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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Playing with the elephants

A number of years ago, while sitting in her house in Slough, the indomitable EK promised that some day, she’d take me to play with the elephants. I have to admit, the very words ‘play with the elephants’ conjured up all sorts of wild imaginings. Elephants wielding baseball bats in their trunks. Elephants playing football. Elephants doing the 100-yard dash.  Being South African, EK often paints her thoughts with words, a refreshing change from the formulaic descriptives used this side of the world. But playing with the elephants??? No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get a handle on what she meant.

And then I went with her to Kruger.Now, some less fortunate people go to Kruger on tour. With guides. In groups. I was extremely lucky to have three personal, professional and very entertaining guides in EK and the Springbok Kids (sounds like a band, doesn’t it…and yes, believe me, they sing and bring a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘captive audience’). Between them, they’ve more than 100 years of elephant play time under their oxters and I knew I was in good hands. Being slightly anal, I refused to believe that elephants could hide. They’re massive. How could they disappear behind a tree? But disappear they do. One minute they’re there. The next, gone!

We left the camp each morning between 6 and 7am and motored around all day, stopping for breakfast and lunch. You can only get out of your vehicle at designated rest areas or occassionally, in the middle of a long bridge. The animals see vehicles as just another beast – on four wheels rather than four legs,  rarely venturing off the road. Tame enough. No threat. That first evening, on our way back to camp, we hit on a herd of elephants playing in a river. It was gobsmacking – awe inspiring – to see these massive creatures frolicking around like kids. When they’d had their bath, they wandered up across the road to go home. My more experienced companions were keeping a sharp eye for signs that one of them might charge because despite their bulk, they’re fast! They can travel at 25 mph and at that speed, you wouldn’t want to run into one!

I wondered what animals did all day in the bush. Just eat and sleep and wander around? Perhaps. Only once did I see one doing something approaching work,  using her trunk to move a heavy log – admittedly I had trouble seeing the sense in moving a log from a to b, but then again, working for the sake of working is quite common in human terms, too. But when you consider that a grown elephant needs 300-500 lbs of food each day, finding that food and eating it is a good day’s work in itself.

Close up and personal, even the youngest of them looks old and wrinkled. But they’re happy in their skins. I didn’t see any of them working out or trying to firm up that flab but man, do they have eyelashes to die for – they can grow as long as 2.5 inches, without mascara! I fell in love. For me, elephants are the rugby players of the animal kingdom (am thinking Keith Wood here). Big, strong, bald, great eyes. I could forget about dieting as no matter how big I got; with my elephant beside me, I’d still look tiny.

Typically, they reach puberty at 12-14, have kids up until their 50s, and live to be in their 70s. Quite human. They cry, they laugh, they play. They can look sad, and happy, and bored. They’re the world’s biggest land mammal. They grow to 3-4 metres, weigh 4-7 tonnes (think about 12,000 lbs) and have four toes on their front feet, and three on their back ones. They throw dirt on themselves to protect their skin from the the sun (Lancome, watch out!), and this without the benefits of TV advertising!

Elephants are very family oriented. The herd (of 9-10 animals) is ruled by the strongest female, the matriarch. If a baby is upset, they’ll all hover around and comfort it. But while they take care of their young, watching over them at all times, never letting them stray out of sight, they’re not so tolerant of the young, obnoxious bulls. These are usually kicked out of the house when they hit their teens and hang around in bachelor herds, only going back to the family to mate. (Why does all this sound so familiar?) The older they get, the lonelier they become.  There is something really moving about seeing a lone bull making his way through the bush. His slow, lumbering walk. His big soulful eyes. I couldn’t help but feel for him.

Playing with the elephants turned out to be much more than I’d expected. It was an amazing experience and a humbling one. I’d never quite realised how much of humanity is mirrored in the animal kingdom.

