Hallway in black and white

I think it was when I was going through my ‘country mansion’ stage that I first hit on the idea of a black-and-white hallway. Not the most original idea in the world perhaps, but one that has been a long time in the making.  I am particularly blessed that this long hallway (nearly 7 metres) is perfect for showing off my B&W photos. Each one has a story or a memory encased in it.

There’s a photo of the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin. When I was in college I would get the bus back to Dublin on a Sunday evening and I always new I was home when we drove past the Ha’penny Bridge. Even today, it’s my gateway to the capital. Once I pass it I know I’m either coming or going. There is also one of the Cliffs of Moher, so beautifully pictured in the opening scene of Ryan’s Daughter. This is, perhaps, one of my favourite places in Ireland. Years ago, before the visitors centre and car-parks beckoned tour buses en route from Shannon Airport to Galway, it was a rugged, lonely, windswept place where, with a little imagination, you could almost see America. You could sit for hours without being bothered by another soul. Alas, no longer. It’s still an amazing place though and the photo that Ms McCabe took of it, a copy of which now hangs in my hallway, still manages to calm the most anxious of days.

There’s also one of the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford that was taken for me by a wonderful man from Brazil whom I met while doing my MA (one half of the eponymous Alberto and Sabrina duo).  That year was special in more ways than one. The MA in International Publishing drew students from all over the world and made for some fascinating conversations and lasting friendships. Oxford itself is a remarkable place to live… for a year. Home to the ubiquitous Colin Dexter, him of Inspector Morse fame; the Bodleian Library; the  Radcliffe Camera; the dining hall featured in the Harry Potter movies… there’s a never-ending treasure trove of interesting people, places and stories to find. And, as a student, plenty of time to find them!  A year was just right for me – any longer and I think I would have found the divide between town and gown a little too wide for my liking.

There are three of Anna Nielsen’s stick men prints (one she gave me as a present – an original, one-off, to commemorate the Irish presidential elections in 1997). Danish by birth and now living in Ireland, she’s a very witty artist with a rather distinct style. And there are more, so many more, including one of me  in my younger days wearing little more than a smile, cavorting on the couch with… an ashtray.

If I were heading to a desert island and could only bring one picture with  me, it would have to be Feny Karoly’s photo of Marton László’s statue of the Hungarian poet József Attila. It was taken in winter, when it was snowing. I had the very good fortune to work on Marton László’s autobiography shortly before he died last year. He was a remarkable man and a remarkable artist. I’m still discovering the real-life versions of statues he wrote about in his book. But this one of József Attila is my favourite. I have spent many a morning sitting with him, chatting about life and what’s going on. Not surprisingly, he’s an excellent listener. One particular morning, I failed to notice a couple of tourists who had sat on the far side of him. I was ranting about men and relationships or something equally thrilling and was being quite frank with him – he’s that sort of chap. It was only when I stood up to leave that I realised he wasn’t the only audience I had. I’m not sure which amused them most: my situation or the fact that I was spilling my guts to a statue.

Half-way down the hall

Half-way down the hall

Anyway, back to the hall. It took a long time to find just the right tile. I wanted it to shine but not to mirror; to be muted but not dead; to  be textured but still smooth. And then the size… why make it so difficult to choose? Luckily, I know a very good architect living on a bit of land off the north coast of Scotland who knows exactly how I deal (or don’t deal) with choices and he was very helpful. There are, believe it or not, occasions when I actually like being told what to do. He also drew up a couple of designs for the tile and I rather like what we agreed on. I particularly like the ‘runway’ affect of inset halogen lights along the base of the wall.

That lovely black, pillar-like thing is actually covering a rather ugly pipe that comes through from next door. My flat was original part of a large corner apartment that is now four separate flats of varying sizes. This was quite common apparently. A man selling a flat in Korsztasorsag tér explained it quite simply:

The Communists decided I didn’t need such a big flat.

I could have raised the floor to cover the pipe but then I would have had to shave some height off the doors. I could have lowered it but it’s sitting on a lead plate and for all its size (about 31 cm juts out into my hallway), it seemed like it could be masking a world of hurt so I left well enough alone. I briefly entertained the thought of taking a pottery class to make a life-sized statue of a dalmation to sit over it and hide it… I even went so far as to share this thought with some of my friends here and it was quickly pointed out that ‘there’s a very fine line between good taste and no taste’.

I finally found this ebonized wooden stand at the BÁV and thought it would be perfect. And, although not quite deep enough, it works beautifully. I won’t go into how much it cost. I did watch it for a few weeks hoping it would come down in price … but it didn’t. So when I was in buying my big Chobi, I was overcome by the whole ‘may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb’ thing and threw caution to the wind.

