Juli and Flo Catch Budapest

Catch Budapest – Learning Hungarian

I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve made a determined effort to learn Hungarian. I’ve gone to classes twice a week. I’ve taken an intensive course and even got an A on my final paper. I’ve had private tuition with various teachers. I’ve tried CDs. I’ve bought books. And still, so many years later, I’m still struggling.

I have great conversations in my head and I think they’re more or less grammatically correct, but when I open my mouth, a combination of timidity and accent marks me as a külföldi (foreigner) and my interlocutor immediately switches to English, or if we’re in Zala, to German. It’s frustrating.

Shortly before Christmas, Catch Budapest caught my eye. I signed up for their word for the day which comes into my inbox each morning. It delivers a new word with three possible meanings. I get to choose. I’m rarely right but I have fun trying. These aren’t your basic, beginner-level words – they’re more complex. Lelkiismeret is one that comes to mind – conscience. I got it right on my second attempt. And then I received a full explanation of how the word is composed [lélek = soul; ismer = to know; literally: the knowing of the soul, to know your soul]. And it didn’t stop there. I could click to hear how it’s pronounced and then read some examples of how to use it in a sentence,  complete with a further explanation of the rather convoluted Hungarian word order. And I got more still with a list of related terms like igazságérzet (sense of justice). It’s impressive stuff and very effectively explained.

Curious to know more, I tracked down the brains behind the outfit, Flo and Juli, and asked some questions.

The brains behind Catch Budapest

Flo is Italian, originally from the north of Italy. He spent half of his 38 years in neighbouring Austria before coming to Budapest a couple of years ago, after meeting Juli in Vienna. He fell in love with the girl, the city, and the Hungarian language.

Twenty-seven-year-old Juli was born in Hungary but grew up in Germany. She moved back to Hungary with her parents when she was 10. She did part of her business studies in Vienna and it was there, while working with a multinational corporation, that she met Flo.

Juli and Flo Catch Budapest

The pair decided to quit their jobs and travel the world for a while. They spent time in South East Asia and India and a number of other European countries before choosing Budapest as their home base. Both have a passion for languages. Both have a passion for people. Both have a passion for Budapest. What began with them co-authoring an alternative guidebook to the city and publishing Miklos Molnar’s 33 Hungarian Stories has turned into Catch Budapest. Working closing with a study group of what they describe as ‘ambitions Hungarian learners’, Flo and Juli have developed a Smart Hungarian Audio Course for people who are struggling to master the language.

There are plenty of resources out there for students of Hungarian, but a lot of it is old and dated and in dire need of renovation. Some is impenetrable. Most of it is downright boring. As Flo tried to get his head around the language, the pair saw a need for a different, more versatile approach. The constant reminder to create memory hooks to embed the vocabulary or tips on how to use Hungarian films and radio programmes to improve comprehension – it’s all a far cry from traditional learning and pretty much made for me.

As expats, we’ve all experienced that visitor thing. We live here. We think we know the place. And then we have visitors. We show them around and see the city anew. We find something different, something we hadn’t seen already, something we hadn’t understood before. They ask us questions that if we cannot answer, we research. Living abroad comes wrapped in lifelong learning. Together, Flo and Juli explored the city, did their research, and identified a gap in the market. While there’s plenty of information about the city, it’s all taken on a certain sameness. They’ve focused on offbeat tips like hidden courtyards, art nouveau buildings, non-touristy bars and cafés, and a personal favourite, the oft-overlooked Wekerle Estate.

After they’d published a few articles on Budapest, Flo and Juli realised that interest in Hungary and Hungarian wasn’t confined to those living here. Or even to those visiting Budapest. They soon collected quite the following of people living abroad who had a connection with or experience of Hungary and the language. This is their audience. And their goal is not a modest one – at least not from my perspective.

What Catch Budapest offers

They want to show people the hidden corners of Budapest (okay, that I can see as doable) and to teach them the language in a natural way through their Smart Hungarian Audio Course, daily word emails. and mini language lessons (a far greater challenge). The places they write about often don’t make it to the guidebooks. The words, expressions, and pronunciation they teach don’t always make it to the phrasebooks and dictionaries. But this is their reality. They showcase both the places normal, everyday Budapestians hang out and how they talk, normally and every day.

