2018 Grateful 3

I got a right old slap in the face this week. Shocking really. I’ve been dwelling on it for days. A mate of mine rang me from Tanzania one evening and we had quite the chat. I asked what life was like over there as we plan on visiting him next year. On a personal note, I was particularly interested in how he was faring in the romance department. I wondered if there was a new man on the scene.  Being gay in a country where homosexuality carries a 30-year prison sentence is no joke. I wondered how he was doing and how much the draconian laws affected his life. [According to Amnesty International, four African countries still have the death penalty for homosexuals.]

He’s keeping a low profile, he said, but thankfully, he’s not living in the capital. Last month, according to a report in The Guardian, hundreds went into hiding to avoid the witch hunt currently underway in Dar es Salaam, where Paul Makonda, the city’s administrative head, has called for people to out their gay friends, neighbours, and relatives. The US embassy has advised US citizens in the country to review their social media posts for content…just in case. Mad, I thought. And very worrying. How could anyone live in those sorts of circumstances?

Anyway, I was recounting this story to another friend of mine, who said: ‘I assume you won’t be going there, then.’ And before my brain kicked in, I heard myself reply: ‘Of course I’m going. I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.’

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

Sweet mother of Divine Jesus, how did I get to this low point? When did I start thinking that as long as it wasn’t being done to me, I’d nothing to worry about?

To say I was disgusted with myself is an understatement.

Many years ago, I came across a quotation by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It affected me deeply. I have serious issues with Azerbaijan and doubt I’ll ever set foot in the country again after that Azeri murderer debacle.  I try my damnedest not to buy anything made in China because I’ve taken umbrage at its censorship laws. After some soul searching in October, given what’s going on with the Rohingya, we decided not to go to Myanmar, even though we could see it across the water.  Realistically, if I took stock of the human rights record of every country I visited and avoided those with a blemish, I’d find my map of travel opportunity much smaller. But that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s the quickness with which I came back with the answer that has me concerned.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

A few weeks back, in a comment on something I’d posted on Facebook, a former colleague (and friend, or so I thought) called me a racist. No explanation was given. Just a statement: ‘You’re a racist.’ That same week, because I don’t happen to think George Soros is evil, another friend lumped me into what they call the Zombie Minions. Not usually one to give a rat’s ass about what people think of me, these two labels hurt me deeply.

Just about any policy or political post I read today on social media has a litany of comments following it that vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ad hominem attacks are rampant. People’s characters and/or personal attributes are being attacked to discredit their arguments. Criticisers are not engaging with the subject of the debate but the person debating it. It’s mean. It’s nasty. It’s debilitating. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly becoming the norm. There seems to be a prevailing sense that ‘I’m right and if you don’t believe as I do, then you’re wrong.’ In this black-and-white world, I’m finding it hard to find even two shades of grey, let alone fifty.

In one comment on an anti-Trump post recently, someone pointed to a page on the US State Department’s website which lists all that’s been achieved since getting into power. Arguably, Obama had set the groundwork, but still, these were accomplished with him in office. I read the list and spot-checked, looking for alternative sources to support the claims. And they’re there. So why then can’t those against the man and all he stands for admit the accomplishments but ask what they’ve been achieved at the expense of? And has it been worth the price?  Isn’t that a better basis for discussion?

I’m slowly losing the will to engage. I’m having visceral reactions to the strident posts I read on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sick to my stomach of the anger and the hate and the superiority of the arguments. I’ve blocked, muted, and unfollowed but then I wonder if I need to read/hear all sides to keep track of what’s going on and not get lured into that self-righteous box of moral certainty.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

But is it too late? Am I already there? Have I tucked away my principles until a more convenient time dawns?

I still plan to go to Tanzania. I want to see my friend. It’s been too long. But now I’ll do so consciously.

This week, I’m grateful that we had the chance to talk and that I had this recalibratory moment. Now more than ever, I need to keep my wits about me, to keep thinking for myself, and not fall victim to the hype and hysteria I see and hear every day.

 

 

Swan in the road

Trash talk

We went looking for holly the other day, down by the lake. It was glorious – one of those magical brisk winter days when the sun plays hide-and-seek and the fields are half-planted, half-ploughed. The wind couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to do and for a few seconds, we were caught in a leaf storm as it whipped through the trees trying to tear the last of their leaves from them. They fought a good fight.

leaf storm

The colours were of the stuff no artist could capture. In one spot – a narrow neck of water between the fields and the island – Kányavári sziget – the water was trying to freeze. It was humbling to see the broad rough water in the distance to the right, the little ripples by the shore and then in between, the still, glass-like effect of ice in the making. Such is the multifaceted power of nature.