On top, if you can make it out, is a granite, shallow-dish vase. It has a circular hollow with  little tiny prongs onto which you stick your flower stems. According to the chap who made it, flowers rot because we put them in too much water. They need to have about an inch of the stems covered… and then keep cutting back as that piece rots. Not exactly rocket science, but who’d have thunk it eh? I bought it on one of many trips to Blenheim Palace …on this particular day I was accompanied by one of the most amazing women I know – Ashoka fellow Elna Kotze.  The flower in the picture is pussy willow. There’s a lovely old Hungarian woman who brings her stool with her and sits at the bottom of the steps at Arany János metro station selling bunches of flowers that she brings in from the country. She hand-ties them into little bouquets and holds them out as you’re passing and happen to catch her eye. It’s one way of cutting out the middle-man! And she’s hard to resist!

I must walk up and down that hallway ten times a day and it’s like travelling through time. There are hundreds of memories and associations in each step. Friends who were with me when I bought photographs in Prague and Portugal; those who took photos for me in Ireland and the UK;  one gifted Hungarian friend TI who painted one for me, and the endlessly patient KG who hung the damn things (is there really such a thing as a straight line?) It’s a lovely space and just how I imagined it would be  – although in my country mansion, I had a round hall with a vaulted ceiling and a wrought iron staircase… well, it’s almost there.

Living room

Inspiration for the living room

Inspiration for the living room

Back in 2001, just before I left Alaska and the USA to return to Ireland, I took a last-minute whirlwind tour of the south. Along with my good friend RosaB, I flew into New Orleans and hired a car. From there we headed to Biloxi, Mississippi, over to Birmingham, Alabama, across Northern Florida and into Savannah, Georgia.

One of my lasting memories of the city was the sweltering heat – it was November and it was in the eighties. We took a carriage tour of the city and our driver apologised: ‘if only you’d come last week; the weather was warmer then’!

Savannah is laid out in squares – 21 if I remember rightly. And being in the South, it’s, well it’s so southern… polite. Yes ma’am. I have a morbid fascination with wars. And prisons. And cemeteries. And ghosts. I found this painting by Kathleen Gorenflo in a gallery on River Street.  The widow in the picture is visiting her husband’s grave. He was killed during the Civil War sometime between 1861 and 1865 and you can just see his ghost behind the tombstone. The picture haunted me. I’ve been packing and unpacking it for eight years and now it finally is hanging up, on the wall. My wall. In my living room. In my flat. In Budapest.

It’s double matted – the bottom mount is a pale green, which is now the colour of my walls. The frame is a goldish bronze tinged with a copper green. It’s not an antique but it has an ‘old-world’ look to it so I wanted an ‘old world’ feel to my living room. Take a look and see what else I found.

Living room: Dinner parties

95x190 (x260 when extented)

The first time I brought an American boyfriend home to Ireland, in 1996, we went to dinner at my friends’ house in Dublin. The N-Ms  have a great big dining table and eight of us sat around until the small hours of the morning, talking, laughing, eating, drinking and having a ball. It was the first time I met my now sister-in-law; my brother was home from a UN tour in Bosnia; I hadn’t seen the N-Ms since they’d gotten married and moved house; and I was hoping to persuade M&M to come visit me in Alaska. The lovely TW was in his element drinking pints with the lads; it was a great night. I loved it. So much of life is transient but memories like this last a  lifetime.

I love to cook. I love to entertain. And I’m particularly fond of making new memories, so one of my ‘must-haves’ was a dining table that would seat at least eight people.  I found this wonderful Art Deco piece in Ecseri flea market in a shop run by the lovely Appel Péter. (In Hungary, the last name goes first.) My mate JFW has bought a lot of stuff there and he brought me out to introduce me personally. I quickly learned that you don’t just see something, pay for it and take it home. It’s more involved than that…as indeed, is life in general in Hungary. There’s a first price, second price and final price. So much depends on how much you love it, how badly they want rid of it, what else you’re buying and what the humour of the day is like. This table started out at 650,000 HUF (about £2200/€2320/$3000). And no, you’ve haven’t missed a lottery win. I still don’t have that sort of money! But we had to start somewhere.

It is a lovely piece of Art Deco, beautifully restored, dating to the 1920s/1930s. If it could only tell stories. What secrets has it heard? What indiscretions has it witnessed?  Where was it made? Did it have to travel far? I quite like the idea of it living for years in an apartment on Andrássy – perhaps in one of the ambassador’s residences.

Andrassy út runs from  Erzsébet tér (Elizabeth Square) to Városliget (City Park). It dates from the 1890s and underneath runs the first metro built in Continental Europe, the M1 or Yellow Line, which opened in 1896. Most of the neo-renaissance houses and palaces were occupied by aristocrats, bankers, landowners and historical families by 1884. This long road was first named after Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy, and then after Stalin (Sztalin út). When he was denounced, it was changed to Avenue of the People’s Republic until finally, in 1990, it went full circle back to Andrássy út. Funny how that happens!

