2018 Grateful 21

Sometime last year I booked tickets to see Ed Sheeran play in Warsaw. I knew nothing of his music. I thought Galway Girl was a song he covered rather than wrote. But the hype that surrounded the announcement of his European Tour – which by the way sold out in record time with extra nights added in a number of cities, including Warsaw – made me curious. And I had friends in Warsaw whom I hadn’t see in a long time so it all worked out.

Fast forward through the intervening months and it came time to book train tickets and make the trip. My friends, in the meantime, had absconded to Zanzibar and had it been easy to sell the tickets, I’d have done so. But our names were on them. And transferring them to someone else had to be done in person – so I’d have to go to Warsaw anyway. So we went.

The National Stadium (PGE Narodowy) is a massive venue, holding some 58,145 (official for football matches) / 56,826 (UEFA capacity) / 72,900 (concerts) punters. The back half of the seating wasn’t open but the floor was rammed with teenagers who had queued since 1 pm for a 5 pm admission and an 8.45pm appearance. They wanted to be up front and centre. Us? We had seated tickets in the rafters and were in no rush anywhere.

Had I done my homework, I’d have known his stage time was 8.45 to 11 pm. I incorrectly assumed he’d appear at 8 pm (it was a Sunday night), so we got there about 7.30 pm in time to catch the last of his warm-up acts, a gal by the name of Anne-Marie. To give the girl her due, she can carry a tune. But when she brought out the vodka (Polish of course) to do shots with her band to mark the end of a very successful tour, I was less than impressed. Really? With a multitude of impressionable teens in the audience, what was the message? Cool to do shots? Okay, I know they’re probably all drinking anyway, but I’m of the mind that stars with a young following have a responsibility to show some decent example. Yep – I was one of the oldest there.

When our boy Ed didn’t show to my schedule, I started to get a tad upset. And when he eventually sauntered on, without a care in the world, I was on the verge of seething. But then he started to play.

Now, as regular readers will know, I can’t hold a tune to save my life so I’m won’t even begin to comment on how good, bad, or indifferent he is as a musician. But as an entertainer, he has it nailed. Just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, coupled with some funny insights in to the 2% of the audience that were there under duress (reluctant boyfriends and super dads) endeared him to my cynical self. The guy has class. And he described me to a T. We’re quite alike apparently when we’re at gigs. Ed and me. Everything goes on in our heads – not a hint of enjoyment shows on the outside. But, hey, anyone who can quieten a crowd of 72k screaming teens gets my vote for audience control.

The National Stadium doesn’t have the greatest sound system in the world – either that or Ed’s diction is a tad off. Some of the lyrics were difficult to make out but the crowd didn’t seem to care. They sang along. Every word. Every single word. Except for that one quiet song when he told them to sssh. And I think it was during that song (whatever it was) that some young lad up in front got down on bended knee and proposed to his girlfriend. It takes all sorts.

Ed Sheeran Concert WarsawCigarette lighters are a thing of the past. Now it’s flashlights on mobile phones. And the Warsaw lot were organised enough to have white lights on the top tier and red ones on the lower one – creating a waving Polish flag. The flashlight effect was given a flickering look by holding up sheets of white A4 paper in front of their phones. From my vantage point, it was quite spectacular (ok, so not everyone was in on it, but it did look great). When he had them wave and pump their arms, the mosh pit looked like a sea of worms. For a minute, I felt queasy.

Knowing Poniatowski bridge (Most Poniatowskiego) over the Vistula River would be closed before the gig ended and that 72 000+ people would flood out of the stadium starting from when he played his last song, we left early. Just two songs early, mind you, but that didn’t stop the wave of sympathy from the young ones. No matter. The music was so loud, Ed followed us across the bridge towards the Centre so we missed nothing but the hassle.

I enjoyed it. Our Ed’s done well for himself. I like the fact that his first support band were some Polish friends he’d roomed with when he was 18. I like that he’s engaged to his high-school sweetheart. And I like the fact that it’s him, his guitar, and his customised looping machine that makes all the noise. Everything we heard, he assured us, was live. The bit about him being homeless has been exaggerated. In his book, he explains:

There was an arch outside Buckingham Palace that has a heating duct and I spent a couple of nights there. That’s where I wrote the song Homeless and the lines ‘It’s not a homeless night for me, I’m just home less than I’d like to be.’

I caught Jamie Fox talking about him on the Graham Norton Show. And I liked his story, too.

It worked out well. It was a fitting end to a good weekend. I won’t be buying a CD or downloading him any time soon, but I will be in danger of singing along. For a young fellah who struggled like many others to make his mark on the world, the boy’s done good. And he’s still a nice lad. Lots to be grateful for there.

 

 

Volunteers needed for the Nursery Project

‘Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something [we] do in [our] spare time.’
Whether Marian Wright Edelman, American children’s rights activist and president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund was paraphrasing Mohammed Ali’s much-quoted adage ‘service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth’ is neither here nor there. What matters for me is the message.

A frequent concern I hear from expats who have moved to Budapest is that it is so difficult to volunteer. Many – especially those hailing from Ireland, where a CV that doesn’t mention a spell of volunteering, simply doesn’t rate – grew up with volunteering as a norm. But perhaps because of language difficulties or a lack of connections, they struggle with finding meaningful ways to volunteer their time in Hungary.

One Hungarian has been working to change that. In close cooperation with business chambers like the Irish Hungarian Business Circle and the Canadian Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and charities like the Robert Burns Foundation and St Andrews Egyesület, alongside private sector players like Clarke and White Property, Zsuzsanna Bozo has been coordinating a number of volunteer drives, with one in particular that would be close to Marian Wright Edelman’s heart: The Nursery Project.