Kis-Balaton icing over

Kis-Balaton icing over

It’s recycling week in the village. On Thursday, we can leave out our paper and plastic for pick-up along with the regular rubbish, so I grabbed a yellow bag (plastics) just in case we happened across any litter on our walk and we set off. We decided to drive to Hídveg and then walk the bike path back to the island. But I missed the turn. And I’m glad I did, because there, in the middle of the road on the bridge, as brazen as you like, was a massive swan. He was busy cleaning his feathers, standing on one leg, neck turned under, oblivious to us. I crawled closer waiting for him to look up. And he did. And then he went back to what he was doing. I beeped the horn. He looked at me again, this time in disdain as if to say, get real, I’m busy. I drove slowly around him to the right and he did move, ever so slightly to the other side of the road. I turned around to come back and faced him again. But this time, he wasn’t going anywhere. No way. Not moving. It was a first for me. I’ve seen elephants, cows, chickens, monkeys, dogs, horses, donkeys, pheasants, deer, moose, pigs – you name it – but this was my first road-hogging swan.

Swan in the road

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

On our walk, we found the usual flurry of litter – plastic water bottles, beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and the remnants of black plastic bags. I had to concentrate on my breathing to avoid getting really pissed off at the people who’d so carelessly trashed the place. I’m really making an effort to reduce the stress in my life and to stay the anxiety, but it’s a struggle when inconsiderate, thoughtless people, make it so difficult. Seriously! I was blaming the cyclists who use this path until himself (a cyclist) reasoned that they’d be unlikely to carry 1.5L bottles. Okay, so not the MAMILs but the tourist pedallers then. But it doesn’t much matter who did it, it simply shouldn’t be done.

A new addition to the litany of litter is the wet wipe. Duh, people, these don’t disintegrate in the rain. They’re not biodegradable. You shouldn’t even flush the ones that say they’re flushable. Remember back when plastic bags were free and the world’s collective environmental consciousness was comatose? You’d see bags hanging on trees like ornaments. So plentiful were there that at times it looked as if they were a fruit. Well, now that we’re doing better with our bags, the latest foliage is the wet wipe. Don’t worry – I had my litter gloves on. We almost filled our large plastic bag – I stopped counting at 20 bottles and as many wet wipes and am still wondering where the second sandal is and why I found just one sleeve of a faux-leather jacket. At one stage I wondered what number I’d call if I found a body.

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

As we walked towards the lake, I saw this big piece of pipe, just sitting there. That nearly set me off completely. Whatever about thoughtlessly casting aside a water bottle or answering nature’s call and leaving the wet wipe behind, carrying stuff into the woods to deliberately dispose of it – that’s a hanging offence in my world. But himself, ever rational, pointed to the end of the pipe that was buried underground and suggested it was part of some irrigation system using water from the lake. Alright, I suppose, but it looked ugly and out of place and upset my sense of being.

If you’re out and about walking round the Kis-Balaton, or anywhere really, think about taking a rubbish bag with you. Picking up after others isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but don’t think of them, think the critters who could do without eating or getting ensnared in our waste.

Years ago, Mother Patrick, a nun who taught us in primary school, asked us how long it would take to sweep the streets of Paris. We guessed days, weeks, months even. She said 10 minutes – 10 minutes if everyone swept outside their own doorstep. The countryside doesn’t have doorsteps. It has visitors. Be a sweeper. Make a difference.

2018 Grateful 4

Sometimes I amaze myself.  I really and truly amaze myself with my ability to get things mixed up. I knew Francis Bacon was around in Elizabethan times. I had a vague memory of him being some sort of scientist-cum-philosopher. I had thought he was a lawyer, too. But I didn’t know that he apparently died from pneumonia contracted when he was researching the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.  And I had never, ever, thought of him as a painter.

So when himself mentioned going to see the Francis Bacon and the School of London exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in Budapest, I was all on for seeing a side of the man I’d not encountered before. But the dates didn’t add up. I’d gotten my Bacons confused. This Francis Bacon was Irish, born in a nursing home in Dublin in 1909. He lived over the road from me at home, near the Curragh in Kildare. [How come I didn’t know this?] His website is a fascinating read. I was particularly taken with this description of his parents:

His father, while not unintelligent, was a belligerent and argumentative man; his mother, a gregarious hostess inclined to self-absorption.

And this belligerent man threw young Bacon out of the house at 16 when he caught him trying on his mother’s frillies. Bacon moved to London and when, in 1927, he saw some of Picasso’s drawings at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, he thought art might be his thing. But first, he’d serve his time as an interior decorator and furniture designer. His bio really is quite enthralling. I was surprised to see that he only died in 1992. We walked this earth at the same time. His studio was donated to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin where it was reconstructed and opened to the public in 2001. The Irish boy had come home.