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Brittany: bicycles and bales of hay

In this particular part of France, in Brittany, you’re more likely to pass a bicycle on the road than a car, which somewhat explains the phenomenon that is the Tour de France. It’s incredibly quiet and very, very bucolic. The towns and villages we drive through are like ageing dowagers; you can still see vestiges of their former beauty but the plethora of a vendre signs on shuttered windows tells its own story. Each village is a rainbow of flowering plants: pinks, blues, purples, reds and yellows. Doors and window frames, once painted bright blues and greens, have faded to a more solicitous shade of weather-beaten glory. Rusty hinges and corroded nails, cling solidly to flaking wood. Ivy creeps up the walls, shading window ledges, providing homes for sparrows and starlings. Tall fields of green maize and golden fields of wheat and barley line the narrow country roads. We brake once, as a bushy-tailed fox crosses the road in front of us. He is the only other traffic we meet on our way to La Trinité-Porhoët.

With its thirteenth century Romanesque church whose floor slopes downwards at an angle of about 10 degrees, La Trinité-Porhoët is just one example of towns and villages that somehow have managed to avoid the clutches of twenty-first century consumerism. You can still see the lavoire where women would come to do their laundry, beating theirclothes to cleanliness with stones, winter and summer alike.

Imagine washing your clothes here in winter!

Or Rohan, where the magnificent Abbey of Timadeuc, built in 1841, is now home to some Cistercian monks and quite famous for its cheese. Monday morning mass at the Abbey is concelebrated by 10 priests. Fourteen monks of all ages sit in the stalls, outnumbering the congregation. The granite simplicity and the absence the usual siren of statues so common in other Roman Catholic churches, give the place a peculiarly blessed feel. The acoustics are wonderful. The monks’ chanting echoes under the stone quadripartite vaulted roof. The semicircular arches make it seem longer than it actually is. I lose myself in the timbre of their song and although my Leaving-Cert French hovers tantalisingly in some far off recess of my mind, I don’t need or want to understand what’s being said. The simplicity of it all is simply beautiful.

About an hour outside Rennes (the closest airport to CM’s small holding in Landes Ardennes), the area around Coëtlogon is mainly farmland. The place is remarkable for its lack of people. Fields of freshly cut hay, stacked in round bales, testify to an activity that has obviously taken place but where are all the farm workers? This countryside is like a rural rendition of the Marie Celeste. The only other beings I see are two peacocks, strutting down the road, lord and lady of all that they survey.

If the French do anything well, it’s eating. Lunch in the medieval town of Josselin, home to the Basilique Notre Dame du Roncier, is nothing short of glorious. Although 60 miles from the coast, moules marinieres et frites seem to be the order of the day. I count 108 mussels on my plate and the chips…the chips… I can see now why the French claim ownership of the ubiquitous French fry. For once, I am not driving, so I quite happily enjoy a simple, uncomplicated dry French wine.

Perhaps, a few years ago, France was cheap. No longer. Oh, you can still get a house that needs a bit of work for a fraction of what you’d pay in Ireland, but everything else seems to have moved to level par. €10 for a brioche at the market. €16 for a spit-roasted chicken. €1.35 for a litre of petrol. And with the gap between sterling and the euro closing daily, those who have left Britain for Brittany are finding it harder than expected to make ends meet. Would I live here, so far from the coast, in such unforgiving heat? No. But it’s a lovely place to spend some time and recharge the batteries, mainly because there’s little to do and nothing to distract you from doing it. Perhaps GPs the world over should consider prescribing a week in Brittany as a tonic for those of us stressed and stretched beyond belief by the anxiety of daily living. Unplugged, disconnected and free from that pressing need to ‘do’, it’s the perfect cure for a manic mind.

An orderly queue of one

I am spending an inordinate amount of time lately in airports and on airplanes. This new-found intimacy with all things aviation has also been a voyage of self-discovery. While I’d like to consider myself a bit of a radical, fearless when it comes to speaking out against the norm, I’ve had to face the fact that, actually, I’m a conformist.

