2019 Grateful 35: Closed borders

I’ve travelled Route 66 enough to be conscious of how towns and villages are at the mercy of those with planning power. A new highway, a new motorway, a change in public policy can be the death of a place. No doubt those who argue in favour of the change cite progress, the public good, and greater benefits as they justify their plans and decisions. Route 66, with its ghost towns, deserted gas stations, and ramshackle restaurants and bars, oozes nostalgia. People still drive the road daily. They still photograph its faded glory. They still support the occasional tourist spot or truck stop that has fought the odds and stayed open to feed their visitors.

The 420 unfinished housing estates dotting Ireland are a different story. These interrupted solutions to Ireland’s pre-crash housing issues haven’t a nuance of nostalgia. They don’t attract tourists or feature regularly in travel magazines. Today, they’re more likely to offer a public safety hazard than a photo opportunity. Writing for the Irish Times a couple of years ago, Simon Carswell described them as

an unofficial memorial to over-development, reckless lending and the failure of government policy to protect its people in a time of excess.

Strangely, neither affected me in quite the same way as the Goričan-Letenye border crossing between Croatia and Hungary. And no, not the main one on the highway, Letenye–Goričan II, but the older one, a few kilometres away, Letenye–Goričan I. From what I read, it’s only a temporary closure – between March and July this year – because of work being done on a bridge over the River Mura.  And yet I find it hard to believe. With the exception of Club 114, everything looks deserted. The post office, the gas station, the motel, the tourist information centre, the currency exchange kiosk, the bank – all skeletons of their former selves.

Letenye–Goričan I closed border

From what I gather from the Letenye town website, the motorway crossing opened in 2008. It doesn’t require a huge stretch of my imagination to see this as the death knell for the old crossing. With most of the traffic using the A3 motorway from Zagreb which morphs into the M7 motorway to Budapest, the need for the original crossing waned. I’d imagine that when it is in operation, it’s used mainly by local traffic from the neighbouring Zala County (HU),  Međimurje County (CR), and Varaždin County (CR) and at times has been limited to residents of these counties only.

Googl eimage of the Letenye–Goričan I closed border crossing

Google’s satellite image shows the now empty bus parking lots. The aerial view says that some thought went into the planning but when it outlived its usefulness, that was that. We had come off the road to eat at the well-reviewed lakeside Zelengaj restaurant but it was closed for a wedding. Club 114 was our nearest option. It looked closed, too, but not for a wedding. The menu was extensive, testament to the variety of palates that once supped at its tables but as our selections were met with the Croatian equivalent of sorry, not available today, it seemed that the selection had shrunk. We both ordered Wienerschnitzel and the two lads who came in after us got the same. It’s been a while since I’ve seen as good a synopsis.

We sat outside, taking advantage of the break in the unseasonably cold weather we’ve been having. It was like eating dinner in a ghost town. All we needed was the tumbleweed. Inside, two long tables were set as if for a wedding. And from the fussing the couple were doing with positioning the cutlery, it seemed as if guests were expected at any moment. It all added to the surrealness. Time seemed to have taken on new meaning.

wedding table set at Club 114We’d gone to Zagreb to drop off some friends as they made their way back to Australia, the long way around. The 24 hours we’d been away felt like a week. Our last supper in Croatia was as strange a one as I’ve had in while. Facing a border we couldn’t cross, we made our way back to the motorway and did as everyone else was doing: we got in line and waited. Hungary is in the Schengen. Croatia isn’t. Hence the delay. We got lucky. Even with just one lane open, it took little more than half an hour to cross. Friends travelling back from Serbia the same day had to make do with a 3-hour hold-up. It’s not high season yet. That’s when the fun really starts.

While I’m a great proponent of personal space, I have mixed feelings about borders. I like the sense of travelling between countries. I like to see the lines I cross. But I don’t like the bureaucracy that comes with it. It saddens me to see how much of rural life survives at the behest of planners and their ilk who have the greater good in mind when they make their decisions. The voice of the many is louder than the voice of the few. From the billboards and posters still in place, someone once had great plans for the area, plans which seem to have largely come to nothing. Although maybe I’m going it an injustice and perhaps Goričan warrants further exploration.

Make no mistake, I like the convenience offered by motorways if I’m on a fast track from A to B. But I also value the back roads, the old highways, the Route 66 equivalents that run across this region. I don’t want to see them die a slow death, starved of sustenance. Just as I will pay more for my washing-up liquid in the village shop because I want to keep the option of being able to shop there, every now and then I’ll take the low road, the back road, and spend my money at places like Club 114 – we might have been half the business they had that day and they won’t get rich from what we left on the table, but if that wedding table was set more in hope than in reality, I like to think that I contributed, just a little, to keeping the dream alive for another day.

