Real Madrid

IMG_2555And, no, I’ve not gone over the other side. But even I had to respect the greatness that is Real Madrid and pay homage when living practically next door, albeit for 48 hours, to what some consider to be sacred ground. And it was quite the experience. Somehow, I’d never equated a soccer stadium with clubbing, or ever imagined a soccer crowd clad in Prada, Ralph Lauren and D&G… and that’s not even going near the girls. Madrid truly is home to some beautiful people; never once did I see an inch of scruff on a Spanish-speaking  bod. Bright colours, up-to-the-minute fashion, perfectly coiffed and manicured, these lads are gorgeous. And lovely. Chatty, intelligent, and lots of fun. And what profiles!!! Even their graffiti is a cut above the ordinary. Heads are round to allow thoughts to flow in all directions.

The first thing that struck me about Madrid is the greenery. I had to keep reminding myself I was in  city. Magnolia trees everywhere. Long, wide avenues lined with green; huge parks with water fountains, lakes and more trees. It is beautifully sculpted. It, too, has its old parts, its grand squares, and its narrow, cobblestoned streets. It also has its ultramodern skyline with every brand name you can think of dotting the horizon. It’s a strange mix, this old and new and had it not been 38 degrees in the shade, I might have given it a little more thought. It’s definitely out of my time zone – the afternoon siesta I can deal with; going out to eat at 10 or 11 at night would take a complete reprogramming of my body clock. Staying out until 6am is what I used to do…perhaps that’s it. In Madrid, I felt old.  IMG_2673

After seven years in Alaska, I find it difficult to cope with heat if I’m not near water (and yes, I too ask myself what I’m doing in Budapest… ) Sitting in the shadow of the palace having coffee, I saw three older women, dolled up to the nines, gilt edged and gorgeous enjoying an animated chat over an aperitif or three. One in particular struck me and I found myself hoping that I would be just like her when I got to her age. Eccentrically gorgeous, gossiping with my girlfriends and setting the world to rights over a glass of wine. The sheer energy of the Madridites is exhausting.

The lovely KB, my guide, and her gorgeous fellah R_G, crammed as much as possible into two days. I saw lots and more. I discovered Clara – lager with lemon; ate tapas until they came out my ears; and even had my cards read. Another story entirely.

Back to Bratislava…again

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.

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I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.

The sacrifical rose

IMG_2393There is something strangely evocative about this picture. In Slovenia, in the Karst region, they plant rose bushes at both ends of a row of vines to attract the bugs and keep them away from the grapes. Rows and rows of crucifix-like vines, each with a blazing bush of red roses topping and tailing it. We give roses to symbolise so many things: red for love, passion, respect and courage; yellow for friendship, freedom, and to welcome home; pink for sympathy, admiration, gratitude or appreciation; lavender for lust and love at first sight; and white for sincerity, innocence, secrecy and pure love. And and yet, in this corner of the world, roses are sacrificed for the greater glory…that glory being wine!

I’ve been nurturing a fondness for Hungarian wine and, although I am far from being expert in these matters, I became quite quickly attached to Slovenian white. So much so that I lugged a three-litre flask of it home on five trains and two buses! There’s dedication for you. Once a year, in the Karst region, Slovenians celebrate ‘eight’. Years ago, in old Empress Marie-Theresa’s day, she allowed farmers to sell their produce, tax free, for eight days each year. Now, villages take it in turns to rotate the ‘osmica’ with one farm in each village hosting eight days and nights of food, wine and music. Everyone contributes. It’s a great night out – home cured meats (cured in the wind rather than smoked), cheeses, and fine wines and liquors all oiled by some local musicians. How strange it was to hear Country Roads in Slovenian… but even though the words were different, the music was still the same! A lot like going to mass in Budapest!

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The youth hostel in Pliskovica is perfectly sited for travelling across the border to nearby Trieste. The village itself is lovely – one street that winds its way up hill and down vale. Stunning views over the Karst region and that sense of homeliness that you miss when living in the city. On Saturday night, we headed to Piran and to get there, we cut through Italy and back into Slovenia again.  The borders have gone now; just empty sentryboxes and lone barricades. Piran is what some call the Dubrovnik of the North Adriatic – but that description only helps if you’ve been to Dubrovnik. It’s a coastal town with stunning views across the water to Croatia. And there’s a boat connection to Venice… a link that might explain the Venetian Gothic architecture.  Fresh fish is the thing to eat and the wine… while not of the same calibre as that of the farm near Pliskovica, was lovely, too. I’d like to go back.

