Golden hour in Belgrade

I remember as a child being confused by beauty and attractiveness. I’d stumbled upon the world of Mills and Boon while staying with an aunt one year, and all the female characters were either beautiful or attractive but nothing in the text explained the difference. So I asked my mother. She told me that when a woman is beautiful, people look at her and see that beauty. It’s obvious. When a woman is attractive, people look, and then look a second time, and a third time, because they know they’ve missed something. They are fascinated by what they see and yet can’t quite put their finger on what it is that is so appealing. For me, Budapest is beautiful; Belgrade is attractive.

Photographers talk of the golden hour – that last hour before sunset or that first of light in the morning – where photos take on a magic of their own. I’d just had a conversation in the office with NK and was determined to find that time – to see for myself what actually happened. So I took my camera and headed up to the Kalemegdan Fortress. Serbian author Momo Kapor (who died earlier this year) reckoned that viewed from the water, from where the Sava enters the Danube, Belgrade resembles a ship – and its stony prow – Kalemegdan Fortress – cuts the waves of these two rivers.

 

Where the Danube and the Sava meet

For centuries, Belgrade’s people lived inside the Fortress walls.   Legend has it that Attila the Hun’s grave lies under the Fortress where the two rivers meet.  The name Belgrade (or Beograd, in Serbian),  means a ‘white fortress’. Apparently,  Hungarian King, Béla I, gave the fortress to Serbia in the eleventh century as a wedding gift (his son married Serbian princess Jelena). Much of its history though is rooted in the Ottoman Empire. The name Kalemegdan derives from two Turkish words, kale (fortress) and meydan (battleground) (literally, ‘battlefield fortress’). With such a varied pedigree, it’s little wonder that it hosts the Belgrade Race Through History, an annual 6 km footrace; one way of highlighting the history and culture of the area.

Much of the Fortress is now a city park. And despite its size, it’s very homely – something I don’t get from Varos Liget in Budapest.  People walking dogs, reading, running, chatting, smoking, singing – almost every available bench taken. It’s like a massive, open-air community centre. I didn’t spot many tourists – most of those there seemed to be local: young and old alike, joking, laughing, each one enjoying that magical hour after work or study, before going home to whatever awaited them.

I still haven’t quite figured out what so intrigues me about Belgrade – but I’m sure it’ll be an interesting journey.

The right to be undistinguished

Most countries have one capital city. Lithuania has had four. Vilnius is the modern-day capital. Perched on the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site (and, although I spent some days there recently, it wasn’t until the taxi ride to the airport that I found what I’d been looking for). Back between the two World wars, Kaunas, with its 1.7km long pedestrian street running east to west was the capital while the emerging state was seeking international recognition. Before this, it was Trakai, located between Vilnius and Kaunas, and before that, the first capital city, Kernave, is now also a world heritage site. Today’s Vilnius is a heady mix of old and new. It’s a strange city, one that unsettled me in ways I still can’t fathom.

Much of Vilnius is hidden. Old walls hidden behind new plaster. Houses, flats, and garden hidden behind street-facing buildings. It seems as if there’s another layer to it that you’re not supposed to see. Downtown, the oldtown, is full of amber shops. But no-one seems in the slightest bit interested in selling you anything. I tried five – telling them I was looking for a big green amber ring – and I may as well have been asking for a piece of the moon. And it’s not as if it was a language issue. Speaking English seems to be a prerequisite for a job in that part of town.

Vilnius is home to many magnificent buildings, mostly churches. I had a feast day with my ‘three wishes’ thing. This one, St Anne’s, took almost a century to build and was finished in 1581. The facade is made up of bricks in 33 different shapes. Apparently, Napoleon wanted to carry the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand when he first saw it during the Franco-Russian war of 1812. He must have had a big hand, that man.

I wandered in the direction of what I thought was the old town. Along a side street, I came across copies of the alternative Lithuanian constitution in many different languages, including English. Perhaps that, more than anything, gave me an insight into the mentality of the city. 8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown. 5. Everyone has the right to be unique. 12. A dog has the right to be a dog. Other alleyways had been commandeered as art spaces where teapots and rubber tyres were put to good use.