I won’t pretend to understand his art or how he was influenced and in turn influenced so many. That’s beyond me. I found some of his paintings disturbing and there wasn’t one I’d want to hang in my hallway. But his life – his life was quite something.

I really should have done my homework, though.

Amidst the dominance of the late 1970’s abstract, conceptual, and minimalist art, a number of artists focused their creative energies into the examination of the painting of the post war period. The term School of London was coined by R.B. Kitaj in order to refer to the group of artists and their preoccupation with figurative painting whom he gathered for the 1976 exhibition The Human Clay at the Hayward gallery. The chief artists associated with the idea of School of London, in addition to Kitaj himself, were Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Leon Kossoff. In the face of the avant-garde approaches, these painters pursued both drawing and painting focused on the examination of the form of the people and the world around them.

A little embarrassed that I’d gotten my Bacons confused, I kept my next addlement to myself until I could test it. You see, another of the painters in this exhibition was Freud. And yes, I’ll fess up. I did wonder how come I’d never known that man was a painter either. I’d gotten my Freuds confused, too. That said, Lucien’s work was more to my liking than Francis’s. I’d happily hang his painting Two Plants on my wall and stare at it for hours. It took him three years to finish this amazing piece of work.

I’d never really appreciated how much work goes into one painting. Seated Nude by another artist in the show, Sir William Coldstream, took sixty 90-minute sittings. He only painted in the presence of the model. Modelling has to be hard work. Sitting still for 90 minutes sixty times?  Juliet Yardley Mills  (JYM) modelled for another featured artist, Frank Auerbach, each Monday and Wednesday for 40 years. Such dedication. Incidentally, his Head of E.O.W. I was my second pick of the exhibition – the picture I’ve linked to doesn’t do it justice. The colours are quite something. It’s a painting of his long-time model, Stella West.  Freud painted a series of 18 portraits of his mother that took 1000 sittings, each lasting anywhere from 4 to 8 hours. I’m telling you – these models are unsung heroes. I can’t help but wonder how artists today fare out. Can anyone sit still, sans phone, for 90 minutes, let alone 8 hours?

I love my art but I’m not an art lover per se. I’ve never studied art history. What I know about style and schools and techniques could be written on a banana skin. But I am a fan of learning, of exploring, of trying something different. For my birthday earlier this year, I received a Friends Membership for the MNG which gets me into these gigs for free. And as I loathe waste of any kind, I intend getting full value out of the investment.

Half-way through, though, I was conscious that I was racing ahead.  If I didn’t watch myself, I’d be waiting outside for himself to catch up. So I slowed down a little and instead of reading the captions first, I looked at each of the abstracts to see if I could guess what it might be. Leon Kossoff stumped me. I spent an age with his Building Site, Victoria Street, 1961 and came up with everything but. I finally fixed on cliffs and mudflats. But I was wrong again. That said, his Christ Church, Spitalfields was my third pick for the day. Given my angst at the institutionalisation of religion and what it can lead to, this held me up for a while.

The exhibition runs in Budapest till13 January. Tim Adams reviewed it for The Guardian when it opened in London earlier this year and gave it 5*s, calling it a ‘thrilling and thoughtful exhibition’. I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about [2015 One World award for newspaper journalist of the year, and the Foreign Press award for arts and culture writing]. My lack of ‘fine’ education causes me no end of insecurity. That I had never heard of the School of London and had confused my Freuds and my Bacons is mortifying. I know I should know more than I do, but I’m grateful that I’m getting to remedy the situation, art-wise, one exhibition at a time. And I’m grateful, too, for my new-found appreciation for the unsung heroes of portraiture – the sitters.

 

2018 Grateful 5

The massive earthquake in Alaska last week prompted me to email a mate of mine living in Anchorage. Everyone is fine. And apart from some bits of broken glass, the damage is minimal. For them. Others were not so lucky. They updated me on what’s been happening, most notably the death of an old friend I’d lost touch with. With the news came a link to Eileen’s obituary.