Wasn’t it Aristotle who said: Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man? Arguably, were we to adjust the relative age of Aristotle’s 7, we’d be looking at what? 18? But nonetheless, I’m of the mind that a  child’s formative years are the ones that lay the foundation for the adult they will become. Children are the future, our future. We need to ensure that they get the best start possible, in a safe, clean environment that conducive to learning.

2016 – Zabar, Nógrád county

When Bozo revisited her childhood nursery school in Zabar for the first time in more than 35 years, she saw that the village nursery was in dire need of an upgrade. The educational toys were limited but the nursery staff was making do, maximizing what few resources they had. A more pressing problem, though, was that the kids couldn’t shower at home, as many of the houses in the village didn’t have running water. Their clothes told a sorry tale of poverty and deprivation. Determined to make a difference, Bozo coordinated a volunteer effort that saw the refurbishment of the nursery, the installation of showers, and the donation of a washing machine/dryer. She and her team made a huge difference to the lives of these young people. Read more.

2017 – Szilaspogony, Nógrád county

Given the great response from the volunteers and the nursery in Zabar, Bozo found a second village in need of help.  The local nursery in Szilaspogony looks after 24 little ones who come from really difficult backgrounds. Unemployment is rife, with the government’s communal work scheme providing families with limited resources. Working in concert with the mayor’s office, who agreed to paint the playroom, Bozo raised support to cover the materials needed. Over 50 volunteers visited the village on 16 December 2017 to assemble furniture and put it all together. It was a marvellous experience and one I’m proud to have been part of. Plans are in place to plant a fruit garden for the kids, and sponsors are being sought to help make it happen. Read more.

2018 – Wesley János Nursery, Budapest VIII district

One of this year’s nursery projects is underway currently in Budapest in district VIII. Right now, teams are working to remove the old wallpaper and plaster the playroom. A new plasterboard wall is going up to create a smaller changing room. Another team is coming in to lay a new concrete floor and change the flooring. Between 4 and 18 August, walls and doors are being painted (volunteers needed)  and the laminate flooring laid (specialist needed). Then from 30 August to 1 September, the volunteer crew will descend to put together the furniture and finish it off ready for the children to start back on 3 September. Time, money, and materials are needed. You can check the Nursery Project website for a list of what’s needed. Get in touch directly (levelektelaponak@gmail.com) if you think you can help with the more essential things like:

  • The purchase of 25 sqm of tiles for the bathroom and money to pay a tiler along with putting up shelves to hold the kids’ glasses and towels (estimated 250 000 ft).
  • The purchase of 25 fitted sheets, covers, and pillowcases for the nursery beds (or material to make them, as a seamstress has volunteered her time).

And if you or anyone you know has a particular bent for DYI, the following are needed:

  • 2-3 painters to paint the entire ceiling, and walls. Materials provided (16-25 August).
  • A carpenter to install insulating wall panels along the walls to keep out the cold.

These are just three of the many nurseries in need of help all around the country.  All nurseries should be able to provide a clean, safe environment, quality education, and play time for the kids. The Nursery Project was created by volunteers to help raise funds to refurbish and breathe new life into children’s nurseries in Hungary.  Working closely with the local Mayor’s office and nursery staff, Bozo and her team of volunteers are making a difference.

If you want to get involved in any of these projects, by donating time or materials (educational games, sports equipment, and sanitary products are always needed), check out the website. If you have a specific skill that could be of use, let Bozo know. And if you think you simply don’t have the time to get involved, think a while on the words of eighteenth-century education reformer Horace Mann: Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 August 2018

2018 Grateful 22

When your bestie’s birthday is a couple of days before yours, it’s generally a good thing. Back in the day when we lived on the same continent, we’d celebrate in style. But when she shrugged off her mortal coil and departed this Earth way ahead of schedule, the closeness of our birthdays makes mine much more poignant.  It was hard, at first. Her memorial, some four months after her death, marked what would have been her 50th. I flew out to San Francisco to be there. It was a strange affair. Six years later, it’s still strange.

It’s not about survivor’s guilt. People die. Life will eventually kill us all. I have a rather pragmatic approach to death coupled with a somewhat morbid fascination with cemeteries I don’t fear it. I might certainly resent it, if it came too early (right now I figure 87 is my best-by year) but I’m not afraid of it. I’m more afraid of not living. Wasn’t it Cardinal Newman who said:

‘Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but that it shall never have a beginning.’

This fear of not living translates into what some might interpret as an inability to sit still. Or a reluctance to stop doing. Or an incessant need to be on the go. It’s been said of me (all too often) that I have a thing for burning the candle at both ends. And lately, on the rare days that I’m in Budapest, that could well be the case.

I keep two calendars (online and paper-based) which I often update after the fact. I also read a lot of crime fiction. Add the two together and you might just glimpse the shirttails of a need to be able to produce an alibi, were I ever to stand accused of something I didn’t do. As has become the norm this time of year, my thoughts focus more than usual on death and dying. I’m also on Book 6 of a six-book series by PB Byrne set in post-Civil-War Boston featuring the admirable Nell Sweeney, which I highly recommend. There’s death everywhere. I was struck today by the thought that were I to die in suspicious circumstances, say, this coming Friday, the cops would unearth my online calendar to check my comings and goings and take my birthday week alone, they’d rightly think that I’m living a blessed life.