I was asking BB, one of the Slovenian lads on the trip, if he’d lived abroad. He hasn’t. He’s travelled a lot, but has no desire to move abroad; no desire to live anywhere else because in Slovenia, he has everything. Mountains, beaches, forests, caves, cities… and you know, he has a point. It’s easy to see the attraction. It does a weary heart good to see a people still in love with their homeland, still passionate about its story, eager to share its today while happily looking forward to its tomorrow. It truly is a magical place.

Kdo? Kaj? Kje? Kda?

K-doh? Ky? Key-vay? K-day? Doesn’t make it any easier does it? Simple questions though, if you know Slovenian. Kdo – who? Me. Kaj – what? Passing the time until my lift to the country. Kje – where? Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Kda – why? En route from Budapest to a work weekend for the European Scout Region’s adult resources group – too much info I know. In a nutshell, I had about six hours in Ljubljana before being picked up and driven to the final destination.

The last time I was in Ljubljana was in the 1980s when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia. I was backpacking and had met a chap called Tomas on the train from Trieste. There were no hostels in the city then and I couldn’t afford a hotel. He took me home to his mother, who lived high up in an apartment block about two hours by train from the city. The middle of nowhere. To get to his flat, we had to call to each of the  neighbours first and my rite of passage was diluted by thimbles of some very potent liquor. I was rat arsed by the time I met mum and she freaked when she heard I was Irish (we had a bad rep in those days). She calmed somewhat when he explained I was Catholic and that it was the Protestants who brought the bombs! Something definitely got lost in that translation.

IMG_2247I didn’t spend long in Ljubljana then; and six hours this time wasn’t a lot either. But it was enough to get a feel for what’s a rather small and compact city. I loved it. It’s the sort of place that reminds you of lots of places – considering most of it was destroyed in the 1895 earthquake, it’s retained much of its elegance. For one who is usually drawn to the older parts of  town, the opposite happened here. Yes, the old town is lovely. But living in this part of the world, I’m in danger of becoming inured to lovely old stuff and it’s good every now and then to rattle the cage and look towards the new. Like Metelkova City.

This club complex includes a youth hostel that was a prison and is a fine example of reclaiming old space. The result is fantastic. The self-described ‘autonomous culture zone’ was born in 1993 when a group of artists, musicians and war refugees squatted in what was the former Army barracks. Spraypainted to within an inch of its life, it’s gobsmacking! And some of the sculptures are what nightmares are made of. IMG_2245 You can’t help getting the feeling that someone, somewhere is giving someone the finger. It’s too way out to be generally accepted, tucked away as it is just five minutes’ walk from the train station. I headed in that direction because I’d heard of the Hostel Celica – the old jail house turned youth hostel. I planned to be back in the city Saturday night to get an early train Sunday morning, so I needed a bed for that night. I rather fancied staying in one of their cells – partly to see if  my ghosts had been fully laid to rest and partly because it was different! It was full… and anyway, I never did make it back to the city …another story.

My ‘direct’ train from Ljubljana to Budapest on Sunday, the one that involved no changes… or so I was assured when I booked it, actually turned into five trains and two buses. Quite the experience. Maybe I unknowingly trod on something in Metelkova… something that temporarily removed the order from my life and inserted in its place a sort of controlled chaos.

Guest room: And room for a guest or two…

I didn’t sleep very well last night. I’d read a beach book in one sitting and bawled through it… you know, the usual story: wife dies, dad takes kids and moves home, runs for judge, solves a murder, stands up to the bigots and racists and falls in love with the local lesbian. It was way too much emotion for my little mind at that hour of the night. So, instead of counting sheep, I tried counting my visitors. Since I moved to the Ghetto in November last year, this little room has seen 11 sets of visitors. That is the collective word for visitors, isn’t it? Set? Or is it ‘lot’? mmmm…..

IMG_0725Anyway, 17 people have stayed with me in the last 7 months.  In all my travels and all the flats I’ve had, this has to be a record. Ok, so visiting Alaska would have involved a little bit of planning, California ain’t to everyone’s taste and Chichester… well, enough said! Safe to say, though, that Budapest is proving to be extremely popular. I even have some visitors on their second or third go around. Not bad at all! On at least two occasions, I dropped someone off at Terminal 1 to take the Ryan Air flight to Dublin and then bussed to Terminal 2A to meeting another lot coming in from London. Talk about revolving doors! Am sure my neighbours are wondering what’s going on. It’s not like they can even put an ‘average’ age to the faces… it runs the full gamut from 17 to 70 but they all have one thing in common – they love life!

