Last night, I had a dream

IMG_3019I dreamt that I finally got it together with SF. I finally got that kiss. I worked with him in London for a couple of years back in the day and was mad about him.  He was my James Dean – my rebel without a cause. Or, in his case, a rebel with all too many causes. It wasn’t that all-consuming, hormone-driven lust thing. More the slow burn type that creeps up on you and just takes root as a massive crush that simply refuses to go away. Some days, I was mad about him; others, I was mad at him!

When the office moved to Vauxhall, we’d get in early in the morning and take it in turns to make a fancy coffee on the new-fangled coffee machine. Then we’d retire to the ‘garden’ and have a cigarette and talk about the world… and her mother…and her sister or brother, depending on where we were at in our respective lives.  We planned to ride Route 66 on our Harleys; he even went so far as to take motorbike lessons and get his licence. Me, I’m still talking about it. We talked a lot about what ifs – he was so much better with plans than me. Our ideas of what the future might hold differed a lot but had one thing in common – both of us wanted to live beside the sea. We talked about it for hours.

We went to the seaside one weekend – me, him and a few mates. He showed up in Victoria Station in a naff football shirt (if it’s not a rugby shirt, why bother?) Ithought he looked awful. Light years away from Jimmy D. He didn’t care. He had his own version of ‘cool’. Another evening, we went to the races. Me, him, and a bunch of mates. One night, we went to the theatre in Kilburn, to an Irish play – me, him and a couple of mates. Always in a crowd. I would ‘arrange’ these outings just to get him to come along. On a couple of very rare, and very special occasions, we went for a drink after work, or to dinner, or to the theatre…just the two of us. And then we’d talk a lot more – God, religion, families, hopes, dreams, fears. Still waters ran very deep with him. And every conversation revealed something new. Don’t get me wrong: he was far from perfect. He could be a right pain the arse; he certainly had his moments. I never really sussed what it was that set him off, but in those days he had the monopoly on contrariness. He was cool, though. Really cool. I tried everything I could think of to make him take a romantic interest in me and for every two steps we took forward, he’d take three huge leaps back. But it didn’t matter. That was half the fun.

Then he got sick. It started with a cough. He knew without being told. I would light candles for him when I travelled and send him a postcard to tell him I’d done so. He thought this was hilarious. He didn’t believe in God and he reckoned the candles wouldn’t do him any good; but if doing it helped me, then he was fine with it. I was in St Thomas’s Cathedral in Chennai on October 2, 2005. I had bought five candles and had lit four. I always kept his until last. I was in great form. Happy out. Loving India. And then, suddenly, I was bawling. Hysterical. In floods of tears. I couldn’t get the candle to light. After a minute or so, it passed. The candle lit. I said my prayer. And left. Clueless.

Back at the hotel a few hours later, his mate called me to tell me  that he had died. Contrary to the last, I am convinced that he stopped into Chennai on his way and kept blowing out the bloody candle. Maybe he was right. Maybe they didn’t do him any good in the end. But they helped me a lot. I still light one for him on occasion – just out of badness!

IMG_3032Last night, I dreamt of  him. Before he died, his voice had gone all raspy. We laughed about how sexy it made him sound. In my dream, he had that same voice. Thankfully,  he wasn’t wearing the football shirt! We were out with friends and had wandered off on our own. We ended up in a prison of sorts where women were making clothes for the missions. For some unknown reason, we were there to meet the warden. She was rather sweet actually, despite the Victorian garb. As we left, we walked through a turnstile and passed through the gift shop (I know… in a prison???) There was a sale on diaries. It was July. Diaries were half-price and priced in forints (down from 80,000 to 40,000; about £130). I couldn’t make up my mind between a blue  flowery one and a purple one. He got impatient. There was a party to go to. I opened the blue one and saw a photo of him inside.  I decided to buy that one. Ever practical, he pointed out that it would cost as much again next year for a new refill. He wondered what I needed a diary for. I said I was buying it because it had his picture in it and I would have it to remember him by. He said I didn’t need a picture. And he kissed me. In the prison giftshop. And he was Sean Connery in Hitchcock’s Marnie; Al Pacino in Frankie and Johnny; the best of James Nesbitt, Sam Waterston and Keith Wood rolled into one. It was pure and simple and lovely. The world stood still.