It’s  a long, long road. From Erzsébet tér to Oktogon is mainly commercial but hosts the State Opera House and many designer, up-market shops. From Oktogon to Kodály körönd the road widens with an allée (a pedestrian path down the centre), and includes residential areas and universities. Kodály körönd is currently being restored and it’s here, if I ever win the lottery, that I would like to buy flat. And it’s here I think my table might have lived.  From Kodály körönd to Bajza utca, Andrássy widens even more and the residential palaces (some of which have been turned into hotels, galleries and occasional restaurant), are fronted by gardens. From Bajza utca to Városliget, there are more villas encompassed by gardens, and it is on this stretch that you find most of the embassies.
One of my favourite sights in Budapest is that which greets you at night if you get off the M1 at Hősök tere (Hereos’ Square). Climb the stairs and be prepared to be mesmerised.  A little like how I feel when I open the door to my living room about midday and see the sun bouncing off this table.

Bedroom: The piece that made my heart stop

I never thought it possible that I could get excited about a piece of furniture. I would have laughed in your face if you’d told me that I’d be spending more time in flea markets and antique shops than in boutiques and salons. But it’s true. This renovation has created a monster.

1850s French empire complete with remants of the original manufacturer's sticker

1850s French empire complete with remnants of the original manufacturer’s sticker

Recent visitors to Budapast EK and JG talked about their purchases ‘speaking to them’. And I can relate to this. Except that when this wardrobe was sitting in a shed at Esceri among lots of other furniture, half-hidden by a table and tucked away in the corner, it didn’t so much speak as whisper. And it was a very soft whisper. But it registered.  I went back again to see it and then, after many phone conversations that seemed to involve the nation (really me saying and having others say for me  ‘I don’t have the cash’ ) I gave in. I admit I occasionally allow myself to feel pressurised into buying things and can, on a bad day, buy something purely because whoever I’m shopping with likes it. On these bad days, I can’t make a decision to save my life and am happy to do whatever. Thankfully, they’re few and far between and are causing less trouble the older I get! (That stool with legs made from jeans tucked into workman’s boots, and a seat made from a check shirt and braces still haunts me!)

It wasn’t until it was delivered to the flat and took up residence in my bedroom that it really started speaking to me – and it speaks volumes.

I remember years ago in Myrtle Beach visiting a Ridley museum and spending ages in front of the funny mirror that made you look really thin. I couldn’t decide if I liked what I saw. Having spent years dieting to get that ‘perfect figure’, when I saw how I’d look, I couldn’t decide if I liked the look of me. Mind you, it hasn’t stopped the sporadic dieting but at least it did kill any aspirations I had to squeeze into a size 10.

If you stand in front of these mirrors, where the doors overlap, you cannot see your reflection. And yet, move a millimetre to either side and there you are. Magic.

And magical it is. I can’t explain it really. There is just something incredibly beautiful about its fine lines. Something timelessly classic about its bearing. Something ageless in its beauty. And yet it’s solid. And very ‘there’. It has a presence. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like my mother! mmmm…

And my heart missed a beat…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to own my own place.  Over the years, the ‘place’ in question has moved from a stone cottage in the West of Ireland, to a crofter’s cottage by a loch in the highlands of Scotland. I’ve had visions of a log cabin in Alaska and a house with a large lan’ai overlooking the ocean in Hawaii. I’ve thought about a terraced house in Dublin and a two-story flat in an ex-Council towerblock in London. A flat in Rome or a mountain retreat in Macugnaga have both appealed, depending on whether I was in my city or country mode. I’ve considered vineyards in France (very briefly), sheepfarms in New Zealand, and even an organic farm in Wales. I have, at various stages, fantasised about being  Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton in To the Manor Born; Barbara Good in The Good Life; Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City; Maggie O’Connell in Northern Exposure; Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man; Diane Sugden in Emmerdale; and a host of other leading ladies, each with a lifestyle and a ‘place’ of their own that seemed to fit the me that was me at a particular time.

My ‘bottom drawer’ was born in the early 1990s when I won a green card to the USA in a lottery and took a two-year career break from the Bank of Ireland in Dublin to live the Californian dream. It was a whole new world. A world with lots of ‘stuff’. I remember buying a set of miniature sculptures of golf poses made of nuts and bolts. I had visions of them sitting in a display cabinet in ‘my place’ once I’d bought it. Thankfully, my taste has improved dramatically in the intervening years and while I kept one of them as a reminder that tat is simply tat,  no matter how exotic the location in which you find it, I’m a little more selective now.

I’ve added to this drawer over the last 18 years – pictures, cutlery, linens, wall-hangings, sculptures – and have finally bought a flat, in Budapest, Hungary. I’m in the process of unpacking my treasures and buying new bits to furnish it. I was strangely detached from the process, as if I was doing it for someone else – although I knew that someone else was me. I have waited so long to own ‘my place’ and have searched so hard to find it and yet somehow, I wasn’t sure if it was the panacea I had expected it to be. And then today, this morning, Wednesday, January 28th, 2009 at 9.17 a.m. in Budapest, Hungary, I took delivery of a piece of furniture that made my heart stop, just for second. And I just had to share the journey.