On the Renaissance set at Korda Film Studios

On the Renaissance set at Korda Film Studios

On the NYC set at Korda Studios

Thursday, coincidently, was my monthly pamper day. Friday was one to catch up with a series of friends I’ve not seen in a while. It spilt over well into Saturday morning. That day continued with a trip to Korda Film Studios, just outside Budapest, followed by lunch in a family-run makeshift restaurant in Eygtek and a trip to the local baths that evening. Sunday, I spent volunteering at a local nursery before heading to the hills for dinner with friends who gave me a present of a fabulous old floral-painted  Hungarian shelf that has completely reversed my plans for the kitchen in the village. Monday, I visited one friend’s theatre, had lunch with another to discuss a book project, met a third for coffee (and received another piece of old floral-painted Hungarian furniture that has also changed what I’d planned to do with my office in the village). Then I had my hair done followed by drinks with she who has known me longest in BP. Today I was over in Torley for a guided tour and wine-tasting (a b/day present). And even though the tour was in Hungarian and for the most part lost on me, the time spent in the cool cellars far from the 36 degrees outside, were magical. The next few days are also full, with the highlights being a visit to the Frida Kahlo exhibition and an evening with the fab Ripoff Raskolnikov in Kobuci Kert. This then is topped off by a train trip to Warsaw to see Ed Sheeran do this thing.

Were my life always this manic, I’d not be worth a fraction of the envy some people might feel. But when you concentrate on living in the city for a few days each month, then that time is really all go and a nice complement to the days in the village where the most exciting thing that might happen is that a tomato turns red. Or the pears finally ripen. Or the moles go on holiday.

Death, any death, but particularly death that comes before its time, has a way of urging us to live life to the fullest. And for that I’m grateful.

 

 

 

Manifesto

We have a saying in Irish  – cuir ar an mhéar fada – which is what we do when we put something on the long finger, i.e., put it off till whenever. I do this a lot – too much. And as a result, I lose out on vouchers and gift certificates. Despite my best intentions, 9 times out of 10, by the time I get around to it, they’ve expired. I’ve been meaning to go see Cate Blanchett in Manifesto for a few weeks now, ever since it opened at the Magyar Nemzeti Galéria back at the end of May. It only runs till 12 August, so I was cutting it fine, but I finally got my act together this week. And went.

I had a vague notion of what it was about. From German artist Julian Rosefeldt come 13 short video clips of Blanchett playing different roles, reciting from various manifestos that had a huge impact on art and politics. Think Dadism, Surrealism, Communism and a host of other isms perhaps less well known (to me, at least) like Vorticism, Stridentism, and Situationism that have shaped our today. Shot in just 11 days in and around Berlin, each of Blachett’s characters speaks English but with different accents. She appears as a homeless man, a stockbroker, a mother, a punk, a eulogist, and more, each role convincingly played. Years ago, in another life, I remember being fascinated seeing a closeup of Kevin Costner in some movie or other and wondering why, with all his money, he didn’t get his teeth fixed. Seeing the 12 very different sets of teeth that Blanchett’s characters wear (we only hear her voice in the prologue) has me now thinking that those teeth belonged to his character and were not his own. Will I ever know?

I was pushed for time and had figured just over two hours to see all 13 vids, so I didn’t spend as much time as I might have reading the timeline of the various manifestos Rosefeldt read (said to be 50 in all) when he was researching this piece of work. I went straight for it, expecting to walk between 13 separate rooms or semi-closed spaces. Or perhaps we’d each get headphones. But no. The videos played side by side with no signalling as to when they’d started. That really upset my sense of orderliness and from the outset, I was out of sorts.

I can multitask with the best of them but when it comes to listening, I have a hard time drowning out background noise. I work in silence. No radio or music playing in the background. I read in silence. No music or TV. I walk in silence. No headphones or other distractions. I like my silence. One of my most jarring memories is stepping outside the airport terminal in Chennai, India, at 2 am and recoiling from the wall of noise that met me. Another was opening the door into FunGalaxy and hearing the screaming kids inside. I really have a hard time with noise.  So I skipped the first two videos (I came back to them later) as both were going at what seemed like full blast and I couldn’t focus. I found one that I could actually hear.

Once I got into the swing of it, though, I enjoyed it. But I can see why some people might give up trying in the first 10 minutes (and admittedly, by the end, I was flagging). That said, it’s worth persevering. Especially if you can get in the groove and catch the videos as they start (all bar the first one are about 10.30 minutes long). This isn’t a must, of course, but if you veer towards pedantry like I do, I suggest you try it.

That Blanchett is a multi-award-winning actor, I had no doubt. But I hadn’t really appreciated how talented she is. Each of the 12 roles she plays is as convincing as the one before (in the first, we don’t see her, just hear her voice). I was particularly taken with her portrayals of a homeless guy, a punk, and a newsreader where she interviews herself.  Blanchett’s personal make-up artist Morag Ross worked miracles. Even if you’ve no interest in the spoken word, just seeing the 12 different faces and hearing the 13 different voices is worth the entrance fee.

At one stage, each character starts chanting in a strangely monk-like fashion. This happens at the same point in all videos so the rooms are filled with intonation. At other points, the narration from a video showing beside the one you’re watching will seem to eerily fit the film unfolding before you. It really is all very clever. Confusing and confrontational, certainly, but really very, very clever.

I’m with Glenn Kenny of the New York Times: As an installation, it may seem like a sensory onslaught. Yes, Glenn, it does. But now I want to see the movie and I really don’t think I’d appreciate it without having seen the installation. If you’re in Budapest between now and 12 August, it’s worth the money. Curated by Zsolt Petrányi at the National Gallery up in Buda Castle district, it’s definitely one to see. Love it or hate it, you won’t be able to not talk about it.

Julian Rosefeldt: Manifesto

[As an aside, I went to read an article in the LA Times = The 13 faces of Cate Blanchett: How Manifesto went from art to ….. – and got a note: Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism. The long reach of GDPR, no doubt. If anyone’s reading in the USA and can send a PDF, I’ll admit to being curious.]