It took ages to find the car in the underground car park – we hadn”t driven to the prison so we didn’t know where it was parked –  but we were driving back to the party! I drove; he gave directions. Everyone was wondering where we’d been. They’d never have believed us, so we didn’t bother explaining. The evening carried on. He was so attentive. As funny and as witty as ever. Life and soul when the mood took him; quiet and comtemplative when it didn’t. But he was there. Not just physically, but there in mind and spirit. He was present. He was listening. Not that puppy-dog ‘hanging on every word’ listening, but really paying attention, in his own unobtrusive way. Aware of and involved in what was going on around him, he would glance over every now and then, and give me that knowing look – the one that cut through all the bullshit and got to the very core of who I am. He knew me. He really saw me. He lit my cigarettes. Our hands would touch. He ‘d smile. I got up at one stage to go to the bar and as I stepped behind him, I leaned over to ask him what he wanted and he kissed me again. This time in front of everyone. He smiled. He didn’t have to say anything. He was a very private man and this….this said everything! I floated away, just as the bell for last call was ringing. I woke up. I was practically levitating.

I’ve thought of him all day today. When I was in a meeting this morning, trying to sort out a difficult production timetable for a text book I’m working on; when I was bartering with my Afghani carpet-seller trying to get him to budge on a Chobi I really wanted; when I was wading through the rivers of rain that deluged Budapest this afternoon; when I was so annoyed and angry that I was fit to kill someone at the Internet shop; and when I had a celebratory glass of vino this evening. He was with me all day. And I’m still smiling.  I know now he’s got my back…he’s watching out for me. I have great faith in my candles, mate… ta much!

Jam and the patience of Job

IMG_3097For years now, the  end of June/beginning of July has been jam season in our house. On any given evening, if you look out the back window, up the garden, you will see Boss in underneath the bird nets, picking fruit: blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries. It’s back-breaking, fiddedly work that has to be done at least once, if not twice a day…. especially when it rains (and it rains a lot in Ireland). Buckets and buckets of fruit are handpicked and brought down to be topped (redcurrants and blackcurrants); topped and tailed (gooseberries); or shucked (raspberries). Evening after evening is spent in quiet contemplation as hands busy themselves readying the fruit for the pot. Hands too bloodied with fruit juice to turn on the TV.

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It brings to mind the electricity blackouts of the 1970s when conversation was rediscovered before being lost altogether to mulitmedia and home entertainment systems. We sit around, chatting. About nothing of consequence really. Just chatting. The odd comment thrown out to see what it will reel in. The occasional cluas bodhar (deaf ear)  turned to a question best left unanswered. On and on it goes. Bucket after bucket. Hundreds of berries being readied for the making. My father has the patience of Job. My mother has the patience of Job, his mother, his aunts, and his sisters.

JIMG_3077am jars, collected over the previous 12 months, sterilised, stand to attention waiting to be filled. Empty pickle jars lugged home from Budapest; pesto jars from Dublin; mayonnaise jars from Limerick. Jars from the four corners of Ireland find their way, like spawning salmon, back to be refilled for yet another year. Boss watches over each pot, stirring. Making sure the consistency is just right; that the mint for the redcurrant and mint jelly is chopped just so. The night’s takings are IMG_3082jarred and left to set.

One Christmas, a particularly large empty jar appeared with a handwritten note inside: please Mr Murphy, may I have some more? Every visit from our house for the next few months will have a jar of jam for company. Gooseberry for Bridie in Limerick; raspberry for Northbrook; redcurrant for Craigford. Every year, one fruit is scarce. Last year it was gooseberries. This year it’s blackcurrants. These become the valuable jars, saved for those who really appreciate them.

IMG_3089The tools of the trade are simple. What’s needed is time, patience and dedication. The reward is found in the doing. In the accomplishment. In knowing that the fruits of the labour will be enjoyed by so many.  Each pot is handed over with a wish for a prosperous year of good health and happiness. Jim Murphy’s jam is famous at home. And as that jam is spread on scones or home-baked brown bread, a thought is spared for the man who made it. And the woman who made it possible. Priceless.