Strategic positioning

If I don’t have an assigned seat, I will queue.  I live in fear of being sandwiched between two talkative strangers on a flight that lasts longer than it takes for me to order and drink a gin and tonic. If my flight starts with a bus journey from the gate to the plane, I don’t worry about it. Nine times out of ten, if I’m strategically positioned next to a door opposite the driver, I’m one of the first up those gangway steps. But if we’re talking about direct-access planes and unassigned seating, I’m first in line. Queues, I have discovered, are the personification of civilisation. To each who waits his or her turn, come many rewards: the sure knowledge of where you are in the pecking order; a clear estimate of how long it will take you to reach the desired goal; and a somewhat pathetic sense of accomplishment once your bags are stowed in the last available overhead space. Where else in our manic, twenty-first century lives are we assured of the orderliness afforded by a good queue… the certainty, the cleanliness, the precision?

Mikes Gyorgy, that artful Hungarian writer who so beautifully captures the essence of being English, nailed it when he wrote: Some nations have queuing down to an art form. An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. The English queue; the Americans wait in line. Both nations respect the ritual and pay homage to this embodiment of patience, this physical manifestation of civility.

Was Moses Magyar?

Some Hungarians, on the other hand, seemed to have missed out on this queuing gene. The rest of us mere mortals may patiently stand in line, but not them. Marching straight ahead without so much as a by your leave, they solider through. Elnezest is the golden word… the Hungarian version of ‘Open Sesame’. It’s like watching the parting of the Red Sea and makes me wonder if Moses were Magyar. When this happens at Ferihegy, it goes unremarked; most of those lined up like regimental soldiers have either lived here long enough for this particular phenomenon to have lost its pallor, or are tourists returning home, too knackered to care.

In Dublin Airport on Monday, boarding a flight to Budapest, I saw a couple of stylishly dressed Hungarian queue-jumping women elnezesting their way to the front. Heads held high, they charged ahead, measuring their progress in persons, the bolder of the two carving out a path for her more timid friend to follow. In their wake, they left a legacy of disbelieving frowns and incredulous glances, as their meeker Irish counterparts froze, transfixed by their audacity. Those who had charted their progress from the back of the queue were moved to comment once they themselves had been successfully navigated. Loud declarations that ‘there is a queue, love’ or ‘who the blazes do they think they are?’ reverberated around the waiting area. But our fearless Magyars pressed forward, seemingly oblivious to the caustic comments and the seething anger emanating from dozens of Irish eyes, eyes no longer smiling.

Dress for success

In Rennes airport on Friday, I was queuing patiently in a tunnel outside the terminal building. It was blistering hot. Most of my fellow passengers were either Irish or French. Conditioned as we are to queuing, there wasn’t as much as a murmur of complaint. A well-dressed man of indeterminate age began to weave his way through the line. The worn sheen of his leather suitcase spoke of years of exotic travel. The silk pocket handkerchief peeping from the breast pocket of a beautifully tailored suit shimmered in the sunlight. His gold-rimmed sunglasses reminiscent of the 1950s reflected our collective awe. He was neither a tall man nor a big man but from his immaculate white hair to the tips of his manicured fingernails, he oozed presence. He turned occasionally, beckoning to his companion, urging her to come forward. He quietly side-stepped each one of us, yet we were the ones apologising for standing in his way. As I followed his progress to the top of the line, I noticed that unlike Monday’s Maygars, this man left a trail of bonhomie. There was no acrimony, no resentment. Never once did he say ‘excuse me’. Perhaps Hungary’s one concession to politeness, the elnezest, has outlived its day.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2010

Coffee with culture

Way back in 1674, the Women’s Petition against Coffee sought to prohibit men under 30 drinking the drying, enfeebling liquor. Coffee led men to waste their time, spending their money on a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water. A Prince of Spain once passed a law that men should not repeat the grand kindness to their wives, above nine times a night. Yes, nine times a night! But with the advent of coffee, men apparently were no longer capable of performing those devoirs which their duty and our expectations exact.Coffee, it would appear, far from being the stimulant it is today, actually hampered a man’s performance in bed.