This week, I’m grateful for the reminder that there is always a consequence.

The long way home

I’m not one for taking a walk just to walk. I do it, of course, but on some level it seems rather pointless. Yes, I know there’s the benefit of exercise and getting those steps in every day can be a challenge. But walking without purpose for some reason doesn’t sit well with me. If there’s a shorter way to get from A to B, I’ll usually take it. The long way home isn’t for me. Read more

pear and walnut bread

2019 Grateful 36: Burnt offerings

I can’t remember if I was asked or whether I volunteered. Most likely I volunteered. Mainly because I like the lads behind 6:3 Borozó and had planned to attend their wine-tasting anyway. They needed some nutty bread to go with their award-winning asparagus pesto. They’d tried out my cherry and orange bread and my pear and walnut bread before (variations on the traditional banana bread) but this time I planned to also try my take on a traditional French walnut bread recipe where I used dark beer instead of tepid water with strong white flour instead of a white/brown flour mix – mainly because I couldn’t find brown flour and I could find beer.

The experimental batch turned out lovely even if I messed up the temperature settings. My non-regulating oven is quirky at the best of times and after nearly three years, I had thought we’d reached an understanding.

Wednesday evening I set to work. I was down to the last jar of pear preserves (I like to use local ingredients – I’ve even managed to find flour that is milled in the county) and was dredging the last of JFW’s walnuts. The first two pear and walnut bread loaves burned in places I didn’t expect. Usually, if I don’t watch carefully, the bottom gets a bit brown, but I had burn creep up and over the sides. The walnuts on top practically roasted. I was annoyed. So I made two more without the added walnuts on top. And they were worse. There was no way I could give them to anyone. They looked awful.

The next morning, I was booked on the 10 am train to the city. I got up at 6 am to start on the French bread. All went well until I got distracted. I failed to score them (that deep cross-like incision that lets the dough breathe) and I forgot to glaze them. They looked less like loaves of bread and more like smooth stones. Another failure. I was incensed. I ran the full gamut of self-recriminations loaded with expletives and salted with a few tears (I’m not at my best that early in the morning).

Back in the city, I searched three bakeries looking for a nut bread and had to settle for less. And funnily, in comparison, mine didn’t look half bad. I’d brought a loaf of each of the burnt offerings with me and duly delivered them to the lads who weren’t at all phased. They trimmed and sliced and served and the compliments rolled in. Delicious. Fab. Amazing.

All this made me stop and think about how wrapped up I am in external appearances. If it doesn’t look close to perfect then it’s an automatic fail. No matter that it looked a little burnt on the outside – inside it was fresh and tasty and full of homemade goodness. There’s a lesson in that, one I’m grateful to have been reminded of. Appearances can be deceiving. And just as ugly on the outside doesn’t mean ugly on the inside, neither does pretty on the outside mean pretty on the inside. Time (and taste) tells.

Pear and Walnut bread recipe

In one bowl, mix 3 cups of flour, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1 tsp of salt (and an optional half-cup of fine-ground walnuts). In another bowl whisk three eggs with 1 cup of vegetable oil, 2 tsp of vanilla essence and1 cup of sugar until smooth. Then gradually fold the dry mix into this, adding 2 cups of liquidised pears towards the end. Then add a  cup of coarsely chopped walnuts. Mix well. Divide into two rectuangular loaf tins and bake. I can’t help you with the temp or the time as my oven is contrary – I put it is about 8 pm on the dial and check it after 20 mins, turning if the back side seems browner than the front. So maybe 325 F or 165 C for anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes. Keep an eye on it. Be sure to preheat the oven though, as this helps. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes and then upend onto a rack to completely cool. It freezes well and keeps in a tin for days.

Pear and walnut bread

wine-tasting hungary

Hungarian wines and the 5%

I’m not a great one for wine-tastings. I have a thing about pretentiousness. I don’t trust the lingo. Talking of balance and body and finish and legs and such brings out the blue collar in me and I resist what I see (irrationally) as poncey. I’ll fess up. It’s my issue. It’s in my head. Mine alone.

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2019 Grateful 37: Thought police missing?