Why I love living in Budapest (No. 8)

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An invitation any night of the week is likely to land me anywhere! Sometimes I’ll have been there before, like the great Gypsy Jazz night at Bar Ladino last week. Sometimes though, it’ll be a brand new experience where I’m left wondering how I managed to live my life without ever having known this place! So it was last Friday when the lovely MI extended an invite to go to Romai to hear her sister’s band perform. She lured me there with the promise of fish and chips! And what self-respecting fan of The Van could turn that one down.

It’s a hike. It’s practically surburban by Budapest standards. But as KG reminded us, by London standards, it’s not far at all. A little like going from Kennington to Forest Hill. There is a boat that takes you there but for some unknown reason (I keep forgetting that reasons are no longer required for irrational behaviour – if they ever were here in BP) the boat service stops before 5pm. So we took the hév – Budapest’s surburban railway. It’s about a 20-minute journey, no longer. You get off at Romai furdo and then walk towards the river. Római Fürdő is one stop after the one for Aquinicum (yes, when I’m wrong KG, I’ll admit it!) and I’ll need to come back to RF later… next free day I have, as it looks like it could be rather pleasant way to pass the time. District 3 (Budapest has 23 districts in all and District 3 is in Buda) is lovely, lovely, lovely. I’ve picked out my house, complete with ‘guest cottage’ in the grounds. It’s like walking back in time. Some of the houses still have the original pre-WW2 street signs on the walls where utca (street) is spelled utcza.

The band were great. Some really good covers of old classics like Proud Mary, Sweet Home Alabama and  newer stuff that surfaced the depths of my ignorance of what’s happening music-wise these days. But when the lead singer (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Mr Paul Trevorrow, complete with trendy porkpie) launched into Máté Péter’s Zene nélkül mit érek én (What I am worth without music), they took off. It was excellent. No matter how fluent the singers, you can’t beat singing in your native language for sheer passion. The band asked us to get up and dance and make their night and for the longest time the only one on the cobblestoned floor was a cute little five-year-old who was putting us all to shame. We eventually braved it though and once up, found it very, very hard to sit down. We should have done it sooner: moving targets are hard for the mozzies to find!

It’s a gorgeous spot – imagine the buzz of a city-centre square on the banks of a river in the heart of the suburbs… Our partners in crime for the evening, the lovely András and his gal Bori, drove us back to the city. It was way too long a walk!

I quite fancy myself as a groupie though… so keep those invites coming MI!

From Buda to Pest

IMG_3000I have a fascination with bridges. When I was in college in Dublin, I would take the bus back up to the city on a Sunday evening. As we drove in along the quays on the banks of the Liffey, the Ha’penny Bridge was my landmark. Once I could see it, I knew I was back in the city. It’s still the same today. When I drive in from home, that’s my marker. Passing down the left side of the Liffey, I say a mental goodbye to Dublin as it’s behind me. In London, my marker was Tower Bridge. Oxford had the Bridge of Sighs. Chichester just had bridge clubs! But Budapest has the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd). One of the most spectacular night views in the city (for me anyway) is the view of the Gresham Palace (originally built in 1906 as the HQ for the London-based Gresham Insurance Company and now home to the Four Seasons Hotel and owned by some lads from Ireland) as you stand midway on the bridge with your back to the Fisherman’s Bastille.

The bridge itself was the first solid connection between Buda and Pest and was first opened in 1849 (it took 13 years to build). It’s 375 metres long and 16 metres wide and is named after Count Széchenyi, which is only fair really, considering it was his idea to build it in the first place. Mind you, he originally had the idea in December 1820 when he heard that his father had died in Vienna. The pontoon bridge that spanned the Danube at the time was out of action because of the ice floes. Széchenyi was stuck on the Pest side for a few days before he could make it to Vienna for the funeral. No more pontoons for him – he envisioned a solid structure that would be open year round. He still keeps an eye on his baby from his lofty position in Roosevelt tér, next to the ancient acacia tree which is thought to be the oldest tree in Budapest.