Perhaps, though, it was men’s absence from the marital bed that hindered their performance. Perhaps it was because men chose to spend their time in coffee houses, which as well as places to drink and meet, were sites of political discussion, literary review, and late-night high-brow chat. The Spectator magazine was founded in a coffee house. Lloyds of London began life in one. They were cultural places to plot, discuss, and argue…

Hot gossip and grand designs

Coffee kick starts the day, focuses the mind, and readies the body for action. It witnesses the highs and lows of daily living. It’s party to hot gossip, innermost secrets, vengeful plans, and grand designs. It’s a perfect partner in solitude. The world is put to rights by someone, somewhere, every minute of the day as they take the time to sink into a comfy chair and sip their way to sanity. Is there a nicer way to start the day than with a classic Americano, its dark black sheen in stark contrast to the white ceramic cup? Is there a more relaxing mid-morning interlude than a frothy cappuccino that oozes opulence? Is there a better pick-me-up than the liquid gold of an afternoon espresso? And where better to enjoy this simple pleasure than in Budapest, with its tree-lined streets and pavement cafés.

Whether you prefer the old-world luxury of the Centrál kávéház or the retro feel of Ibolya on Ferenciek tere, both offer a refuge from the teeming masses. They are oases of calm in a city that is becoming increasingly westernised, with manic materialism and sterile sameness the order of the day. A little further up the road, Bali Café on Károly körút, contends with the heavyweights Costa Coffee and Coffee Heaven. These international chains are sucking the lifeblood from the city. Budapest’s laid-back café culture will soon be enjoyed only by tourists and those diehards who want to preserve the sanctity of a cup of coffee. The rest of the city, the harried workers and those too busy to stop and smell the coffee beans roasting are being slowly annihilated by ‘the enemy’-  a paper coffee cup, aka coffee-to-go.

Starry-eyed in Starbucks

All week, I’ve heard people talk about the new Starbucks in WestEnd; how exciting it is to have the world’s most famous coffee chain come to Budapest. In some people’s minds it seems to show that the city has arrived.  How short-sighted, I say. It is but the beginning of the end. In my mind, Starbucks and its ilk are responsible for the homogenisation of the world’s coffee culture, destroying individualism, wiping local joints off the table and replacing them with carbon-copy cut-outs. Those cardboard cups with their plastic lids hold within their simple design a force of destruction more powerful than any legislated social change. Like Tesco’s, McDonald’s and other mass-produced industrial landmarks, Starbucks is soulless, another extension of our fast food culture, which is completely counter-cultural to what coffee houses were founded to do.

I moved east because I wanted to get away from the mass consumerism that has engulfed the so-called western world. I wanted to disassociate myself from that throwaway culture, where everyone and everything is moving at an increasingly faster pace and the common chorus screams ‘I don’t have time’. I wanted to go some place where it was normal to sit and dissect the world over a cup of coffee, or simply smoke a cigarette and read a book or newspaper, while enjoying the bittersweet taste, senses undisturbed by bland uniformity. I wanted some place where I could drink in a little atmosphere along with a shot of caffeine, places like District V’s Csendes or District VIII’s Csiga.

Back in 1674, women were ready to ban coffee to preserve the grand kindness that men should do their wives. Me, I’d swap that grand kindness for the simple, pure taste of a dupla cappuccino from Café Alibi on Egyetem tér, with its caramel-and-chocolate-syrup butterfly painstakingly hand-drawn in the froth. This is feeding neither a physical dependency nor an addiction. It is a coffee unspoiled by commercialism; a coffee with culture.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 July 2010

Weather too hot to handle

I was born with a limited supply of patience and I live in fear of it running out before I die. So I ration it. I use it wisely. Others may choose to squander their allotment in their youth, gradually turning into cantankerous old codgers as middle age departs and old age sets in. Not me. So adept am I at rationing my given allotment that many people think I possess no patience at all. And that’s not true. The any-season-but-summer me is patient to the point of proctalgia; but come June, I’m literally too hot to handle.