Mind you, if my visitors show up in pairs, then I’m a little less inclined to do a full guided weekend – I figure a quick whip around on the first night so that they can get their bearings and find their way home is grand. Then it’s map, keys, catchyalater. I mean, ‘cmon, if I’d had to walk through the marzipan museum 11 times, or had to spend a total of 27.5 hours in the House of Terror, I’d be suicidal by now. Wining and dining I can find time for… then I get to try something new, too. I’ve even suggested on two occasions that they fly into Bratislava and out of Budapest. I catch the train to Slovakia and we stay over one night before coming back to Budapest,IMG_1849.

Guest bedrooms are always a difficult one – striking that balance between oestrogen and testosterone  when it comes to colour, style and taste can be challenging. I found the duvet cover in Chichester and it tied in so nicely with the slates (bought in Co Clare years ago on a roadtrip with Macker) and my celtic cross (a rather odd find in Valdez, Ak) that it had to be the feature for the room. Everything else was built around it. It’s my homage to home – two homes actually, Alaska and Ireland. My gran’s graduating certificate from Oxford, the deed to my little plot of land in Kennicott, Alaska, a picture of the house my mum grew up in that was used by British Airways in an ad campaign…. stuff I’ve been carting around for years! The chairs I found in a second-hand shop at the back of the Grand Market. A good find. The cushions came from parna, a treasure trove of great vintage linens, and are hand-embroidered here. So intricate and yet so simple.

If you look really closely, you’ll see my window box. For weeks I was the only one on my emelet (floor) without flowers on my sills. I didn’t want to give in to peer pressure, albeit silent, but I was beginning to think I was living in the valley of the squinting windows. So I compromised. Boxes yes, flowers no. Trees and shrubs instead. That’s conforming with a lowercase ‘c’!

You might as well live

Once upon a time, the world was bright and new, and Dorothy Parker was one of the brighest and newest people in it. She was an elfin woman who had two kinds of magic about her. Her first magical quality was that no one could ever consider her dispassionately, and the other was that no one could precisely define her. So says John Keats in his unofficial biography of Ms Parker You might as well live.

Having recently achieved my Competent Communicator  certificate from Toastmasters International, I’m steadily working my way through the advanced programme with a view to attaing my Bronze by the end of the year. That bit about me not being ambitious is a blatant lie 🙂 Anyway, my task for the meeting last Monday night was to read a piece of literature and infuse it with feeling while maintaining the illusion of spontaneity.  No tall order, especially when you’re wrestling with these bloody print-on-demand books that flap around like beached whales. But what better piece than Ms Parker’s A telephone call. Like so much of her work, even though written in the 1920s and 1930s, it is as apt today as it was then. I love it and I loved reading it. So much so that I’m seriously contemplating developing a one-woman hour-long show on the life and works of the great DP.

Yes, such is Budapest. It brings out the best in you; pushes you to the limit; dares you to venture into places you’ve shunned before. Not since the heady days of 6th class, at the tender age of 11, have I strutted my stuff on stage – and then it was as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. And yes, I know I can’t sing… and neither could Christopher Plummer. But I rather fancy doing a turn at one of JFW’s autumnal salons. Get your tickets early as it’s sure to be a sell out. I knew that LBD would come in handy one day!!!

Updated pages: Bedrooms/and room for a guest or two

The trees on Üllői út

More than a year ago, on April 15, I signed the papers for my flat in Budapest. It marked the beginning of what I saw as a new era – one in which I would truly come into my own. No more working for big corporates, selling my soul in 8-hour segments. No more having to ask for a day off. No more resenting time wasted on those unproductive days that should have been spent under a duvet. Signing that contract was more than a simple act of purchase. Yes, I was buying a flat, but more importantly I was buying into a new way of life.

img_1644So, I was buying in the wrong part of town, at a time when prices maybe were higher than expected, when the exchange rate wasn’t exactly going my way but I was buying. I was putting down roots. I’d finally made the decision that I’d managed to avoid thus far. I was settling down. More than a year later and that decision finally feels right. Not that I for a minute believe I’ll end my days on Üllői út – but for the moment, this is home. And for the first time, it’s starting to feel like home.

I cooked lamb dinner Easter Sunday. I dragged the kitchen chairs into the living room and we sat around the dining table… that centrepiece of civility. It was lovely. Each of us brought something to the table. Each of us in Budapest by choice, be it choosing to come or choosing to stay. Balcony doors open, cool breeze blowing through, fine wine, good company, great food. Companiable silences punctuated by police sirens and ambulances. Background music mixing nicely with the steady beat of traffic. The view from the balcony into the 9th district was heady.