 

Day trips from Budapest

Occasionally, when friends or friends of friends are planning to come to Budapest for more than the usual weekend break, I’m asked for recommendations on where they should go, once they’ve ‘seen the city’. This amuses me; after 10 or more years, I’m still finding places in the city that I’ve not seen. But anyway, they’re usually interested in places that are easy to get to from the city and have something ‘worth seeing’. Worth seeing…mmm. That very much depends on what you’re interested in, but rather than get involved in a litany of likes and dislikes, I’ve chosen three of my top picks, accessible by the HÉV (commuter rail) from Budapest.

Ráckeve

The train journey from Budapest to Ráckeve takes about 75 minutes on the H6 HÉV from Közvágóhíd (the last stop on the No. 2 tram heading out of Budapest). Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days and so are good times to go. The market runs along the side of the Danube and sells everything from ducklings to rosary beads. It’s a walkable town, with lots to see and do. My favourites are the cemetery and the church. Odd choices perhaps, but there’s a story. One of the first books I read when coming to Hungary was Petőfi Sándor‘s János Vitéz (John the Valiant)…written in poem form, all 370 verses make for a fast-paced story of love and intrigue. He based this character on a real person, one Hórvath János (1774-1848), who is buried in the cemetery in Ráckeve. Each year, in June, on János Viték Napok, the locals come together and act out the poem. Both the book and the grave are worth a visit.

Back in 1994, when artist Patay László (1932-2002) was preparing to paint a fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist in Ráckeve, he used 170 kg of tehén túró cheese when mixing his paints. The results are spectacular. About 600 square meters of walls space is now home to a glorious feast of colour, blending beautifully with the baroque paintings and the glitter and gold that are features of Catholic church decor worldwide. This rivals the best of what Budapest has to offer. Try to refrain from licking the walls just to see if you can taste the cheese.

To wet your whistle while you’re wandering around, stop off at the Old Buttons Museum and English Tea Room on Szent István tér, 12. Say hello to the lovely Sylvia Llewelyn, author of Old Buttons and Hungary’s resident expert on all things button-related. Her collection of retro Hungarian folk art is worth checking out and she makes a mean pancake.

Gödöllő

Getting to Gödöllő is easy – take a regional bus from Puskás Ferenc Stadion (M2 line) or take the H8 HÉV from Örs vezér tere (end of the M2 metro line).  The town’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Royal Palace, once a favourite of Sisi, the inimitable Elisabeth of Bavaria and wife of Franz Joseph I. The Baroque palace was built between 1694 and 1771 and its theatre, in particular, is something to behold. Check the programme when you’re visiting and you might be lucky enough to catch a performance. The Palace is open 10 to 6 at weekends and 9 to 5 on weekdays. The Castle Church is open to the public on Sundays for a church ceremony, a great opportunity to the see the fabulous Rococo altar.

The local town council really has its act together when it comes to making things easy for visitors. Its website maps out four walks you can do from the town centre to take in the 70+ sights that have been identified as worth seeing, ranging from the  Castle Park with its Tree of Life to the statue of a boy scout marking the 4th World Scout Jamboree that took place here in 1933. More than 25 000 scouts from 46 countries camped out on Sisi’s lawn. The town also hosts the world second-largest collection of agricultural machinery and the only one of the five World Peace Gongs (a present from Indonesia)  to reside in Europe.

If you want to get away from it all, take a restorative walk through the Royal Forest. And if you’re in need of sustenance, and have become a Sisi fan, try Erzsébet Királyné Étterem és Kávézó on Dózsa György út 2.

Szentendre

Catch the H5 HÉV from Batthyány tér or  Margit híd, Budai hídfő to Szentendre, which is perhaps the most popular destination as a day trip from Budapest. The journey takes about 40 minutes, compared to the boat trip departing from Vigadó tér which can eat up 90 minutes on the way down and an hour or so on the way back. Once there, wander the cobblestone streets and spent time browsing the art galleries, museums, and craft shops. Pay a visit to the eighteenth-century Greek Orthodox church with its ornate interior. If you’re into cars and know your Warburg from your Zhighuli, or fancy a look at some motorbikes from the old Eastern bloc, pop into the Retro Design Center on Rev utca 4. While some of you might have little problem remembering the 1970s, your kids might get a kick out of seeing LPs and tape recorders.

Szentendre, though, is probably best known for its skanzen (open-air museum). The first of its kind, and the one which lent its name to all subsequent museums, opened in 1891 in Skansen, near Stockholm.  The one in Szentendre is on Sztaravodai ut. This historic village setting is home to many original buildings from various parts of Hungary, transplanted along with other interesting stuff representative of architecture and culture from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s. It’s quite the trip back in time

And if you fancy eating some of that history, check out the Szamos Museum Confectioners on Dumtsa Jeno utca 12.

Enjoy your stay.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 July 2018

Unicum

If you wear galoshes, you’re an émigré

When it comes to museums and stately homes, I’m not one for do-agains. Other than Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, which I visited many times during my year in Oxford, I can count on one hand the places I’ve gone back to a second time, let alone a third. Once I’ve been, I’ve been. I will happily wait outside as my visitors wade through the history and experience all on offer, but I don’t usually have the bandwidth for  a do-again. In Budapest, though, I’ve made an exception; I’ve found my Blenheim Palace in the Zwack Museum in Budapest’s IXth district, on Dandár utca 1.

Each time I visit, I learn something new. During each viewing of the short film that introduces Unicum to visitors, something different resonates. I hadn’t realised, for instance, that Unicum has its own music, a Foxtrot, composed in the 1930s and performed by the Holéczy vocal ensemble, extolling the medicinal virtues of the drink as a cure for an upset stomach.