Quite a number of lifetimes ago, I worked with Eileen on the first Irish Music Festival in Alaska – it was in Anchorage in the late mid-90s.  I can’t remember if it was called the Anchorage Irish  Music Festival or the Alaskan Irish Music Festival but I can still see the posters she laboured over and I’m sure I have my signed copy tucked away somewhere. I have vague memories of chatting to potential donors trying to persuade them to sponsor this fledgling venture. One particular night that comes to mind involved a prominent Anchorage lawyer who had worked his way through university giving dance classes. He made me look like I knew what I was doing on the dance floor of a basement city jazz club. My date, Tom Kruse, sat and watched, wondering how I kept this particular talent such a secret. I even impressed myself! Eileen’s knowledge of traditional Irish music and musicians put mine to shame. I remember her getting really excited when Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill said they’d come and play. Seán Keane’s confirmation also set her heart racing. [Interestingly, I see that he has an album out titled Gratitude.] I wasn’t into the music at all, but have distinct memories of being blown away by some of the fiddle playing.

Eileen didn’t drink but she wasn’t fussed at being around people who did. She’d prop herself up at the bar, fan awaving, and hold court. At the heart of everything, she seemed to know everyone in town and everyone knew her. With her bottomless pit of energy, she would regularly leave me lagging, and this was when I was in my heyday. She could talk anyone into just about anything. I once ended up cooking Irish stew for a visiting accordian player and his entourage at very short notice. I have distinct memories of practising saying no to her 🙂 A consummate conversationalist, Eileen was always talking, which is why it was so heart-breaking to read that she hadn’t said a word for the last five years of her life.

Diagnosed with both Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) and Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA), Eileen’s wit was a victim of this dual pairing of very nasty afflictions. She couldn’t communicate, or show emotion. And for someone who was once a master in communication at all levels – emotionally, verbally, and musically – this had to have been beyond bad. I’ve thought of her often over the years. I’ve mentioned her, too, in various anecdotes I’ve told from my time in Alaska. I was sad to hear of her passing but know that heaven has itself a new MC and that the party has only started.

To read the obituary her kids put together says so much about her as a person, a friend, a mother. What great tribute could they pay.

She was a connector of people, a serial partier, and hosted some of the most memorable proms in Anchorage history. Eileen was known for loving a good céilí and if there wasn’t one happening, she would host one. If you were her friend, she was the best kind of friend. When she heard of a need, she helped fulfill it. When she loved, it was unconditional. She was the best kind of mother, friend, and human. The light she brought to the world can never be replaced and will never be extinguished. She illuminated us all and we are grateful for the time we had with her.

I am grateful, too, for the time I had with her. That couple of years I spent in Anchorage have stayed with me. Eileen and her indomitable spirit are very much part of those memories.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam.

Eileen Monaghan

Sunset at Balatonmáriafürdő

Bracing the cold in Balatonmáriafürdő

We had it all planned. We left in plenty of time to get to the garden centre in Balatonkeresztúr before it shut at 5 pm. Time enough to pick out some fruit trees (quince for me, plum and peach for himself), have a quick look at the Christmas offer, if it had been tabled, and then drop me at the station in Zalakomár to catch the train to Budapest. The timing was planned with a precision peculiar to anal Irish women and the military.  We departed on schedule. We arrived on schedule. But winter hours kicked in last month and the place now closes at 4 pm. We arrived at 4.01.

With the guts of an hour and a half before I had to catch my train, we had time on our hands and nothing to do with it. We decided to check out the lake at Balatonmáriafürdő. Bracing ourselves for the biting cold, we walked the pier at the ferry port and watched the remains of the sunset leak out over the water. Named after Bernáth Aurél, the Hungarian painter born in nearby Marcali, the promenade juts out into the Balaton, no doubt lined with fishermen in the summer. At 4.30 pm on a Tuesday evening in late November, with temperatures hovering around zero, there was no one but us and the ducks. Bernáth seems to have been quite the ticket. He maintained that there are five reasons people are generally interested in paintings (translation by Google):

1. ha szabadban készül, 2. ha öröklik, 3. ha egy kiállításon felháborodásból beszakítják, 4. ha ellopják, 5. ha pornografikus

1. if they are outdoors, 2. if they inherit, 3. if they are being outraged at an exhibition, 4. if they are stolen, 5. if they are pornographic.

He took a six-month honeymoon around Europe in the 1920s and after it painted the piece Riveria – my art covet for this week.

Balatonmáriafürdő: Bernáth Aurél Promenade

 

Boats at Balatonmáriafürdő

Boats at Balatonmáriafürdő

There’s something magical about the Balaton in winter. when the only colours breaking the grey-blue palate are the gold of the rushes and the reds and oranges of the setting sun. Judging by the number of restaurants, cafés, pensions, and hotels, the town must heave in the summer. And given that most signs we saw on the jetty were in both Hungarian and German, a large portion of visitors must be from Németország. With one government-run beach and seven free ones, the town seems to have plenty to offer. As it turns out, the one we stopped at was a free one, at the boat harbour, Hajóállomási strand, where the ferry runs across the lake to Szigliget. But from a little research, the one I’d like to revisit in late spring/early summer is Őrház utcai strand – I need to see if the town’s publicity photo does it justice.