The Clark Adam tunnel (remember, Hungarians put the last name first), dug by the Scottish Engineer who oversaw the project, runs for 350 metres through  Castle Hill and connects the bridge to the rest of Buda. In 1989, it was on the Chain Bridge that  Hungarians demonstrated for freedom and independence and, perhaps fittingly, since then the bridge has become a symbol of Hungarian liberty. Clark Adam tér (square) is home to the zero kilometre marker in Budapest – and it’s from here that all distances from the city are measured. IMG_3007

The pair of lions guarding the bridge at either side were added some three years later. Rumour has it that the sculptor forgot to give them tongues and was given such a hard time about his ‘mistake’ that he threw himself into the Danube (he did get out again and lived on for another 40 years or so).  Apparently though, they do have tongues; we just can’t see them from our vantage point – about 3 metres below.

Like all the bridges in Budapest, it was destroyed during the war and had to be rebuilt. Some of the original parts are still housed in the Transport museum. It was reopened on the centenary of its original inauguration, 21 November 1849. Every weekend from July to mid-August, the bridge is ‘pedestrianised’. Craft stalls showcase local art, musicians from the region entertain the crowds, and you can eat as much artery-clogging food as your conscience will allow. Sure ’tis all in a day’s work!

A wink from Lord Darsy

No matter where in the world you go racing, you’ll always see style. Derby day in Budapest was certainly no different. What was missing was the crowd. The Curragh, home to the Irish Derby, is guaranteed to be packed to the seams on Derby day. The city of Louisville in Kentucky has been hosting the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs racecourse for 135 years. The city itself takes on a carnival atmosphere during Derby week. As for the whole of Australia… when Melbourne Cup day comes around, the country comes to a standstill and for a few glorious minutes, the nation is united in one loud cheer. (Billed as the ‘race that stops the nation’,  I was reminded of this recently when I saw an old episode of Inspector Morse when Morse and Lewis visit a small town in the outback only to find it deserted – everyone is in the pub watching the race!)

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In Budapest last Sunday, everyone was somewhere else, too. Kincsem Park was practically empty.  Okay, so maybe the weather had a part to play. Fantastic thunder and lightning storms started the day and torrential downpours took us into early afternoon. At mass that morning, a massive lightning strike through the stained glass window lit up the priest as he lifted the Host for consecration. Amazing stuff. Still though, it did brighten up and the day was fine – but the people were missing.

KP can hold about 10,000 people so you can imagine how it looked with about a tenth of that. It’s a strange place that apparently makes a sizeable loss year on year and yet stays open. Wonder what business model they’re using! There is no entrance fee (contrast that with the €25 you pay to get in the gate to the Curragh on Derby day) and the minimum bet is just 200 HUF (less than €1). It’s tote betting only; there are no bookies, so in this respect it does lack a certain atmosphere. Half the fun for me at home was finding the right chap offering the right odds for the right horse in the right race. Still, mastering the Hungarian tote system was a challenge.

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Tét – win (your horse comes first)
Hely – place (your horse comes first, second or third)
Befutó – exacta (you pick the first two horses past the post in the right order – no messing around here!)
Hármas befutó – trifecta (you pick the first three horses in the right order – the moneyspinner)

I had a blast.  I had treated myself to a corporate day out (ironic really, as I am the corporation) with the Irish Hungarian Business Circle so had a VIP pass, lunch, wine, perfect vantage point, great seat and 10 races on the card. Did I mention the wine??? The highlight of my day was when the cup was awarded. The whole place stood to attention for the Hungarian National Anthem and you could have heard a pin drop. It was particularly poignant because Garabonciás (the Derby winner) has an Irish Dad – Black Sam Bellamy, and an Irish mother – Green Seed. Somehow it seemed rather fitting. Mind you, for all that, I hadn’t backed him. When I was down at the parade ring, No. 8, Lord Darsy, looked straight at me and winked… enough said!

At the Hungarian seaside

IMG_2772Well, I finally made it to the Hungarian Sea. To Balaton (or to ‘the Balaton’) as is said here. The typical Friday afternoon crawl of cars heading down to to Balaton is a sight to behold in itself. Anyone who is prepared to spend hours in traffic just to reach the lake has to really appreciate it for what it is. Apart from being the largest lake in Central Europe, with a surface covering 592 km², it’s a respite from the heat-laden capital. And it’s big:  77 km from north to south with widths varying from 4 to 14 km. It can get to 12.2 m deep but averages about 3.2 m. Water temperatures in the summer get to about 25 cm so it’s perfect for swimming. Back in the old days, it was where East met West – literally. Families from East Germany could travel to Hungary freely, and those from West Germany could get visas to visit; so it was at the Balaton that they met over the summer.