Unicum barrell

And I hadn’t realised that the giant Unicum barrels were commandeered in WWII and used to build a temporary bridge over the Danube. One of the original barrels remains – dating back to 1937 and holding a massive 16 000 litres.  I quite fancied that the barrels should have names. They seem to have a life and spirit of their own. We threw out some suggestions and Bóri, our guide, had the winner: ‘Why not call it Grandmother?’ This I found interesting because, apparently, I mispronounce it: my mangled version of Unicum sounds like unokám, which translates to ‘my grandchild’.

Zwack Riserva

I was curious about the typical consumer. I’m told that the classic Unicum is a favourite of men of about 35 and older. Unicum Szilva, the happy product of a marketing promotion whereby slices of plum were handed out with shots of Unicum, has a younger fan base. And the latest addition to the Unicum family is Unicum Riserva may well covert me.

Unicum Riserva is doubly unique because it is aged not once but twice in two very different and special casks. The Unicum is aged first in the largest and oldest cask in the distillery which has been in the cellars for eighty years. Over the decades the wood has acquired a coating of what we call “black honey” which gives the Unicum still more depth and character. In the second phase the Unicum is put into a Tokaji Aszu cask where for years this legendary wine has aged in the cellars of Tokaji. Once the familiar bittersweet taste of Unicum encounters the sensuous sweetness of Tokaji, Unicum Riserva becomes mellower but at the same time spicy and fruity, with hints of dried apricots and an elusively herbal, minty taste like a cool breeze. Finally the 2007 vintage of Tokaji Aszu from the Dobogo Winery is blended into the Riserva to further enhance this uniquely unusual blend of flavours.

Of course, Unicum isn’t the only stave in the Zwack liquor barrel. Its apricot brandy has fans all over the world, the most famous perhaps being Edward, Prince of Wales, who, back in 1933, said that with soda, it is better than whisky and in tea, it is better than rum. I also hadn’t registered that there’s a Zwack Palinka Distillery in Kecskemét, but now that I know it’s there, it’s on my list of places to visit.

Anne and Peter Zwack

While walking through the gift shop, I spotted a book, a memoir of Peter Zwack (1927-2012), written by his wife, Anne: If you wear galoshes, you’re an émigré. Since my first viewing of the short, introductory biopic a number of years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the man and curious to know more about his life. The blurb described it as ‘the unique and compelling story of an émigré who lost everything except his galoshes and his accent and, in the new Hungary, was to win it all back’. Here was my opportunity.

What spare time I’ve had since then has been spent curled up on a chair reading. A Kindle convert, it’s been a while since I’ve read a real book with a hard cover and paper pages, but it seemed fitting – I don’t think Peter Zwack would have had much truck with electronic books, but I could be wrong. Written back in 2001 (and so a little dated), it’s an intriguing account of the life of a man who was not in ‘the least afraid of dying’ but didn’t ‘want not to live anymore’.  It chronicles his rather privileged childhood and teens [a life that he himself described as consisting of ‘town houses and country mansions and an elegant lifestyle’] to the family’s flight to the USA in 1948 when the Communist regime nationalised the Unicum factory. At 22, after a month on Ellis Island, Peter Zwack found himself living in the Broncs in New York. In 1956, with his friend Tibor Eckhardt, he founded First Aid for Hungary, a charity to help Hungarian refugees of the 1956 Revolution. Indeed, the family (and the business) has always had a strong sense of corporate and social responsibility, perhaps another reason I’m drawn to him. He says that while his childhood made him ‘culturally and emotionally a European, America gave [him a] liberal viewpoint and positive outlook’. Not a bad mix.

Chapter after chapter I read and as I read, I learned. Peter Zwack was born a Catholic and educated by the Cistercians, as the family had converted to  Catholicism in 1917. He didn’t realise he was Jewish until 1944 when Eichmann came to Hungary. Having to hide out from the Arrow Cross and wear a Yellow Star must have come as quite the shock. A fastidious diarist, the book features many of his own words, bringing his voice to life. [In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Anne Marshall Zwack says of her husband: ‘Something unwritten has never happened for him. If he loses a diary, he is distraught, because it means that he has lost a week of his life.’]

One account of how Lars Berg from the Swedish Embassy rescued the family when the Arrow Cross came calling gives a glimpse of the carpe diem man he would become.

There was no doubt in my mind that we were all going to die. I had been given a huge bar of chocolate as my ration to last me the rest of the war. I hadn’t eaten any of it. […] The Arrow Cross were stamping in front of us, needling Wunschi [his aunt Mitzi’s second husband], and I started to eat the whole thing right there. I thought it was the last bar of chocolate I’d ever see. The Arrow Cross used to round people up and march them to the banks of the Danube and shoot them there. They would tie them into groups like asparagus and then shoot one whose weight would drag the rest of them into the Danube where they’d die by drowning. It was a way of economising on bullets.

His marriage to Iris, with whom he had five children; their subsequent divorce; and his marriage to Anne, with whom he had two children, are described with just enough detail to make them real. The figure of a man who liked his own company better than that of his fellow man emerges. Minor details like the Russians stealing his father’s shoes (and never in pairs) and bayonetting their books, all add to the fascination. As does the account of his year as Hungarian Ambassador to the USA. For a man who believed that ‘only salesmen travel in a suit and tie’ the pomp and ceremony of diplomacy was something to be reckoned with. His ambassadorship was short-lived, though. The world wasn’t yet ready for him. It was such a shame because his speeches apparently inspired international companies to invest in Hungary and his appearances did a lot to dispell the myth of the Big Bad Wolf that lived in the Eastern Bloc.