The 9th has been renovated to within an inch of its life. New street lamps reflect off the shiney new-build walls. Old and new sit side by side creating that intangible cosmopolitanism that is the mark of Capital city. It struck me that I could be living anywhere, in any big European city, and I was at once pleased with the thought and yet somewhat dejected. This one should somehow be different.

And then I looked to my left and saw Üllői út in all its glory. It runs southeastwards from Kalvin tér all the way to timg_16492he airport. At the Kalvin tér end, there are lots of neo-classical buildings (including one by the famous Ybl Miklos – No. 17). Where it intersects the Korut, there’s the Museum of Applied Arts and as you travel further out, Semmelweiss University and ‘the offices’. It seems like new buildings go up overnight. What makes it though, is the trees. Standing to attention on either side of the road, like a guard of honour resplendent in their green uniforms, they are truly magnificent. And that particular evening, they smelled of home.

Tonight, the lovely MI, who has introduced me to so much here in Budapest, introduced me to Kosztolányi . We had been talking about the trees. Yes, I am home.

The yellowed fields are withering, trees of Ulloi út
My moods like suns of autumn sink;
soughing and slowly blows the wind
and kilts the past spring’s root.

O where, 0 where does fly the youth?
You sad leaved trees, 0 tell the truth,
trees of Ulloi út

 For more on Üllői út, see my recent article in the Budapest Times

Updated 14 May 2011 : I walked up from Kalvin tér today, along Üllői út and for the first time noticed this plaque to the great man himself. It surprised me. I’ve walked that street many times and I wonder why I’ve never noticed it before. And why today? Perhaps because I’ve finished reading a collection of his stories? Perhaps because I was looking up and around instead of down at the street? Perhaps because I’d stopped, just then, to let someone by. For whatever reason, it was nice to see and nicer still to see that Üllői út can still surprise me.

Bedroom: If it were a shoe…

img_1635If it were a shoe, it’d be a Manolo Blahnik. But it’s not. It’s a writing desk that is doing a wonderful job as a bedside table. Ok, so I have to reach a little, but it works. Such extravagance. I know. I know. But when squeezing your size sevens (nines to my American friends) into an MB is nigh on impossible, and the classic Hepburn cast-offs wouldn’t even cover a shoulder, then a girl has to get her glam somehow.

It’s very decorative. It’s very chintzy. It’s embellished to within an inch of its life. It practically shimmers in the sunlight. There’s a tiny piece of new wood inserted in the front right leg, but I can forgive that slight imperfection. It’s a little like the filling I got last week when I noticed a rather sizable chip in my front tooth – I know it’s there but you’d be hard pushed to see it. In a month’s time, I won’t even notice that little, tiny piece of new wood. I won’t. I won’t.

And yes, I know from the comments you’ve made that some of you still aren’t sold on the glitzy floor lamp so I can only guess what you’ll think of this. But please, just for a minute, suspend your distaste and look at them both together. Aren’t they a match made in heaven? And for those of you thinking ‘boudoir above the saloon’ , get thee out of Dawson City!

img_16342The devil is in the detail and if you look closely, you’ll see a couple of Ajka crystal votives in a classic amber doubling as bookends. If I had all the money in the world, I’d have an Ajka chandelier hanging from every ceiling. Right now, I have to content myself with champagne flutes and candle holders (both thanks to the gracious MC who has exquisite taste). Unfortunately, it looks as if Ajka is in trouble… is nothing sacred?

Living room: The elusive könyvszekrény

img_1633While the rest of you have been getting on with your lives,  I’ve been searching in vain for a suitable bookcase (könyvszekrény) to house the books that MN shipped to me from Ireland. And after some months of brief dalliances and short-lived affairs, I was about to give up hope of ever finding one that would simply jump out at me and scream ‘take me home’. Not that I wanted a screaming könyvszekrény… a loud whisper would have done the trick just as well.

That’s not to say I didn’t meet some wonderful specimens in my travels. I did. There was the lovely tall, reddish, shiney beidermeir wannabe who had style, admittedly. And it had height – always a plus in my book. But it was just that little bit too polished for my liking. It was trying that little bit too hard to be just what I wanted. There is something very off-putting about too much class. It can make you feel a tad inferior (if, of course, you’re one of those poor unfortunates who suffer from brief moments of self-doubt).

Then there was the matching pair of rustics… old wardrobes cut down to make bookshelves. Workable, reliable, and easy on the eye but they lacked excitement. They had no get up and go. Not that you’d want a bookcase that got up and went but still, they didn’t do it for me either. They were the right price, the right height, the right width, the right colour; on paper they were perfect but there was no chemistry.  We would have bored of each other quite quickly. Long winter evenings with nothing to talk about, nothing to say.