I’d also like to catch the Balaton Old Boys in action. Playing locally since 2010, these old boys are hell-bent on reviving 1960s guitar sounds. What began as a three-man band has grown into a cultural association. From the smallest acorn comes a big Oak tree. There’s also a small museum chronicling the journey the town made from a vineyard to a bathing centre. It’s open from May to September, so plenty to come back for in early May before the hordes descend.

Sunset at Balatonberény

Sunset at Balatonberény

Back in the car, we thawed out just enough to make the thoughts of another walk appealing. And again, in Balatonberény, we had the place to ourselves. Across the lake, we could see the lights of Keszthely flickering in the distance. Still blustery and bitingly cold, it was magical. This Balaton town is probably most famous for its naturist camping site. On the go since the late 1980s, it’s Hungary’s oldest naturist site and in addition to pitches, it has a motel, mobile homes, and holiday cottages. If I’m reading the website right, it seems to be pretty much self-contained with everything from coffee shops to bars and buffets restaurants, a grocery store, and a laundry facility, You can play volleyball or table tennis or even chess down on the beach. And all in the nip, but from the photos, clothes appear to be optional…mmmm.

We took the Old Route 7 back to Zalakomár with talk of travelling on that road the whole way to Budapest next year, just to see what gems the motorway has us missing. What started out as muttered curses for getting the opening times wrong turned out to be a lovely couple of healthy hours discovering something new. Village life, I tell you. It just keeps on giving.

 

 

 

Free books and where they take you

My brother turned me on to BookBub when I went over to the Darkside and bought a Kindle. You fill in your details, check some boxes to build a reader profile, and then each day you receive an email with book offers listed on Amazon. Most days there’s at least one book on it that’s free, with the most expensive hovering around the £3.49 mark. My selection is fixed for crime novels, whodunnits, and detective fiction and rarely do I shell out more than a quid. My kindle is my escape. My serious reading I still do in the old-fashioned format.  I’ve picked some appalling offers that on a good day wouldn’t pass for anything approaching a decent read, but I’ve also chosen some gems. The best in recent months is the discovery of Kathryn Guare’s Conor McBride, a find worth sharing as it ticked a lot of boxes for me.

A box set of globe-trotting espionage thrillers! Conor McBride has a simple life — until MI6 transforms him into a deadly operative, propelling him into a world of international intrigue and dangerous secrets.

This was the blurb. And it was free. At most I’d lose 15 minutes of my life. That’s all it takes to know if I want to see the book through till the end.

Set in Kerry, London, Mumbai, Vermont, and Prague, the storyline is made for the big screen. Someone, sometime, has to nab the film rights. And while it might be a stretch of even the most fertile imagination to travel with this violin-playing Kerry farmer from a milking parlour in the south-west of Ireland to the backstreets of Mumbai to the concerts halls of Prague, I had no difficulty at all. Guare is a convincing writer. Her characters are credible, their antics (no matter how far-fetched) are strangely believable. And I loved the banter. Sometimes, in these types of books, the romantic element is overdone, underdone, or just plain awkward. But again, Guare nails it. It complements rather than detracts and adds depth to the story and the characters.

For a week, I followed my man Conor halfway around the world, rarely letting him out of my sight. Questions around trust, reliability, and dependability came to the fore. I found myself engaging with the characters and the story by asking myself if I’d have believed X when they said Y.  And that level of engagement is rare. I wondered if I was identifying too much with the Irishness of it all and how well Guare seems to understand the Irish psyche [‘The Irish had spent centuries perfecting the art of cursing as poetic expression’]. Perhaps. Amongst the passions listed for Guare in her standard web-bio are ‘all things Celtic’. The bits of Gaelic that pop up are well placed and appropriate, with none of the usual artfulness I’ve come to expect from North American writers. In my experience, capturing this Irishness, this essence, is a rare thing for someone born and raised outside of Ireland. Guare is a third-generation Vermonter who has travelled a lot in Europe and India. She’s obviously called on her experience in shaping the life of Conor McBride.

While I had no difficulty in believing that what I was reading was real and no problem buying into all that double-crossing, lying, and subterfuge, I had a real problem with this:

‘Terror makes for strange bedfellows, Kate.’ Frank crumbled some Stilton over a slice of apple and handed it to her.

Given what I know of the North American hangups about double-dipping, Kate must be one special woman to eat cheese handled by someone else 🙂 I liked her. And Conor. And Frank. And Winnie. And all the other characters who went everywhere I went for a week.

