he hadn’t…I’m not quite sure I get this ‘organic architecture’ in urban areas). The cultural centre on Eotvos utca is a little too much for my liking as is the Hild Udvar shopping centre. But each to her own, I say.

The Hotel Bodrog, reputedly a **** hotel, was fine. Although unlike any **** I’ve ever stayed in (Hungary is quite liberal with her stars), it did the business: it provided a clean bed, a good breakfast, and a steam room/sauna/jacuzzi/pool complex… with the added realism of peeling wallpaper, chipped formica, and cracked walls. We ate in a lovely Italian cellar restaurant, The Collegium, which is well worth a visit, if you’re ever in that part of the world.  Despite being fortified by Furmint, any inclination to paint the town red was dulled by the fact that the town was closing at 10.30pm. mmmm I wonder just how much of the quiet life I could actually take.

Gorgeous girls and goosefat

I am very fortunate to have some wise and wonderful Hungarian friends who are extremely knowledgeable and clued in. Between them, they have managed to answer practically all of my never-ending questions about life in Hungary as it is now and as it was then. Their areas of expertise include history, geography, politics, linguistics, sports and the arts, with a little bit of religion thrown in for good measure.  Together, their knowledge of who’s who and what’s what in Budapest alone is encyclopedic. They have their fingers on the city’s pulse. They speak its language and, more importantly, they also speak mine! But try as they might, there is one question that still remains unanswered.

Making comparisons

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Hungarian women are beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that grown men literally stop and stare as they walk by. And it’s not that surreptitious glance from a gawky teenager that you might see in Dublin; a glance made all the more daring by the chances of being caught in the act. No, Budapest has left puberty behind. Here, men stop. And stand. And stare. It used to catch me unawares. There I’d be, walking along, lost in my own little world, trying to conjugate a particularly difficult Hungarian verb, when the man in front of me would suddenly stop. And stand. And stare. And I’d run right into him and ruin the moment. Now I pay more attention. I’m more considerate. I save my conjugation for cafés. But it rankles. Hungarian girls are gorgeous: they have perfect figures, great skin, healthy hair… and all of this on a diet of red meat, goose fat and lángos! How can it be so? Where’s the justice? Answer me that!

I love my food. I can’t imagine life without red meat and chocolate. I shudder at the thought of never again enjoying Filete Enchocolatado. While at an open-air market recently, I noticed my visitors going pale at the sight of pork steaks swimming in vats of hot oil. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. At dinner later that evening, while they searched in vain for a fruit-filled palacsinta, I went straight for the hórtobagyi. Hungary, for me, is hog heaven, with a large duck pond and a garden full of geese. But unfortunately, I am missing that all-important gene that allows Hungarian women to eat what they like, when they like, and still look fantastic.  I’ve thought about this a lot and for want of help from my encyclopedic friends I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s simply no other explanation. It has to be genetic…doesn’t it?

Making concessions

The last time I fitted into a size 8, I was 18. I have neither the interest nor the inclination to do what’s needed to go back there.  Don’t get me wrong: if it could be done with a wave of a túró rudi, I’d be first in line. But diet and exercise are two words that don’t feature in my vocabulary, in any language! I have made a couple of concessions though. I only allow myself langós when I have virgin guests in town – far be it from me to deprive first-time visitors to Budapest of an experience that is truly Hungarian! When I cook at home, I always have at least two real vegetables: tomatoes, onions and peppers don’t count! Come to think of it: that’s another question I must ask. Where do all the real vegetables go once they leave the market stalls? The carrots, the parsnips, the turnips, the cauliflowers – I’ve yet to see one come out of a restaurant kitchen in solid form!

 Making choices

My weight fluctuates according to where I’m living. In California, it was too hot to eat. In Alaska, it was too cold not to. Ok, so perhaps I didn’t have to take hibernation as seriously as I did or have so much sympathy for the whales that I began to morph into one myself.  No matter. That’s history. Today, I have chosen to live in a city full of beautiful women; a city which is populated by men who are very obvious in their appreciation of this beauty. Perhaps, subconsciously, the skinny person living inside me is making a last-ditch effort to escape. Maybe hers is the voice I heard telling me to move to Budapest in the first place. Maybe she was hoping that being in the presence of such beauty would inspire me to lend her a hand. But, as Woody Allen wondered: what if the 20lbs I lose is the best 20lbs I have? The pounds that contain my genius, my humanity, my love and my honesty? What then?

This article first appeared in the Budapest Times on Monday, 22nd October, 2009