When walking the streets of Vilnius, it’s important to make like a periscope. Stop and look around. Look up and down. Take the time to look into nooks and crannies, to walk down lanes and through gateways as you simply never know what you will find.

It’s an old city, with a recent past. A visit to the genocide museum was quite surreal. The guide, a young attractive girl with good English mixed up her tenses and spoke of how unfortunate it was for the prisoners as ‘we like to torture’. This inadvertent use of the present tense made me wonder how much actually has been relegated to the past. A report from a commission formed in the KGB prison a few days after the arrest of the head of the partisans in 1956 noted ‘ the right eye is covered with a haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball.’ That the Lithuanians fought and fought hard for their freedom cannot be doubted. As recently as 1972, Romas Kalanta, a member of the student resistance, set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet system  and conformist society. I was only six then.. but it was still in my lifetime. I’m now 44 and I can’t think of any cause I’d willingly set myself alight for.

Perhaps what unsettled me most about Vilnius was the fact that I was so ignorant of its history, of its fight for freedom, a freedom I have taken for granted. The Lithuanian armed anti-Soviet resistance of 1944-1953 was one of the biggest and longest guerrilla wars in Europe in the 20th century. The last resistance fighter refused to surrender and shot himself in 1965, the year before I was born. The last hiding partisan came out of his hide-out in 1986, when I was 20.

The two keepsakes I brought back from Vilnius both broke en route. I am superstitious. And I’m wondering what that says….

To smell or not to smell

Like most sentient beings, I react immediately to smell. I associate smells with people and places. As I child, I could tell when a particular great-aunt had come to visit long before I saw her. The musk she wore both signalled her coming and lingered long after she had left.  As I was growing up, the neighbouring farmer, even starched to within an inch of his life in his Sunday best, always smelled of cow manure and boiled bacon. The mix of pipe tobacco and whiskey belonged as much to the old men of my childhood as the smell of lavender oil and cigarettes belonged to old women.

Driving from Dublin airport down to see my parents in the summer, I can pinpoint where I am and how far I’ve travelled by the smell. The heady mix of chocolate and potato crisps as I cross North Dublin; the bittersweet tang of hops from the Guinness brewery as I drive up the quays; and that clinging aroma of freshly cut silage as conurbation gives way to countryside and I get closer to home. But smells are omnipresent. The merest hint of fresh garlic or lemon soap finds me in France. A whiff of basil or parmesan cheese and I come over all Italian. The scent of salt water tinged with plumeria takes me to Hawaii, while that same salt water with a hint of coconut sends me to Spain. The glorious smell of freshly chopped cilantro conjures up images of Mexico just as quickly as the waft of freshly cooked lángos tells me I’m back in Budapest.

Pungent promises

The smell of something can transport us back in time and temporarily suspend reality, or catapult us into the future full of expectation. So much of the pleasure we get from eating starts with the aroma of fresh bread, sautéed onions, and roasted meats. So much of the pleasure we get from our gardens comes from the fragrance of freshly cut grass, cherry blossoms, and roses in full bloom. So much of the displeasure we get from progress comes from the pong of exhaust fumes, polluted rivers, and chimney stacks. Why then can we never seem to smell ourselves? This has to be one of the greatest mysteries known to man.

Back in the day, long before progress jammed us all into metal boxes on tracks and wheels and ferried us to work to spend our days in air-conditioned cubicles, the smell of fresh sweat, the perfume of cowboys and construction workers, was regarded as a signature of hard work and manly labour. Back then, when perfumes and colognes were saved for state occasions and holidays, we took the time to check. We were masters at masking a quick sniff of the armpit; experts at exhaling into a cupped hand; and connoisseurs when it came to frustrating our own flatulence.

Sweat sensations

(c) Alexandra Owen (Tanzania 2011)

On my first hunting trip in Alaska, I was told to always stand upwind so that the moose wouldn’t catch my scent. Good advice. In Alaska. But what do you do when you’re trapped on the No. 7E between Blaha and Keleti, sandwiched between an armpit and a foul mouth? Or worse still, bellied up to the bar with someone on a diet of Iron Bru and garlic who hasn’t seen the dentist in a while? More and more often, I let my ear take the brunt of bad breath by feigning deafness.