If you’re looking for something to read this Christmas, and like intricate plots, believable characters, and a rollicking mystery, then this box set is worth checking out. The BookBub offer is over so you’ll have to pay for it – a whopping £5.99 (UK) $7.68   (USA) for all three books. A steal at twice the price.

 

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 6 | Making the Move

Things have been a little scatty lately. What with my recent memory blank and other odd stuff going on, it felt like the puppet master was tugging a little too heavily on the strings. I was a tad discombobulated. Something was off and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Back in Budapest for a few days after a quick trip home to see the folks, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. They congratulated me on making the move.

What move, I asked?

To the village, they said. I hear you’re now living down there during the week and just coming to Budapest at the weekend.

That stopped me in my tracks. I’d no idea that I’d moved.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I had … mentally. I’d shifted from living in the city to living in the village. Budapest is somewhere I have a flat I can use when I’m working in the city or travelling in or out of it. The village is home. And with that admission, the discombobulation recombobulated and life suddenly felt okay again.

It’s 1 degree outside. It’s snowing. And we’re just back from a rather silly venture. I had the bright idea to go check on the walnut tree we spotted last year on the track that runs along the lake at the end of our property. Walnuts are in short supply. It’s been a bad season. But I figured we might strike it lucky. What I didn’t figure on is that they’d be impossible to find, buried as they no doubt are beneath layers of fallen leaves. Sometimes I seriously doubt my intelligence.  But it didn’t matter. We were out. It was bracingly cold. And it was snowing.

We came across this lovely red-stemmed bush with bunches of black berries. The red really stood out against the browns and golds of the dried leaves around it. And the grape-like clusters of berries looked good enough to eat. And I would have, had himself not pulled me up with a word of caution.

They’re low. There are deer tracks. And the deer haven’t eaten them. You sure you want to try?

I couldn’t fault the man’s logic. So I checked WebMD.

Pokeweed, aka American Nightshade. The root is supposedly used in medicines to treat a range of ailments from acne to ringworm, from achy muscles to syphilis. It’s used in food and wine a colouring agent and in manufacturing to make ink and dye. I was already seeing the possibilities. But then I read on, on the same site:

All parts of the pokeweed plant, especially the root, are poisonous. Severe poisoning has been reported from drinking tea brewed from pokeweed root and pokeweed leaves. Poisoning also has resulted from drinking pokeberry wine and eating pokeberry pancakes. Eating just 10 berries can be toxic to an adult.

There went my pokeweed jam idea. Unless I wanted to cause vomiting, cramps, diarrhoea, incontinence, and more along that vein. [Could there be a market in that?] Apparently, even touching it can cause harm. Getting mixed messages and not willing to believe that this luscious crop of berries couldn’t end up in a jamjar, I checked Poison.org. Yep, pokeberries are definitely not good for you.

Although disappointed I couldn’t put them to good use, I was pleased that I’d make a discovery. That I’d learned something new. As the snow blew across the fields, parallel to the ground, I felt the crispness of winter. I was cold. I was wet. And I was happy. This week, I’m grateful to be home.

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 7

I caught the last train to the village on Thursday night. I’d been in a workshop all day and then to the doctor that evening but I was on time, with 30 minutes to spare. I settled in to my seat, a whole carriage to myself. The joy of late-night train travel. I double-checked my messages. Yep – I was to get off in Balatonszentgyörgy where himself would pick me up.

Fast forward the 2 hours and 15 or so minutes the train takes, and we pulled into the station. I got off. No sign of himself on the platform, which was unusual. No sign of the car in the car park, which was downright worrying. So I rang.

M: Where are you?
H: On my way to Zalakómar. Where are you?
M: In Balatonszentgyörgy.
H: What are you doing there?
M: This is where you told me to be.
H: But then you called and insisted I go to Kómar.
M: I did not. We haven’t spoken since this morning.
H: Yes. We did. You called me after your workshop.
M: No. I didn’t.
H: Yes. You did.
M: FFS!

I ran back, crossed over in front of the Keszthely train getting an earful from the station agent for my trouble. The train splits in Balatonszentgyörgy with half going one direction and half another. My half was beginning to roll down the tracks but the shouts of yer woman berating me for my near-suicidal dash across the tracks pulled up the driver. He leaned out the window and shouted:

D: Hová mész? (Where are you going?)
M: Kómar!
D: Rendben (OK), thumbing back to the carriage.

I jumped on and he took off. {I’m available for stunt work.}

The friendly ticket conductor was curious.

C: Do you know where you’re going?
M: I know where I was supposed to be. But my husband, he’s in Kómar. [Relax – it’s just easier]
C: Ah, us men, we’re always wrong.