As I read the book, I stopped occasionally to look up other articles on the web about Peter Zwack. And with each read, his place at my heavenly dinner table became more secure. In an interview with the New York Times in 1989, he said:

People think I showed faith in Hungary when not too many others did […] they had been fed this picture of a fat capitalist who smoked cigars and beat up the workers, and they saw me, a skinny guy who doesn’t smoke, wears beat-up clothes and behaves more like the workers than the Communist bosses did.

That same article said this about him:

He is steely enough to have survived, indeed thrived, for 40 years as an exile. He is bold and imaginative enough to have gambled, when the winds of change now blowing through Eastern Europe were the merest zephyr, on the ability of a capitalist emigre to come home at last and do business with the Communists he hated. A Role Model for Hungarians.

Anne Marshall Zwack met her husband on a blind date in Milan. She was a 26-year-old, well-travelled translator; he was a 44-year-old divorcé with five kids. His mother proposed to her, asking her if she’d like to marry her son. When Anne said yes, her future mother-in-law replied: ‘Then we’ll arrange it.’ And in Peter Zwack, the apple didn’t fall far from that particular tree.

As I read, I found myself wondering what Peter Zwack himself thought of the book. There’s very little by way of varnish and plenty by way of veracity. Anne Marshall Zwack writes with an objectivity threaded with love. It is, indeed, a compelling read. If you have an interest in post-War Hungary and its transition to capitalism or just fancy a peek at how the other half lived back in the day, it’s a bargain. Listed on Amazon for some serious money, you can pick up your copy at the museum shop for less than €2. And while you’re there, take a tour – get acquainted with Unicum and enjoy this unique little museum. Open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, Dandár utca 1.

 

My Budapest

Hardly a week goes by without someone asking me for advice on where to eat and what to do in Budapest. Usually it’s friends asking for friends or colleagues with different interests and requirements. In anticipation of a raft of questions coming as the summer holidays approach, I thought I’d spend some time drafting a summary of where I like to eat and what I like to do in Budapest, a list of personal favourites, for what it’s worth.

Fricska Gastropub, Dob u. 56-58, in District VII, is still my favourite upmarket restaurant. The chalkboard menu changes daily and usually offers a choice of four starters, a couple of soups, half-a dozen main courses featuring everything from fish to steak to wild game, and a few tasty desserts. When they run out, they run out. It’s a popular spot, so reservations are recommended and can be made through their website: http://fricska.eu/en/. It’s closed Sunday and Monday.

For Hungarian fare, I like Huszár Étterem, II. János Pál pápa tér 22, in District VIII. They do a particularly good Jókai bableves (bean soup) and an excellent goose with red cabbage. Their trout is worth trying, too. It’s within spitting distance of Keleti train station, which makes it a popular spot with tourists and locals alike, who seem to enjoy the live music offer. It’s often booked out for private parties, so best to check ahead of time to make sure it’s open. And it’s great for large groups. http://huszar-etterem.hu/

Kompót Bisztró, Corvin sétány 1/B, in District VIII, is a favourite for lunch. Their buffet breakfast is popular as is their daily menu (at about €5). It’s a nice place for dinner, too, with terrace seating on the bustling sétány. Corvin sétány is a pedestrian zone boasting myriad cafés, restaurants (including fish, Italian, Indian, sushi, a hummus bar, and one of the best burger joints in the city, Epic burger), a craft beer pub, a casino, and my favourite wine café in the city, Vino és Wonka. They, too, have a chalk menu featuring wines from smaller Hungarian vineyards, a few nice antipasto plates, and some great chocolate.

And while in the Corvin area, there are a couple of interesting museums worth checking. Like the Holocaust Memorial Center, Páva utca, in District IX. If I had to choose between this and the House of Terror on Andrássy, this is the one I’d visit. The museum is linked to the Páva utca synagogue, once the second largest site for Jewish worship in Budapest. It’s closed on Mondays.

Further down, on Dandár utca 1, also in District IX, is the Zwack Unicum Museum, which, to my mind, is one of the best in the city. Exhibits showcase the history of the Zwack family, makers of the famous black liqueur and a video biography of the firm’s history gives a rare insight into how life once was and now is in Hungary. And, as with all good liquor tours, tastings are included. Closed Sundays, tours are available in English. www.zwackunicum.hu. And you can get a combination ticket that includes entry to both this and the Holocaust Memorial Center.

National History Muesum - what to do in Budapest

Back then to District VIII, to the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Ludovika tér 2, which dates to 1802. This is a fascinating place with all sorts of exhibits including a dinosaur park. The interactive games make it all that much more interesting. It’s closed on Tuesdays, by the way. It’s practically next door to Orczy park, Orczy út 1, which is a lovely spot to walk or picnic and has a great kids playground and adventure park. And over the road again, are the ELTE botanical gardens on Illés u. 25, a lovely spot to while away the hours looking at interesting plants and flowers. Open daily.

Further out on this side of the city, at Népliget, is the Planetarium, with its fantastic photo display and tours of the solar system (in English, too). It’s currently under renovation but check to see if it’s open when you get here.

Budapest has plenty to offer in terms of music and exhibitions. One of my favourite venues for live music is Kobuci kert, Fő tér 1, an outdoor venue in District III. Set on a rather lovely square, within walking distance of the Danube, it’s a happening spot that offers ticketed events (from as a little as €5), reasonably priced drinks, and decent grill food. BudapestPark , Soroksári út 60, in District IX, is another rocking spot, as is Barba Negra, Prielle Kornélia u. 4, in District XI. Check their websites for details of what’s on.