Maybe I missed that article in the tabloids about a sharp increase in halitosis and diaphoresis in 2010,  but I don’t think I did. There are those who genuinely suffer from these conditions and my sympathies lie with them yet those who have legitimate complaints are very much aware of their condition. It is the vast majority who cannot blame their lack of personal hygiene on a medical condition that bemuse me.

More than a hundred years ago, American author Elbert Hubbard  defined perfume as any smell used to drown a worse one. How little things have changed. Spraying deodrant or perfume or colonge on an unwashed body is about as effective as trying to collect water in a collander. It simply doesn’t work. If, as I firmly believe, we cannot smell ourselves, then we need to rely on our friends and family or even complete strangers to set us straight. But we think it rude to point out the obvious and instead suffer in silence, distancing ourselves from them, cutting conversaton short. And so we become complicit in the great unwashed. Perhaps it goes deeper than I’ve imagined. To tell or not to tell….that is really the question.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 october 2010

Bamboozled into buying a bottle

Reactions to an interview on national television with Irish bottled-water pioneers Ballygowan in the 1980s resounded with exclamations of incredulity. Just who in their right mind would pay for a bottle of water? Who, in a country boasting a tax rate of 56%, would be so stupid as to hand over their hard-earned money for a water you could get for free from a well?  A ludicrous notion, indeed. So what if our French friends were squandering their francs on Perrier and Evian (try spelling Evian backwards….)? So what if our Italian soul mates were glugging down their lire in the form of Fiuggi or San Pellegrino? The Irish would never fall for that lark. But we did. And people the world over fell for it, too.

Now, thirty years later, we have backed ourselves into a corner. We have created a nightmare whereby we have far too many choices. We can choose between Australia’s Tasmanian Rain, Belgium’s Chaudfontaine, and Croatia’s Jana. We can choose between still and sparkling. We can choose between glass and plastic. And we can also choose to pay for water or do without.

Thwarted by a tap

Trying to get plain old tap water these days is like trying to get blood from a particularly insipid turnip. In Lithuania last week, I was the only one at a table of six who managed to persuade the waiter to give me a glass of tap water. I was playing the environmental card: saying no to plastic; saying no to an ever-increasing carbon footprint; saying no the sheer ridiculousness of paying for water. Here in Budapest, my pleas for csapvíz are growing more strident. What started off as a simple request, morphed into a plaintive cry and is now on the edge of becoming a frustrated hysteric.

If the tap water is bad, if it is undrinkable, then yes, I will pay for bottled water. But even then I have certain expectations. I read somewhere lately that new discoveries in astrophysics suggest that water is not native to Earth but rather was imported from the edges of our solar system as ice trapped in comets. The first ‘delivery’ is estimated to have happened more than four billion years ago. So while ‘importing’ water is not exactly a new phenomenon, I still want my bottled water to have been bottled locally…if not in the same city then at least in the same country. I simply cannot get my head around people buying water in a bottle that has been flown half-way around the world for their drinking pleasure. We’re not talking vintage port here, people…it’s water! Or is it?

Swizzled by a spring

In his book, Fine waters, Michael Mascha points out that water is actually not water. At least the premium stuff isn’t. It’s like wine. It has terroir and it is a natural product that originates from a particular place with unique properties. Perhaps the debate about plastic or glass might be the equivalent of the furore around screw tops or corks. While you might serve your champagne at a refreshing 6°C, the optimal temperature for serving sparkling water is 13°C. Forget your pinot gris, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. When it comes to water, we’re talking spring, artesian, well, and glacier. Remove the young, dry, sweet, mature and full-bodied adjectives and replace with still, effervescent, light, classic, and bold. And when at a water tasting (you wouldn’t believe me if I told you of the images this conjures up), remember to replace aromatic, balanced, crisp, and fleshy, with short, long, focused or wide. When, oh when, did we get so pretentious? When did a glass of water become more than a glass of water? When exactly did we start to forsake the faucet?