And bless him, he didn’t charge me for the extra leg.

So, I get to Kómar and there’s himself. On the platform, phone at the ready, to show me the record of our call. And yes. We had talked. For 3 minutes. I didn’t have the faintest recollection of the conversation. And that scared me shitless.

I am terrified of dementia.

Dementia is a syndrome, not a disease. … Dementia is a group of symptoms that affects mental cognitive tasks such as memory and reasoning. Dementia is an umbrella term that Alzheimer’s disease can fall under. It can occur due to a variety of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.

My anxiety levels were rising and no matter how he tried to steer the conversation, I kept coming back to the fact that I had zero recollection of a phone conversation that happened less than five hours earlier. Bless him. He really has the patience of Job. I was nearly hysterical. I had a knot in my stomach the size of a pregnant orange. On the 10-minute drive to the house, I messaged a good mate of mine in the UK who is studying memory issues and told him what had happened. Thankfully, he was online. He asked me if anyone had commented on any changes in my behaviour recently. I checked with himself. And yes, apparently I’ve been more forgetful than usual. I asked him if he could run a preliminary check on me. We fixed a date for Sunday evening.

It’s been hovering in the back of my mind the whole weekend. I’ve been watching myself like a new mother might an infant child, the anxiety eaten up by what ifs. What if those three minutes were is alibi for some heinous crime himself was wrongly accused of? I wouldn’t be able to swear on a Bible that I’d spoken to him… the most I’d be able to muster is that my phone records say I did, your honour. What if this is the start of it? What if I’m losing my mind? What if I can’t remember who I am in a year’s time? Or worse, what if I can’t remember who anyone else is!

We did the test – ACE-III – and I got 99%. The cut-off is 83%. No sign of memory issues. Man, was I relieved.

So why the complete blank? Knowing better than to suggest I was burning the candle at both ends, he told me of a patient who had been spinning too many plates in the air and had experienced similar blanks. When he’d cut back on his commitments, when he’d stopped running around so much, when he’d taken time to do nothing, the blanks stopped. Enough said.

I’m grateful it’s that simple. I’m already paring back on the weeks ahead and considering what I can do to take some of those plates out of the air without breaking any. I got the fright of my life. And while there may be far worse things that could happen to me, at the moment it’s losing my mind that I fear the most.

Save this man

In 2013, when the Hungarian government first criminalised homelessness, the  BBC reported figures from The civic group, the City Belongs to Everyone, estimating that 10,000 people lived on the city’s streets or in shelters they had fashioned in the forests on the outskirts of the capital. Yet, they said, there were fewer than 6,000 places in hostels, a serious shortfall. But the government said there was ample shelter available, almost 100%.

In 2018, it’s difficult to tell what the real figures are, but a simple walk around the city shows that homelessness in Budapest is pervasive. Last month’s amendment to the Constitution which now reads ‘Habitual residence in a public space is forbidden’ has flooded social media channels with opinions for and against the edict.  Those supporting it want the streets cleared, conscious as they are of the approaching winter and of the inherent aesthetic blight; those against say it does little more than criminalise poverty.

But shouldn’t the issue be how to prevent homelessness in the first place?

Meet A_. Born in 1964 to a music conductor and a socialite mother, A_ has been beset by illness since he was a baby. His mother, more concerned with her social standing than the wellbeing of her baby, left him out in the rain in his pram for a day. His kidneys never recovered. A_ trained as a cook and worked in restaurants in the city and also inherited some musical talent from his father. He was, he says, quite a good bass guitar player. Life was good. He had a job, a doting father, and his music.

At 30, A_ was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and sentenced to life in a wheelchair. His father bought him a tiny house in Páty village in Budapest county. He managed okay until his father died, leaving him alone in a house he was unable to maintain. His wheelchair sentence was miraculously commuted; he regained some of his mobility, but not enough to do the necessary maintenance on his home. His disability pension didn’t stretch to paying anyone to do it either.

Two months ago, A_ had a heart attack while in the village. An ambulance took him away. Had he been at home, he’d surely have died. My friend in Páty noticed he hadn’t been around and knowing he was short on relatives and friends, tracked him down. She took him money, clothes, and food. He was well looked after in the hospital and came home with a new pacemaker. But his living conditions had deteriorated in his absence.

Today, the roof of his cabin has a gaping hole. The only thing stopping the rain and snow from coming in is a thin sheet of plastic.  There is no insulation. No bath. No shower. No kitchen. No gas. No heating. No chimney. Just about all it has, in addition to its four walls, is running water and electricity. But last month, the electricity failed. A_ has paid his 300 ft bill each month (he uses just one 25w lightbulb) but his system has worn out. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years. To bring it up to code will cost at least 120 000 ft. This has to happen before ELMÜ will switch his electricity back on.