Simmering semaphore

Once the temperature in Budapest hits the high twenties, I get flustered and easily irritated. Although usually happy to repeat my limited Hungarian in palinoiac fashion until I utter something approximating the correct pronunciation, I now disintegrate into a blithering idiot if I have to repeat myself even once. My hands take on a life of their own, my facial muscles spasm, and my voice gets higher and higher until I’m practically whinnying in frustration. On any given day in winter, spring or autumn, when my patience is at its best, it might take me five attempts to pronounce the word tej in such a way that it will result in a bag, bottle or carton of milk but no matter. That’s the any-season-but-summer me, the one that’s calm, cool, and collected. But by June, when it’s 27°C in the shade, I would rather milk the cow myself than endure what the heat has morphed into humiliation. To my utter shame, albeit just once, I found myself thinking the unthinkable: why doesn’t everyone in this wind-forsaken urban heat island speak bloody English!

Parboiling prose

When it hits the thirties, I begin to lose my sense of reason. The beatific smile I usually bestow with just the right amount of forgiveness on the poor unfortunate who dares to crowd my space on public transport is but a memory. It is replaced by a withering look that is guaranteed to raise the hackles of the most complacent commuter. Forget perspiring; I’m positively glowing. By the end of my journey, complete strangers have united against me, muttering incoherently to each other, plotting my demise.  Someday, some summer, I’m sure I’ll make the headlines.

The smell of red wine makes me gag. The smell of boiling bacon makes me queasy. The combination of the two in the form of body odour wafting from a lump of lard who’s had a few glasses too many the night before and whose extras pounds are cooking in the heat, is enough to turn my stomach. I know my manners. I know better than to visibly react to something that someone perhaps can’t control. But in this heat, when I find my 5’5” frame neatly spooned into a sweaty armpit, be it male or female, I register the full spectrum of emotion from animosity to belligerence, visible for all to see.

Baked bellyaching

When it hits the forties, I am incapable of coherent speech. I bore myself senseless with my moaning and run the risk of alienating friends and acquaintances. Even the postman thinks twice about knocking. I’m crankier than a teething baby with her tongue caught in a rattle. I’m cantankerous, unpleasant, short-tempered, and prone to using more colourful expletives than usual. I can’t abide the heat, especially the oppressive heat of the city. It brings out the worst in me. It gets to where I can’t stand my own company and can barely tolerate anyone else’s. I’ve tried the baths, but they’re too crowded. I’ve tried waiting until evening before I venture outside but so do the mosquitoes and they’re usually famished. The overnight swings in temperature play havoc with my psyche: low twenties today, mid-thirties tomorrow. Make up your mind, weather! Even the normally tepid Hungarian coffee tastes too hot.

But there is a plus side. Although I’m not a fan of air conditioning, in my search for some reprieve I’ve discovered places I would normally walk by. Budapest is empty at the weekends with everyone either on the Island or down at the Balaton. It’s so pleasant….in the shade or in the shops. The city’s diversity, kept under wraps in colder weather, comes out in full force. Open-air music abounds and if you happen to stumble across the likes of the world famous Taraf de Haidouks (who played an amazing free gig at Magdolna tér in District VIII last weekend) you’re set up.  I may have been too hot to handle that night, completely devoid of patience, and crankier than all git out, but seeing Dinu work that cimbalom was worth every bead of perspiration and every ounce of discomfort. Even when Budapest is bad, she’s good!

First published in the Budapest Times 21 June 2010

The sum of all our choices

Ok – so it’s not an American breakfast, but it’s all I had on film!