So while a large portion of the population pays for the privilege of drinking bottled water, I’m drawing the line at paying for tap water! Unless, of course, it’s for a good cause. UNICEF started the Tap Project in New York back in 2007. Participating restaurants ask their customers to pay $1 or more for water they usually get for free. Just €1 is enough to provide clean drinking water for a child for 40 days. According to UNICEF figures, waterborne illness is the second leading cause of death for children under five years of age; over 900 million people lack access to clean water. If you own a restaurant in Budapest and you’re reading this… why not try doing something similar here next year. World Water Week is 20–26 March 2011. You’ve plenty of time to get organised. In the meantime, I’ll go back to practising my Hungarian – maybe pohar hideg víz might do the trick.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 September 2010

Give a little – get a lot

Let the investment bankers amongst you weep! Last week, in Malta, I put €10 in the collection plate – it was a special collection for environmental refugees. Not ten minutes later, walking up the street after mass, I spotted €20 in the corner of a step, nestling amidst the remnants of Satuday night’s partying. What a return, eh? You give, you get, someone said, when I told them of my good fortune. And that got me thinking…

Way back when, before the industrial revolution, before money became our god, and urbanisation made strangers of us all, volunteering was second nature. We gave – we gave of our time, our skills, our energy. We shared – we shared our food, our homes, our experiences.  Clothes were passed on, tools were borrowed, and lives were intertwined. Whole communities survived with the helping hands of neighbours. Harvests were brought in, homes were built, roads were repaired, children were minded, the sick were cared for – we looked out for each other.

Volunteerism stakes a place

In 1920, shortly after WWI, a group of Austrian, English, French, German, and Swiss volunteers – some of whom had fought on opposite sides in the War – began to rebuild a village near Verdun.  And thus the first modern volunteer movement was born: the French Service Civil International (SCI). Many more followed and soon volunteering was once again playing a significant part in contemporary life. Organisations like the US Peace Corps, or Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offered great opportunities for going abroad to ‘help out’. In Ireland, growing up, we talked of ‘going on the missions’ – not in a religious context – but to help out in Africa. There were bake sales and book sales, poker classics and whist drives, table quizzes and raffles, with all proceeds going to someone’s sister or brother, uncle or aunt, who was out on the missions, volunteering.

Those who stayed at home were involved in youth clubs and Scout groups. They volunteered at the hospice and the hospital, the children’s home and the old folk’s home. They coached football, taught adult literacy, got involved in home-help scheme and respite programmes.  The community pulled together and worked as one. We may not have been as well off materially, but in other, far more important ways, we were rich beyond measure.

Commercialism creeps in

One night, as we were all sleeping the sleep of the just, commercialism crept in. Suddenly those 12-month voluntary posts overseas were reserved for professionals – for doctors, nurses, nutritionists, engineers and the like. The rest of us, although willing to serve our time for the betterment of mankind and, if truth be told, for the betterment of ourselves, were asked to pay for the experience. Up front. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem at all with paying my way to get to wherever, but to pay to stay there and volunteer? There is something not quite right with that picture.

At home, governments began to regulate every ounce of community spirit out of us. With restrictive health and safety regulations, background checks, and a leporine multiplication of forms to be filled to hold any position in a voluntary capacity, suddenly volunteering simply wasn’t worth the effort. But hey, all was not lost. We had money. We could help out by donating cold hard cash instead of our time, skills, and experience. Not quite the same admittedly, but if we had a conscience to salve, then cash was the balm to hand.

But gradually, once again, this avenue, too, became the stomping ground of the professionals – this time, the professional money-makers: those who could afford to shell out big bucks for charity dinners; who could afford to bid extravagantly at charity auctions; who had the wherewithal to be charitable.

But what of the rest of us? Where do we fit?

Pessimism postponed

Much an all as I enjoy living in Budapest, I miss that sense of community. That sense of knowing I’m contributing to making my city a better place. That sense of giving. That sense of belonging that only really comes when you’re actively contributing to where you live. So if your Hungarian is as abysmal as mine, and you’re not in a position to pull up a chair to the charity fundraising table, what options are there to volunteer, to help out? The British Women’s Association requires you to have a British passport. The North American Women’s Association is for women from North America. The International Women’s Association, well you have to be female. But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is working to reignite that community spirit here in Budapest by supporting people in their fund-raising activities, not matter how small, and by identifiying opportunities for all of us to donate our time and skills to community-based projects rather than just our money.