Downtown, Akvárium Klub on Erzsébet tér 12, is more central, with lots of outdoors seating. Across the river, Mátyás church, 2 Szentháromság tér, in District I, offers free organ recitals on Sunday evenings at 6pm. It’s a great way to get to see the church without paying the admission fee and while there, you can enjoy a spectacular view the city from the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is breathtaking at night. Lot of churches in the city offer musical events as does the famous Liszt Ferenc Academy on Liszt Ferenc tér

But while you’re over in the Castle district, the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum is worth a visit, at Lovas út 4/C.  It’s a little pricey, but worth the money. The guided tours are excellent. And when it comes to things in rocks, visit the Gellért Hill Cave in District XI which, in its day, has been a chapel, a monastery, and a field hospital for the German Army during WWII. It re-opened as a church in 1989. The self-guided tour (headphones) is available in many languages and well worth the admission. It’s across the road from the famous Gellért baths, high on the list of Budapest spas, but doesn’t come close to my favourite, the Rudas baths, Döbrentei tér 9. They open late (10pm to 4am) on Fridays and Saturdays. Quite the experience.

There is so much to see and do in Budapest that I could go on and on. And perhaps I will. Next time.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 June 2018

2018 Grateful 32

Wednesday. May 23rd. The day John Malkovich came to Budapest and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. Right now, I’m trying to decide if it was worth the experience.

In true marketing fashion, I made a rash purchase (4 tickets) and am now trying to rationalise my decision. Apparently, this is what we consumers do all the time. It’s what keeps the marketers in business.

The facts I had at the time were:

  1. John Malkovich was coming to Budapest for one night only.
  2. He was performing what was billed as one of the top 10 shows in the world (I can’t recall where I read that snippet)
  3. If I didn’t see the man this time, I was unlikely to cross paths with him again.
  4. The cheapest tickets I could get were 20 000 huf (~€60 / $70).
  5. We were expecting visitors and I thought it would be night for them to rememeber.

And it was, but probably not for the reasons I imagined.

We rocked early to Budapesti Kongresszusi Központ, in plenty of time to have a pre-show drink and take our seats at a leisurely pace. I was all excited. I’ve had a thing for the bould JM for just about ever. What a voice. The 26-piece string orchestra – Danubia Orchestra Óbuda took their place. And the show started. No sign of the man himself. But I didn’t panic. Perhaps, I thought, he’d enjoy a grand entrance. Above the stage, rain was being projected onto a white screen. I quite fancied that I saw his face in the droplets and given the title of the programme – Report on the Blind – my imagination began to run riot.

Maestro Dirk Brossé was conducting and violinist Ino Mirkovic also made an appearance. Now, had I done my homework, I’d have been all the wiser. But I hadn’t. And I wasn’t.

Psycho Suite by Bernard Herrmann and the Adagio (To the Unknown Soldier) by Dirk Brossé and still no sign of John. My blood pressure began to rise, slowly. I could feel the anxiety setting in. I began to wonder if we were in the right place. I drew a map of the venue in my mind and decided that there were no other gigs on that night (and it would have been strange, anyway, not have to have been ousted from our seats had we been in the wrong place). The rain at this stage had turned to snow and the images of frosted glass and the ice patterns provided only a mild distraction. The avalanche footage was quite compelling though. But 45 minutes in and still no John.

Then a man appeared on stage – and I breathed a sigh of relief – a short one. On closer inspectection I saw a face that was too round, a body that was too slim, and a hairline that wasn’t quite far back enough. Not John. They danced. At one stage he blindfolded himself and hope rose within me briefly – I was grasping at blind straws. I tried to control the angst. And then came the intermission.

I left my company inside and went outside to calm my nerves. Everyone seemed to be wondering what was up. I wasn’t the only one. Then I heard that this was just the prelude. The warm-up. The man would make his appearance in the second half. And he did.

Accompanied by pianist Anastasya Terenkova, Malkovich took us on a rollercoaster ride, his voice doing more than the 26-string orchestra could have done. He was quite something. He posited some theories:

  1. God does not exist
  2. God exists but he is a bastard
  3. Good exists but falls asleep and his nightmares are our existence

I quite liked No. 3. I thought ‘wow – he wrote this stuff. Amazing.’ But he didn’t. It was a chapter from Ernesto Sabato’s novel On Heroes and Tombs. Malkovich played the protagonist Fernando Vidal who reckons that blindness drives the world. It was mesmerising. Mesmerisingly short. Just 30 minutes, if that. And it was over.

It’s taken me a week to process it all. Am I glad I got to see and hear the man in person? Yes. Am I glad I didn’t pass up the opportunity? Yes. Do I reckon it was worth the guts of €250 – which is a plane ticket somewhere – I’m not sure.

But I learned a lot about myself. If I have no expectations at all – which is generally the case – I can’t be disappointed. My mother tacked that one on as the ninth beatitude. But if I have expectations, and I’m thrown off course, then I get ansty and anxious. I let it consume me. I tried to enjoy the music in the first half, which was stellar by the way, but my heart was racing and my mind was all over the place. I had brief moments of enjoyment but peppered as they were by a sense of being utterly lost, I barely remember them.

I wanted to see him so badly that I didn’t think to check what it was he’d be doing. I could have. It’s out there. I could have done my homework, perhaps before I bought the tickets. But I was blindsided by fame. Still, though, as a lover of oratory and the spoken word, I think Malkovich would be hard to match.

I’d like to see  Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters. The interview with photographer Sandro Miller makes for fascinating reading. And I never knew that JM owns a restaurant in Lisbon, speaks fluent French, and lost millions in Bernie Maddoch’s Ponzi scheme. For the background reading, I’m grateful. For the opportunity to hear the voice in person, I’m grateful, too. I only wish he’d spoken for longer and that I’d known what I was letting myself in for.