JFW brought the Elizabeth Jane over from England and she’s now happily moored at Tihany marina. The present owners bought the marina about seven years ago. It’s run for profit, to finance its not-for-profit sailing school. A lovely spot with a tiny private beach. We took the ferry across to Tihany after driving about 90 minutes from Budapest. After I had my morning sun and ‘sea’, we headed in to Balatonfüred for lunch. The town is famous for its water. People used to mix water from Whey spring, in front of the Heart Clinic, with sheep’s cottage cheese as a cure for lung disease.  Today, the medicinal waters are used to heal heart and circulatory diseases and for treating general exhaustion.   This last bit is a little ironic, considering that the lakeside was packed with tourists, local and foreign, and was far from relaxing. I so resent my water space being populated. Honestly, when I win the lottery, I’d like to buy an island so that I could read by the water in silence. Am I too young to be so crotchety? IMG_2806

 The ‘nightingale of the nation’ Blaha Lujza had her summer residence here, about 300 m from the lake. Must have been nice! She got this nickname after asking the emperor  Francis Joseph to pardon 13 Hungarian hussars who were sentenced to death.

KG and MI headed off to Tihany later that afternoon, but too much sun and the prospect of a couple of hours in the water took me back to the marina. I really, really, really want to live beside the sea. Or at least beside some water.  I could happily fall asleep every evening to the sound of water breaking on rocks or seagulls singing for their supper.

Tihany is another lovely town best seen in late evening when the daytrippers have gone home. Famous for its monastery and lavender fields, it straddles that fine line IMG_2834between kitsch and quaint. The Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1055 and the foundation charter is the earliest written record extant of the Hungarian language. Like a number of other Hungarian towns and villages, Tihany also has its ‘Calvary’ – huge, outdoor stations of the cross leading up a hill to the three crosses on Calvary. Very moving.

We had dinner there before heading back to the city and I tried the famous fish soup. I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve done it once, there’s no need for me to ever do that again!

Hungarian cops stop for jaywalkers

I am sooooooooooooooooooooo mad. You can’t hear this, but I’m pounding the keyboard out of pure, unadulterated anger. I am sick, sick, sick at what my fellow human being is capable of. Where has the dignity gone, the respect?

Calm down,  Maro…

The day started out fine. K came and painted my outside plastered walls in a god-awful (And yes, JFW, the g is intentionally lowercase) yellow that probably was the original colour of the walls 50 years ago. I can live with it. I went then the Csillahegy to pick up my business cards. Wow. Nearly two years later, I’m finally joining the Hungarian namecard game. The website and the email address have yet to function, but the phone number works! One step at a time. The lads at Steg are good.

Anyway, I went from there to drop off a rather nice invoice – actually, as it’s company money and not mine, I don’t know why I’m getting excited, but it will pay the gas and electric for another couple of months! And then it was time for the ‘pre-speech’ glass of Nyakas. Yes, I was giving my first ‘public’ performance tonight (or last night) : The question of life, the universe and everything: a humorous reflection of living life without a plan. It was TEA time. It went well. I was on a high and had a gob on me so when that action stopped, I headed to Szimpla Kert with GM, the Slovenian Philosopher, and Ms M. All was well. We caught the night bus in good spirits and while jaywalking across Racoczi utca, the cops actually stopped to let us cross. If ever I get to the stage where beatification is being given some serious consideration, that particular miracle can count as one of my three!

So we get to Szimpla… a favourite haunt of mine. And there, in quiet and contemplative mood, I watch the others dance while I take in what’s going on around me.