A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.

Rudolf Steiner, Austrian philosopher and scientist

First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2010


Walking amongst the dead in Zagreb

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I have what some might call a morbid fascination with cemeteries. And prisons.  I often wonder if I somehow see the two related. While others wander through the art galleries and museums of this world, I spend my time in graveyards reading epitaphs wondering about the lives of those who’ve gone before me and those they’ve left behind. Dean Martin’s tombstone reads: Everybody loves somebody sometime. Bette Davis’s: She did it the hard way. But my favourite has to be Spike Milligan’s: Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill). Way back in the good old days of the Wild West, when death was completely random and a sense of humour prevailed to the last, some classic epitaphs can still be found. Lawyer John E. Goembel: The defense rests. Auctioneer Jedediah Goodwin : Going, going, gone.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I’ve often wondered at a particular choice of gravestone and have given some consideration to what I’d like mine to be and what I’d like it to say – if I’m not cremated. I’m undecided.

It was in Macugnaga, in the Italian Alps, that  I first saw a photograph encased in glass on a gravestone. I thought it rather strange that someone would want their photo displayed, but as I walked around the small cemetery, the idea grew on me. It was like visiting a place where people, though dead, were still very much alive in spirit…you could put a face to the bones buried beneath.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

In Warsaw some years later, in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, I was struck by the notion of adding a person’s occupation the gravestone – but is this so strange? In life, some of us become our profession and lose sight of who we are as people, so why not carry this identity with us and go the grave proclaiming what we were.

In a Russian Orthodox graveyard in Eklutna, Alaska, each grave has a spirit house, built as a new home for the soul of the deceased. In Manchester, UK, some Irish traveller families have erected huge, gigantic marble monstrosities that seem be in some strange posthumous competition with each other – keeping up with the Joneses well after all the Joneses are dead.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

Until a recent visit to Zagreb, I’d never been to a non-denominational cemetery  – or at least, I am not aware of ever having been in one. The cemeteries with which I am familiar tend to be strictly segregated – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Russian Orthodox. The idea of mixing religions in death strikes me as ironic considering the trouble various religions have living side by side.  Mirogoj cemetry has been very much inclusive since it first opened its gates in 1876. The work of Hermann Bollé, it’s a beautiful spot, with a series of ivy-clad cupola’d arcades running along the inside walls. It’s home to Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, communist Partisans and the German dead from WW2. Crescent moons, Jewish stars, and RC crosses adorn the gravestones. Rows and rows of grave-lined paths diverge from the main gate. There’s a computer kiosk where you can key in the name of the person you are looking for and it’ll tell you where go to. Without this, it would be practically impossible, or, take days to find it for yourself.A couple of years go, on Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland, I visited a famine graveyard. Simple, overgrown, and wild, it was a stark reminder of an Ireland that is in danger of being forgotten.  A story book of life and death, a living testimonyof times gone by. In South Africa earlier this year, I stumbled across a cemetry from the Boer War. I’d never realised how many nations were involved in this particular fight. But it too, like the famine, seems so very long ago. Mirogoj cemetery is different. It is home to row after row of men my age who died in the Yugoslav wars. My age. My age. In another life they might have been my brother, my husband, my best friend. And while they were dying for the promise of a better tomorrow, I was living in Alaska, in my own little world, completely unaware of what was going on Europe. We speak of living in a global village but in truth, we are worlds apart. Einstein nailed it when he said: the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.

Seven islands in the Med

No. I couldn’t have heard him correctly. A history spanning 7000 years? Malta? It seems like just a couple of years ago that I first heard of the place. Could it be that old? So I checked. And the guide was right. Malta was first settled in 5200 BC. So then I checked Ireland. It was first settled in 8000 BC. Conclusion: I have no clue about history and even less about geography. How sad is that?