Last year, Hungary made the international news because of a controversial decision to pull a production of Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot musical branded gay propaganda in Hungary and cancellations follow, said the New York Times. Billy Elliot musical axes dates in Hungary amid claims it could ‘turn children gay’, decried The Guardian. Hungarian State Opera axes Billy Elliot shows after homophobic campaign, noted The Telegraph. Read more

potatoes

The price of potatoes

When I was at home last, Boss was complaining about the price of seed potatoes. €45 they wanted. He wasn’t impressed. I’m not sure who they are or what he ended up planting but plant he did. In the village, himself has been on a planting frenzy – everything but potatoes. He can’t see the return on labour – all the work that’s involved when Hungarian spuds aren’t expensive and we don’t eat many anyway. And then I read the news:

Domestic potato stocks have run out!

What is going on with my worlds? Where have the potatoes gone? Why are they so expensive? Apparently the price in Hungary was up 66% year-on-year in February. I can’t say as I’ve noticed.

I was curious. I was waiting for a laundry cycle to finish and had time on my hands. So I did some research.

The European potato harvest has been the worst in 40 years. Prices on the Belgian open potato market are 11 times higher than they were last year. And while this mightn’t worry you unduly if you’re not into boiled spuds and parsely or spuds  roasted in goose fat, think about the knock-on effects. The price of chips (French fries) is going to skyrocket. And if the potatoes are smaller in size, there goes the fully loaded baked potato as a summer BBQ side. And because there was a 25% drop in production, fewer seed potatoes are available and so they’re more expensive (must tell Boss) and this means that fewer will be planted for the next harvest, continuing the cycle.

György Murai, a member of the Hungarian Potato Council (who knew!) said on a radio show during the week that most potatoes imported to Hungary come from France, and they’re red. The French, appararently are partial to the yellow potato and don’t mind sharing the reds. Does this mean that I won’t be able to get yellow salad spuds for my warm potato and artichoke salad this summer? Or what of my pasta e patate, that Neapolitan class of pasta and potatoes?

Interestingly, not too long ago, the growing of potatoes was outlawed in France:

In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterillity, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew.  There was so much opposition to the potato that an edict was made in the town of Besancon, France stating: “In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it.”

With other spuds are arriving from North Africa, from countries like Algeria and Morocco, it looks like the Hungarian potato will be hard to find this summer.

Even more curious now, I did some more reading and discovered that after rice, wheat and maize, the potato is the world’s largest food crop. A veritable vitamin ball, the humble potato has a bit of all the important ones:

An excellent source of vitamin C
A good source of potassium (more than a banana!)
A good source of vitamin B6

And it’s fat-, sodium- and cholesterol-free. Who knew? Where are the marketing guys on this one?

The potato originated with the Incas in Peru back around 8000 BC. Much, much, much later, while the Spanish Conquistadors were checking out what Peru had to offer, they were so impressed with the humble spud that they brought it back to Spain. This was around 1536. Then later, in 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh brought them to Ireland, planting 40 000 acres of them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork.

The local gentry were invited to a royal banquet featuring the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the cooks were uneducated in the matter of potatoes, tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled stems and leaves (which are poisonous), which promptly made everyone deathly ill. The potatoes were then banned from court.

I’ll be looking with interest to see where the potatoes on offer this summer come from. My summer BBQ menu might need some adjusting, too. But isn’t it interesting what you can learn when you’re waiting for washing-machine to beep?

 

 

 

2019 Grateful 38

I’d been looking forward to April 18th for weeks. The first day in the lead-up to Easter Sunday. The day I’d finally get to leave the city and head to the village.

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Chernobyl Diaries

Of all the questions expats ask of each other, what do you do is probably right up there as the most common. I’m in finance. I’m in sales. I’m in publishing. Package expats, those working in Hungary for a multinational, are a breed apart from the freelancers, the English teachers, the artists. And while the paid pensionable positions significantly outnumber less lucrative take-the-work-when-you-get-it (in my experience), there’s an undercoat of artistry and creativity seeping to the surface.

I first came across British artist Michael Pettet a couple of years ago. At the forefront of digital art, Pettet embraced the challenge of imbuing the product of technology with soul. He showed me how his canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop. He approaches his digital paintings much as he did when he used traditional materials. The end result evolves from the interweaving of thought and inner dialogue and, as with any art, the magic lies in its interpretation.

With his environment a major influencer of his work, Pettet’s portfolio can be categorised by location. One of my favourites, Lament, harks back to memories of his childhood holidays in Scotland, a series entitled Scapa Flow. Another, one I still covet, is from the Sala de Uyuni (salt flats) from his time in Bolivia.