Katy, from the UK, is having her 30th Birthday party. All her mates are wearing banners with ‘Hungary 2009, Katy’s 30th Birthday’ emblazoned so it wasn’t hard to figure it out. I could see four bannered women, all well trolleyed. The small one, with the glasses, could hardly stand up straight. She was ratarsed. The oldest one was being chatted up by this guy (definitely a native English-speaker). Anyway, Katy was busy chatting up Male No. 1 who did a runner when she tried to pin her tiara on him. and this pissed her off. So she takes it out on Ms Ratarsed and decides that Ms Older has to take Ms Ratased back to the hotel. Each of them is drunk – really drunk – standing, but not quite with it. Mr Chat Up continues trying to ingratiate himself. He looks fine. A little gone, but still walking straight and standing tall with no obvious signs of any delayed reactions. He’s into Ms Older and ain’t happy that she seems to have drawn the short straw and has to take Ms Ratarsed home. He’s showing classic globalisation symptoms: Roman hands and Russian fingers. He is copping a feel at every opportunity and the two women are too drunk to care. Then, he goes and gets his two mates. And the three of them, like vultures, hover and wait. They’re sussing it out. God, these women wouldn’t know their own names in the morning, let alone what had happened. It was revolting. And yes, I sat and watched.

Could I have gone over and interrupted the party? Yes. Would I have been told to fu*k off? Almost certainly. So I stayed put and watched, promising myself that if it got out of hand, I’d interrupt. Thankfully, Ms Ratarsed saved the day by almost collapsing and the gals left. The lads stayed put. But how sick is that? Women drink. Women get drunk. Stupid women drink and get drunk without making sure that one of their mates stays sober. But that doesn’t give men licence to cop a feel, make a play, or plain take advantage. And that’s what it is. Taking advantage. So, it’s not rape unless I say NO and NO and NO …bollocks!

So on my tod, watching the dancers, this chap approaches. He’s having a house party in the next street and would I like to come with him  and ‘get more drunk’.

Nope, I’m fine, but thanks for asking.
Where are you from?
Ireland.
I love the Irish. (sits down). I tried to get this Swedish girl to come to the party. Swedish girls like sex. But she wouldn’t come. What do you do here in Hungary?
I’m a lecktor (editor). What do you do?
I’m a gangster…..

’nuff said.

Eating out with architects

IMG_2726Every Wednesday morning for the last eight weeks or so, I have been wandering through the 8th district, at the Kálvin tér end… on Múzeum utca. After class, I’ve walked past Épitész pince and have never ventured in. Last week, I decided to treat myself to lunch as my curiosity won out. Budapest is full of surprises. Behind high walls lie beautiful courtyards (udvar). Romanesque colonnades are nearly two a penny and the city is swarming with statues. Vibrant colours on painted walls are offset by so many shades of green that even Johnny Cash would have paused for thought.

The daily menu (napi menü) is a very reasonable 970 HUF for three courses (about €3.50, $5, £3) but clever as they are, if you opt for this, you have to eat inside in the pince (cellar). It was a glorious day and I was rather taken with the statues, the greenery, and the ivy-clad walls, so I treated myself to roast goose leg with baked cabbage and apple, and onion potato and sat outside. Plate piled high, I was transported back to my days in Valdez, Alaska when food portions for one would feed three. It was excellent. Everything I wanted and more.  IMG_2729

Épitész is Hungarian for building and this building houses the School of Architecture. I didn’t know this at the time, which makes my train of thought that day even more curious. Mind you, perhaps the group of four solid-looking chaps pouring over blueprints of some kind should have rung a bell. But hey, I was still in aperture land!

Eating on your own, without a book to keep you company, can leave you wondering where to fix your gaze. Even the most exquisite plate can only hold your attention for so long. Between bites of fresh orange and apple, I couldn’t help noticing what a wonderful architect nature is. Admittedly, the building itself IMG_2724is lovely and it comes with a picturesque courtyard, regal statues, an amazing wrought iron staircase, and well-trodden stone steps. Somehow, though, I felt it had grown into itself. Ivy covers the walls and frames the windows; the occasional red flower makes the greens seem even darker than they are. The marble statues are almost human, reflecting as they do years of inclement weather. Long, trailing creepers hang from glass ceilings, weighed down by time. The pebbled courtyard still echoes the horse-drawn carriages drawing up to take the ladies of the house to the ball.

I could live here. And maybe in a previous life I did. But then, if that were true, I’d have know what  Épitész meant…mmmm

If you find yourself in Budapest, take the 47/49 tramIMG_2721 to Kálvin tér or get the No. 3 metro (blue line). FromKálvin tér head down Múzeum utca to  Ötpacsirta utca. Turn right and look for the yellow building on your left. Open every day except Sunday.

Real Madrid

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

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

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

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

Back to Bratislava…again

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

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

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