St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta

Some trivia for you: Malta is a group of seven islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Only the three largest are inhabited:  Malta, Gozo, and Comino. They stand on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa to Sicily (which is about 100 km north – you can get there by hovercraft and it’s high on my list of things to do). The islands were once submerged and the bones of elephants and hippopotami have been found in caverns along the coast. Phoenicians, Cathaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Normans all came and stayed awhile before the King of Spain gave it to the Knights Hospitaller of St John in 1530. Verdi’s opera Sicilian Vespers immortalised the 1283 naval battle of the same name, a battle that ended French/Norman control of Sicily and the Maltese Islands. The Turks made a bid for the islands in 1565 but the Knights saw them off. In 1607, a young painter by the name of Michaelangelo Merisi was vested as official painter of the Knights of St John – you might know him as Caravaggio. Two of his greatest works – St Jerome writing and The beheading of John the Baptist still hang in the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valetta. There’s another new one for me: co-cathedral. The Bishop of Malta had his cathedral in Mdina; the Knights had theirs in Valetta. In 1820, the Knights allowed the Bishop (was chess invented in Malta???) to use their cathedral as an alternative see – hence the ‘co’ in co-cathedral.

Napoleon stopped by in 1798 on his way to Egypt but didn’t get a great reception. When he was refused water, he sent in the troops and the Grand Master capitulated. He stayed only a few days but spent his time pilfering anything worth taking. Before he left, he established an administration to run the place in his absence. During his tenure, he freed 2000 muslim slaves and established a liberal lay system to replace the existing feudal one.  The locals welcomed the French… for a while… but when they started closing convents and seizing church treasures, a line was drawn. They asked the British for help and Nelson arrived, blockaded the place, and in 1800 the French surrendered.

Malta then voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but sort of forgot to leave. Although small in size and not initially given much importance, Malta’s harbours soon became a jewel in the Empire’s crown, headquarters to the British Mediterranean fleet. While Home Rule effectively started in Ireland in 1870 (but it was a long and arduous process), the Maltese had to wait until 1921 (interestingly, the same year as Northern Ireland).  Malta got its independence in 1964 and joined the EU in 2004.

Before the British arrived, the Maltese spoke Italian and had done so since 1530. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the official languages. On 21st September 1964 Maltese officially became the national language of Malta, although English and Italian are also spoken. Their accent is unique and a joy to listen to. Now that I have my head around the 7000 years, and have overcome my shame at being so ignorant, I’m looking forward to seeing a little more of these seven islands in the Med with Air Malta.

 

Light from a big sky

Late afternoon. April. South Africa. The sun starts to set and this particular part of the world is bathed in a godly light. Cecile B. de Mille comes to mind. The clouds move, slowly changing shape, as if an invisible choreographer is directing them across the sky. The same ingredients: sun, clouds, sky and yet no two afternoon skies are the same. As we travel back to camp, we meet our neighbours. Tired from a day foraging for food, they laze around in the evening sun. We pass a baboon, engrossed in picking fleas from his mate’s tail. Focused on the task at hand and paying no attention to our kombi. We may as well be invisible. The sunlight catches him just so and adds a reddish tinge to his coat and dresses him for an evening at home with the family.

We turn a corner and see a lioness, stretched out on the side of the road, enjoying what’s left of the heat of the day. She radiates pure gold and seems so placid, so tame. On guard, protecting the cubs I know are nearby, she appears so approachable. And yet I know that if I reach towards her, that will change. In a flash. All the godly light in the world won’t change the fact that she is wild – not wild in her world, wild in mine.

A zebra, black and white in the noon-day light, turns biscuit brown as he grazes beneath the lowering sun. Yet another trick of nature as all its forces work together to change the shape of things as we see them. To show us that nothing stays the same, not even for a little while. Things are constantly changing, however minutely. How we see things depends a lot on when we look. Nothing is certain.

The silhouettes of dead trees stand still against the sky, blacked out by the sun. As the French artist George Rouault so insightfully said: A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human. It’s like being at a private screening of evolving art; a gallery open to the world but empty now, save for the four of us and nature.

It is at dawn and at dusk when the true magnificance of the bush comes to be. It is during these quiet transitions between time that I am most a peace, suspended in world where nothing matters but the now. And a tiny piece of me wishes I could stay.