 

To A Bird Another Bird

Much has been in the news in recent times about Hungary and Hungarians, about keeping the former as a stomping ground exclusively for the latter. If I weren’t made of stern stuff, I might take offence. It’s a little like running with a crowd of friends for years before finally realising that you’re only being tolerated and that life, for them, in their eyes, would be much better if you buggered off and went back to where you came from.

When Ireland’s social landscape went from being predominately white and Catholic to the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic Ireland of today, we didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with the changes wrought by new faces, new cultures, new creeds. We’re still learning. There I was a host, here I am a guest. And as a guest, I feel welcome at a grassroots level. But when I raise my head above the dandelions, I wonder if I’m here under sufferance. But what of the richness that entertaining non-nationals can bring to a country, any country. The different skills and experiences, the varied perspectives and views. These guests often become brand ambassadors for their home-from-homes, selling the world on all that’s good. By way of illustration, Harlan Cockburn is a case in point.

British-born Cockburn arrived in Budapest back in 2008 via Africa and America. His CV lists a plethora of professions, including video director, writer, musician, and producer. Hungarians might know him for his radio show Talking Music with The English Guys, which ran on Radio Q for seven years. Football fans of great vintage may know him as the name behind theme songs he wrote for Arsenal FC. He’s worked with the Queen Mother, Bill Clinton, Nick Cave, and many Captains of Industry, and is apparently descended from Queen/St Mary of Scotland. Who wouldn’t want to invite him to a party, let alone have him stay awhile?

Cockburn has been asked the question so many of us are asked: Why Hungary? Why here? I’ve noticed that the question has morphed recently from why I’m here to why I’m staying, a sad reflection of the fact that so many Hungarians (and expats) are choosing to leave. But Cockburn has settled here. He’s here to stay. Yet that doesn’t take from his near daily effort to understand this home from home and the people who have taken him in. ‘I want to understand the country I live in and the suffering that people have been through, with Nazism and Communism being the latest historical examples. Hungary is at a cultural and political crossroads. It’s full of secrets, piled on secrets. Hungarian people seem complex and guarded in many ways, but also proud of their ability to survive.’

His latest book, To A Bird Another Bird (writing as harefield), looks at this culture through the eyes of an alien, in this case, an American Talk Show host (Eli) who makes his first visit to Hungary to trace his dead father. He soon discovers that almost everything he believed about his family is untrue. Drawn into secrets which involve the history of three nations, the massing of refugees, and a hoard of weaponry, he takes the reader on a journey through the various facets of the Hungarian psyche.

There’s a shape to the characters that crosses the line between fact and fiction. Some are horrible people, others are nice, all of them ring true. There’s a palpable sense that even relatively peripheral characters, like Eli’s wife, or his neighbour, or the hospital doctor, have a backstory, even if, as readers, we don’t get to hear it.

I’m drawn to mysteries that also educate. Rather than reading travel books, I read novels set in cities and countries I plan to visit. I like a good story. And central to this story is a riddle that must be solved. Last year, some time before the book published, Cockburn test-marketed it with a group of Budapest writers. One person cracked it, and so the evil Kálmán was named after him, as a sort of reward. The riddle had to be crackable, he said, but not too easy. It had to work for a Budapest person (Hungarian or otherwise), or a stranger to the city. Like all riddles, once you know the answer it seems so obvious.

All writing requires collusion between the writer and the reader; To A Bird Another Bird is no exception. A certain amount of imagination is asked for, but the history is true, and the depiction of modern-day Budapest is also true. People really do walk past underground bunkers in Budapest every day on their way to work. Perhaps unknowingly, but the bunkers are there. There really were ‘Little Moscows’ spread across the country. And there really were vast arms dumps left by the Soviets. Going even further back, the Todt Organisation created extraordinary underground structures across Europe, and after WWII, both America and Russia co-opted Todt’s star engineers.

If you like a good yarn and have the remotest interest in Budapest and Hungary, then this book’s for you. And if, as a Hungarian, you’re curious as to how other others might see Budapest and Hungary, then it’s one for you, too.

Cockburn’s third novel, This Is Me And This Is Wot I Am Get Used To It, will publish shortly. The autoblograffy of a 5-year-old president, it began as a howl against Trump and turned into something completely different. Earlier this year, his collection of 33 ultra-short stories titled In the Cafés of Budapest published and there’s a sequel of To A Bird Another Bird in the making which centres on what the character Dora does next. This one I’m looking forward to; I’ve grown quite attached to the incorrigible Dora and her antics. Cockburn is one of many külföldi who have fallen for Hungary and made this country their home. Despite the climate, it’s still a special place.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 May 2018

2018 Grateful 35

Usually I don’t get heat-cranky till late June but this hot weather is playing havoc with my schedule. The hottest April on record here since records began 218 years ago, the highest low temperature ever, and the highest morning temperature registered on 1 May.  We’ve skipped spring and leapfrogged into summer. Madness.

Over in Alaska, friends are waking up to snow-covered decks. They had summer last week and have now reversed back into winter. Avalanches are being forecast with 33 inches falling on Thompson Pass since 4 May. More madness.

In Dublin, they’ve had a rocking weekend with an Irish hot of 20 degrees. That’s practically a heatwave. I’d say it was madness, but sure they’re mad anyway 🙂

And with far more to complain about, friends in Hawaii are watching lava warnings after a massive earthquake the other day. Evacuations are underway. Lives are falling asunder. What’s happening in the world?

 

All I needed was some perspective. My lot don’t seem half-bad in comparison. I’ll quit my bitchin’ and deal with the perspiration. I’ll bring out the perfumed hankie to combat the rampant BO, and start planning a trip to the sea. Lots to be grateful for.