A_ is resilient. He’s a survivor. He can take the hunger, the dirt, the cold but he cannot handle the darkness. A passionate writer of short stories, freestyle poems, and self-reflections, writing has become his life, his raison d’etre. But he cannot write in the dark. Preferring to go hungry and be cold, he spends his money candles. If neighbours offer to bring him food and clothes, he asks instead for typewriter ribbons.

His future looks bleak. Although intelligent and well read, A_ has some psychological problems that make him incapable of arranging complicated things like the electricity reconnect. It won’t be long before his house falls down around him, leaving him homeless. As for moving to a shelter, he says he’d rather freeze in the dark than give up his independence.

A_ visits my friend regularly. She washes his clothes and feeds him. They chat about books, films, and music. He recites chapters from his favourite novels and verses of his favourite poems. He’s very positive, she says. Although he’s in constant pain, always cold, and most probably hungry, he still has a sense of humour. That, and his passion for writing keep him going.

A_, like so many others, is just a hair’s breadth from being homeless. But with help, he can live with dignity, maintain his independence, and keep on writing. And if this help is immediate, local, and well-directed by someone who cares about his needs and dignity, A_’s home can be saved.

Christmas is just around the corner. The ads are out. The tinsel is in. The shops are gearing up for the inevitable tide of mass consumerism. Hundreds of euro and thousands of forints will be spent on presents often neither wanted nor needed. My decision was an easy one. When my friend told me his story, I knew immediately that helping to keep A_ housed and warm and writing would be a better use of my Christmas budget. I made the transfer to help sort his electricity problem so that ELMÜ will reconnect his power. But his roof still needs fixing and his house still needs heating.

Are you disillusioned with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? Do you realise that but for the grace of whatever God you worship or whatever force you believe in, you could be in A_’s shoes? Do you believe that local solutions to local problems work better than the overly costly, unnecessarily legalistic, and very quickly political solutions introduced by state bureaucracy? Would you like to help save one man’s home, and in doing so, save his dignity? Let me know. I’ll put you in touch with my friend in Páty who is working to make sure it all happens.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 November 2018

 

2018 Grateful 8

I was at home at the weekend. A brief in and out to see how the folks were doing. I went to Saturday evening mass, something I usually don’t like to do as I prefer to save my mass till Sunday. Somehow, going on Saturday doesn’t feel quite the same. Yet I was driving in from the airport, and it was on, and they were at it. So I stopped in.

It made a change to be able to understand what was going on. I’m usually straining to catch words I understand and then patching together the essence of what I think is being said. Boys from the village national school were being enrolled in the Confirmation programme, which explained why the church had fewer empty seats than usual.

I sat mid-way down the church. As one of the teachers called out the names of those being enrolled in the programme, they stood up. Amidst the expected Tadhgs and Jameses and Padraigs was a healthy smattering of names I couldn’t pronounce. Amidst the gingers, the blondes, and the brunettes were some fabulous coiled, coarse, and curly locks, including one fab set of dreads. Ireland wasn’t the only country standing up to be counted. I was impressed at the level of diversity in the school.

Back in my day, some 40 years ago, the diversity banner in our class was carried by a lone American. Her name was Phoebe Eaton. She lived in a house out the Dublin Road that was rumoured to have special plug sockets to take American hairdryers and toasters and kettles. For some weird and wonderful reason I’ve still not discovered, I found that fascinating. I’m not even sure if Phoebe made her confirmation with us, I just remember from primary school, an exotic little thing with massive eyes who twanged when she spoke. Strange. I haven’t thought about her in years. And years. [Out of curiosity I googled the name and found a Phoebe Eaton in NYC who is now a journalist. I wonder if they’re one and the same.]

Anyway, by the time I surfaced from my ruminations, a few of the boys were presenting banners representing the seven gifts of the holy spirit. As I watched and listened I noted that the seven boys standing on the altar as representatives of the Confirmation class, well, they were all obviously Irish. The diversity on display, such as it was, amounted to differences in height, weight, and hair colour.

Well, that set me off in a whole new direction.

Was I the only one in the church thinking that this was a little odd? Was I over-reacting? Was there a backstory I wasn’t privy to? Maybe the boys had volunteered. Maybe they had won a competition. Maybe they were being punished 🙂 Had diversity become so entrenched in the school that I, as an outsider, was the only one noticing that it was missing?

This week I’m grateful that my memory still works and that I’m still noticing things. And that Voltaire isn’t around to say ‘Judge a [wo]man by [her] questions rather than by [her] answers.’