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Putting the foot back into footpath

The word ‘footpath’ can be traced as far back as 1425. Unlike the term ‘babysitter’, footpath is pretty much self-explanatory. In essence, it’s a path for those going on foot, or as the Collins English Dictionary so eloquently puts it:  a narrow path for walkers only. Simple. Uncomplicated. Footpaths are not bicycle paths. Cycling is not walking. Cyclists, unless they’re pushing their bicycles, are not travelling on foot. Ergo, cycling cyclists do not belong on footpaths. Could it be any simpler?

The prologue

As cyclists across the city rise up on their pedals at my exclusionary language, let me offer two words: Margit hid. Currently under reconstruction and likely to be that way for the foreseeable future, pedestrian traffic across Margit hid is restricted to one footpath. Traffic is two-way. Four thin people can walk abreast but more often than not, pedestrian traffic is reduced to single file from both directions as people of various shapes and sizes navigate the narrow walkway. It’s like walking a gauntlet. Walkers adjust their pace to strollers. Runners stop running. With a couple of polite interjections and seizing up the flow of oncoming traffic, those on foot dodge their way across without doing any damage. But ignoring the large posted signs advising them to dismount and walk their charges across the water, a sizeable number of cyclists still insist on cycling. On my latest venture to the Island, I counted eight bikers biking and just one pushing. It’s inconsiderate, unnecessary, and downright dangerous. Tempers are fraying. Unrest is brewing. Pedestrians are pissed off.

Act I: Scene I

Last week on Margit hid: Cyclist, weaving his way in and out through the thread of people crossing the bridge, runs his handlebars into the ribs of a pedestrian. It hurts. Pedestrian says so. Cyclist shrugs, apparently not at all bothered, and makes to continue on his way. Pedestrian, a regular bridge user and victim of other near misses since reconstruction began, grabs cyclist by the wrist and asks him to dismount. Argument ensues. Cyclist dismounts. Pedestrian walks on. A woman coming from the opposite direction gesticulates wildly at pedestrian – something is happening behind him. He turns to see a kryptonite bicycle lock bearing down on him. Pedestrian grabs cyclist by the wrist. And on it goes, around in circles.  But it’s not just Margit hid. Szabadság hid staged similar scenes when it was under reconstruction, and can now be found on many of our city’s footpaths.

Act I: Scene II

In our carbon-challenged world, everything possible should be done to encourage people out of their cars and onto their bikes (or their feet). I’m all for cycling and the health benefits it entails, even if the health benefits of cycling in the shadow of exhaust plumes are a little dubious. Cyclists are in a Darwinian contest for survival with motorists. They’ve been hard done by. They take their lives in their hands every time they shove off.  Last week on Kiraly utca:  Inconsiderate driver opens his car door without checking his mirror and knocks cyclist off his bike. Driver gets out and checks on cyclist. Cyclist writhes in agony. Driver pulls out mobile and calls for help. Aggression is notably absent. Interesting hierarchy.

Budapest has 170 km of pathways for bicyclists, which includes cycling paths, cycling lanes, and side streets designated as suitable for cycling. This is targeted to increase to 300 km by 2015. And although I’m sure that it’s nowhere near enough, that’s what we have to work with. I can empathise with the frustration of having pedestrians walking along designated cycle paths. I’ve been blown out of it by cyclists on more than one occasion when I’ve failed to realise that I was walking between the painted red lines, and deservedly so. That’s their space. And as a pedestrian, I have no business being in it, unless it’s an emergency (a little like using the men’s loo).

The reviews

At various stages in my life, I’ve played all three roles: the motorist, the cyclist, and the pedestrian. I know that if you put all three actors in a room for an hour they’d have no trouble trading accusations and recriminations. And key to each diatribe would be the word ‘consideration’. Inconsiderate drivers pull out without looking and knock down cyclists; inconsiderate cyclists break red lights and knock down pedestrians; inconsiderate pedestrians stray into cycle paths, and force cyclists to ring their bells. Three actors each playing a part in what is becoming an increasingly aggressive street performance where one plot-line might read: cyclist, feeling victimised by motorist, turns on pedestrian.

Were I directing this particular play, the last line would be an impassioned plea to cyclists: get off your bikes and walk the bridge…and give me back my footpath.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 August 2010


All eyes on me

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa recently, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm). Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chamelon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of waterbuck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves.Whether their stripes are for camoflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.

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