I thought I’d cracked it last week when I came across one fronted by the trademark black wooden pillars of an earlier beidermeir period. Tall, thin, classic looking, a tad more expensive than I’d bargained for, it had an air of mystery about it. Something that begged you to ask it more. It had an allure, an intelligence. It stood awash in a quiet certitude of  experience and dignity, turning its dark corner of the basement into a little oasis of light and calm. It nearly had me. I’m a sucker for good breeding. I’ve noticed though that I can convince myself of just about anything. I’m my own best listener. I can spin myself a tale and make myself believe whatever I want to believe about whomever or whatever. And that can be dangerous. So although that particular piece ticked all the right boxes, there was something a little too convenient about it… and that little something fed into what I felt was a growing, if quiet sense of desperation. I was in need of a könyvszekrény.

And then, totally by accident, completely unexpectedly, on my way to the register to put my name on the classic, black-pillared specimen, having resigned myself to something I swore I’d never do (i.e., settle for less than I deserved), JFW pointed out another. And it was love at first sight. It wasn’t that youthful heart-racing, sweaty-palmed, knock-kneed sort of lust, but a more mature, dignified acceptance of fate. We were meant to be. It had legs. It stood high, tall, and proud. Its mismatched glass doors radiated character – one side bevelled, the other plain – ying and yang. It was just the right shade of confident and had that well-travelled look about it. This baby would tell some tales. It had class – the right sort of class. It looked good, spoke volumes, and could definitely hold its own with the Art Deco table, the china cabinet, and the chobi rug. This was a keeper.

It moved in on Saturday and we’ve been getting to know each other slowly. I like to think it’s as happy as I am with the living arrangements. And so what if the bottom drawer doesn’t close because the lock is locked in the open position and the key is missing – its imperfections make it even more charming. And, I don’t think I’ll be changing the glass anytime soon either. Different is good. Conventional is boring. And that little edge of never quite knowing how it will reflect my image of myself as I pass by makes life interesting.

Living in the ghetto

img_15871It’s only now the penny has dropped. When I first started talking about moving to Budapest, one recurrent theme in the advice offered by soon-to-be-friends and those more experienced in the BP property trade, was ‘don’t buy in the 8th district’. Lord knows I heard it often enough for it to sink in. And I was sure it had.

Last week, the lovely MI invited me to dinner and asked me where I’d like to go. I wanted to stay local – I am conscious that most of my socialising is done over in the 6th and if I’m to lend any credence to my localism advocacy, I need to start patronising some back-street hostelries closer to home. We set off from the flat and instead of following my usual route up Ulloi út  to the Korut, we turned right into what seemed to be one massive construction site. img_1625

While picking our way through bricks and mortar, breathing in the heady fumes of fresh concrete, I was struck by the incongruity of it all. It reminded me so much of when they first started ‘rebuilding’ inner city Dublin. Lots and lots and lots of new buildings going up, with lots of old ones having been demolished.

The restaurant, on Náp utca, doesn’t believe in advertising itself. On my own, I’d have walked past it. Inside it was dressed to kill. Yet we were the only diners. Friday night. Just us. In the ghetto. The 8th district.

We had drinks in the courtyard (udvár) and it felt slightly peculiar to be sipping on a rather nice Villanyi Rosé while the neighbours in the flats above the restaurant sat on their balconies, enjoying a cigarette and an after-work cocktail, while looking down on us from on high.

While walking through the same area the next afternoon, what got me most was the juxtapositioning of old and new and I wondered, for the fifty-millionth time, where the planners were!!!!!! When I was searching for my flat, HM knew not to even show one if I could look out any window and see a new build. Even though I lean more towards tradition than modernity,  I like modern architecture. I can appreciate good design. I don’t think we need to replace like with like in a vain attempt to make time stand still. I do img_1616believe, though, that there’s a very fine line between tat and taste. And when it comes to designing a new building that will sit admist those long established, just a tiny bit of thought would make all the difference.  

I am sure that of the new builds in BP have been pilfered from the Costa dels – monstrosities in shape and form, painted in colours that look wonderfully chic on Burano but gaudy in the Budapest sun. img_1617

Irish journalist Peter Murphy (think  Damien Lewis with a pen), wrote an excellent article for the Budapest Sun recently – Where the names have no streets. It will tell you more about the 8th that I ever could.

In the meantime, life is good and all is well. The search for furniture continues. I’ve finally posted a picture of  the piece that made my heart stop and I have added a rather quaint 1920’s stool and some really lovely etchings to my collection (still to be blogged). In the meantime, I’m weighing up to forints to see which way to go with my bookcase.  Decisions, decisions.