When I first went to the USA, choices in Ireland still came in pairs: tea or coffee, catholic or protestant, married or single, cash or cheque. Sitting down to my first all-American breakfast in New York, I was ill-prepared for the verbal onslaught. The harried waitress delivered my options like an AK-47 spewing bullets.  Coffee – black or white, regular or decaf, milk or creamer? Eggs – fried, poached, scrambled, over well, over easy, over medium, sunny side up? Toast – white, wheat, wholemeal, rye, sourdough, granary? It was too much then, yet 20 years later, these options seem quite limited. Have you read a coffee menu lately? Could it be any more complicated? As for bread…I can list 15 different types beginning with the letter B!

Making choices is hard work. The April 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites research who found that were are more fatigued and less productive when faced with myriad choices. Life was a lot simpler then a cup of tea and a slice of toast were the order of the day.

Northside or Southside?

It stands to reason that the choices we made yesterday pretty much determine where we are today. And it seems like yesterday that, having decided to move to Hungary, I faced the potentially life-shaping choice between living in Buda or in Pest. Dublin is also a city of two parts, although the Northside and the Southside are colloquial geographical expressions rather than official administrative areas. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, lived on the Northside; Bono and the lads from U2 went to school there; and that hunk of Irish attitude, Colin Farrell, was born there. The Southside boasts the literary greats James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and the fictional Ross O’Carroll Kelly. Rivalry abounds and the jokes fly both ways: What do you call a Northsider in a suit? The defendant. How does a Southsider get a week off work? He phones his mother!  We talk about having to get a visa to cross the Liffey and ironically, I feel the same way about crossing the Danube.

Eastside or Westside?

I’m a Northside girl who leans towards the west. So, when I first arrived in Budapest, it was only natural that I looked towards Buda. I asked around. I consulted those in the know (locals, estate agents, long-term expats) and the consensus was that if I could afford it, I’d be better off living in Buda. It was more salubrious, they said; a better investment.  It was leafier, greener, and the air was better. And there were fewer Roma (yes, shockingly, that was an actual sales pitch!). But I wanted grit, diversity, earthiness, and attitude. I wanted to live, not retire. So I settled on the Eastside, in Pest.

Begrudgingly, as I was flying in the face of conventional wisdom, they spoke to me of districts. They told me not to buy in district VIII (aka ‘the ghetto’), as that was where the majority of the minorities lived, along with the hookers and miscellaneous petty criminals. They said that V was lovely, but I probably couldn’t afford it. They said that XIII was nice, too, but that heirs apparent were camped on doorsteps waiting to move in once their elderly relatives moved on.  They said that VI was almost as good as V but less expensive. Ditto moving down the line to VII; even the pastel-painted IX ranked up there as having some potential. I should buy anywhere but district VIII. So 57 flat-views later, I bought…in district VIII.

Style or substance?

Baglyas Gyuri (Beyond Budapest Sightseeing) was quoted in the New York Times recently. He rightly described district VIII as ‘the city’s best part: a laboratory of diversity, art, music and architecture’. If it’s salubrious you want, check out Keleti pályaudvar and step back in time when you step into its gorgeous old ticket hall; visit the ‘little Basilica of Esztergom’ on Rezső tér; and sit a while in the Golden Salon of the Public Library on Szabó Ervin tér. For green and leafy, there’s the Botanical Gardens on Illés utca, Orczy kert (behind the old Ludovica Military Academy) or the wonderful Kerepesi cemetery. Diversity is the key to unlocking the hidden gems of district VIII…gems like the new African Buffet at Bérkocsis utca 21 or the beautifully bricked music mecca, Grund Hostel, on Nagytemplom utca 30.

Given the 23 districts I had to choose from, I picked well. District VIII is where it’s happening. It has both style and substance and a personality all of its own. If Albert Camus is to be believed, and life is the sum of all our choices, then living in the ghetto definitely adds up!

First published in the Budapest Times 7 June 2010