A huge fan of his work, I was intrigued to hear of his Chernobyl Diaries, most likely because Chernobyl is the bogeyman in my life, the personification of a danger that has indelibly tainted the power of nuclear in my mind. In the aftermath of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Irish activist Adi Roche went to help with the children who had suffered the consequences and in 1991, set up Chernobyl Children International. That the environment was damaged is a given. But the lasting human scars, the legacy of that radioactive explosion,  removed from the abstract of news reporting and made all so real to the Irish of my generation by Roche’s work are something nightmares are made of. It may have happened over 30 years ago, but the disaster that is Chernobyl isn’t going anywhere.

The CCI website says:

Two million people in Belarus, of whom 500,000 are children are high-risk, still live in heavily contaminated zones. Continuing low dose exposure through the food chain remains a huge risk for the populations: Some areas of land will be radioactive for 24,000 years, as much as 1 million hectares cannot be farmed for 100 years.

Pettet recently visited the ghost town of Pripyat. What he saw there left a lasting impression, an impression he has diarised in his art, covering the explosion and its aftermath and the faint attempt at rejuvenation. But his artistic commentary isn’t limited to one incident and its consequences. Pettet’s latest series holds up a mirror to our global self-indulgence and reflects the consequence of our failure to adjust our lifestyle to mitigate climate change.

That we are ignorant of what might be in store is no longer credible. The evidence is there. Science has spoken. That we are ignoring the signs of what the future holds speaks either to a seriously misguided optimism that it’ll all work out or a carpe diem lassitude that takes living in the present a step too far. Twenty-first-century hedonism has little regard for consequences. Consumerism is our new mantra, smartphone screens our preferred landscape. We’ve eschewed both the broader picture and the microscopic viewpoint, preferring to live in echo chambers of our own making. Our complete disregard for nature, our wanton destruction of our natural habitats, and our reckless depletion of our natural resources mark us as misguided idiots, at best. For Pettet, Chernobyl embodies the

conflict between humanity and nature, how we are going to manage our existence with ever increasing energy demands and how things can go horribly wrong if we cut corners or become complacent.

The pieces that make up the Chernobyl Diaries include broad sweeping images of an empty world and smaller compositions of the minutest detail that suggest atoms at play. Each one speaks to the viewer and positions itself in their memory, coloured by their recollection and knowledge of what happened in 1986. Pettet deliberately plays to our fears, tapping into the concerns that riddle our collective consciousness.

Although no stranger to the topic of war and disaster [most of his work is about conflict, even his portrait series, which deals with internal conflict as we enter the age of real vs virtual existence], the Chernobyl Diaries are more about the tenacity of nature rather than the horror of nuclear disaster.

I decided not to challenge myself to deal with the horror as above all I wanted to impress that whatever we do to the planet, it will survive us. It may take many thousands of years to recover from our parasitic consumption of its abundant resources, but nevertheless, recover it will.

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 3 (92cmx93cmn

Viewed through this lens, this body of work is both inspiring and chastening. Each piece, like a single diary entry, can be taken alone, but together, they tell a story of evacuation and desertion driven by radiation and destruction. They tell a story of reclamation and rejuvenation. They tell a story of resilience, of how the planet will recover, of how it will survive, despite our best efforts to destroy it.

The Chernobyl Diaries are the result of a conversation between the artist and his subject. The exhibition facilitates a conversation between the viewer and Pettet’s art. At first glance, they’re gripping. But when viewed a second or even a third time, something shifts. It’s this fluidity that marks his work as special. Through this body of work, Pettet’s ‘realisation of just how small and insignificant we are and yet how dangerous and threatening we have become’ shines through.

On exhibition at The Studios, BrodyLand (Vörösmarty utca 38) until 23 April, Chernobyl Diaries then moves to Fuga Art Gallery (Petőfi Sándor utca 5) opening 4 May and running for three weeks. One not to be missed. Check him out at https://www.michaelpettet.com/

First published in the Budapest Times 12 April 2019

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 5 (60cmx60cm)

First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2019

 

2019 Grateful 39: Intergenerational Communication

Something strange and wonderful happened this week. I turned a corner to face the realisation that I’m of another generation. I’m the X in the XYZ of generational clusters, morphed by circumstance and defined by having lived both with and without computers. I can still remember the magic of receiving my first Fax and being blown away that an image could be sent across telephone lines. When I recall that, I feel old, and yet it’s been a long time since I was the oldest person a room of nearly 200. Read more

Derelict building not far from the North Strand

North Strand to North Brunswick Street

I was in the North Strand in Dublin. I wanted to get to North Brunswick Street. I checked with Google and saw that taking public transport would save me less than 10 minutes, so I walked. And I rediscovered a part of the city I hadn’t been through in years. Read more