I asked what their overarching goal is and they agreed that it’s to ‘convey authenticity – to show the authentic side of Budapest and the language to all those people who have or want to establish a deeper connection with either.’

I’ve not spent nearly as much time with Catch Budapest as I’d have liked. It’s already February and my resolution to dedicate an hour each morning to learning more of the language waxes and wanes. But I’m optimistic. I think I may have finally found the practical guide I’ve been looking for, one that not only gives me things to learn but teaches me how to do so.

Check them out at www.catchbudapest.com

First published in the Budapest Times 12 February 2019

Cripple of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan

I’m secretly in love with Martin McDonagh. I’ve never met the man but I did live in his neck of the woods in London for a while and I like to think that we might have reached for the same carton of milk in a corner shop at some stage. Or perhaps we sat sipping coffee at our respective tables, scribbling away. I like the way his mind works – the quirkiness of his plots and pieces. He got me playwise at the Beauty Queen of Leenane and won me over heart and soul with his movie In Bruges. I saw his play, The Lonesome West in Hungarian (Vaknyugat), with English surtitles, and was blown away at how well it translated and how much the Hungarian actors got him. They could have been Irish. I only recently saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, a movie that set me on the trail of the talented Sam Rockwell – but I digress.

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Passing through Dublin last Thursday night, I scored a single ticket for the Gaiety production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, another McDonagh oldie, and joined some friends who’d had tickets for ages. With no one beside me to chat to, I paid more attention than usual to those around me. A night at the Gaiety oozes civility. You can order your interval drinks before the show and then sit during the intermission at your assigned table, avoiding the crowds bellying up to the bar. The theatre itself, while nowhere near the grandeur of the Urania in Budapest, is steeped in history.

The curtain first rose on 27th November 1871 and since then, the Grand Old Lady of South King Street has been entertaining the masses. I wish the management would ban the sale of sweets, though. Or only sell ones that come in boxes. There’s always someone who needs to rustle in a crinkly bag just when something important is going on, on stage. On the night that was in it, a man behind me lost the run of his maltesers, each one falling to the ground and rolling forward … and forward… and forward. But that wasn’t the only noise of the night.

McDonagh has a way with words. His characters in The Cripple of Inishmaan have a turn of phrase that would make sensitive women blush and I’d a few of them sitting behind me. The nervous titters and the strangled gasps evoked by the crude bantering between parent and child, brother and sister, aunts and nephews, and lines such as this amused me no end.

She was as ugly as a brick of baked shite. Excuse my language but I’m only being descriptive.

First written in 1997 and set in 1930s Ireland, The Cripple of Inishmaan has some topical running themes. References to what priests might get up to in the sacristy other than pouring the wine gave pause for thought and a regular refrain of

Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if the Yanks (the French, the Germans, the dentists…) want to come to Ireland

had me thinking about immigration. The bits of news traded by the local newsman (gossip) Johnnypateenmike and the efforts he goes to, to get his news, called to mind the tenacity of the gutter press. He delighted in bad news and feuds because, as he said:

What news is there in putting things behind you?

The play opened last week in Dublin and is currently playing, too, in LA. One review says of the US production said that The Cripple of Inishmaan is…

arguably one of McDonagh’s most sentimentalized and obvious works — a blatant misrepresentation of Irish peasantry so reductive that it requires special handling to prevent it from crashing into caricature.

But we had Irish actors with Irish accents, even if they did move around the country on occasion. Funnily enough, had not the great Rosaleen Linehan (she who has seen 81 summers) played the part of Mammy, the rest of the cast would have carried it off. But good as they were, they paled a little in comparison. They played their parts but Linehan played it real.

That said, there’s a new band of actors coming on line. Ian O’Reilly (Padraic in Moone Boy) and Jamie Lee O’Donnell (Michelle in Derry Girls) are worth watching out for. As they come into their own, we’ll be in for a few treats.

For me though, the star of the show was the set designer Owen MacCarthaigh. He nailed it. I swear I could smell the turf fire, the seaweed, and the porter, as we moved seamlessly from the cottage shop, to the beach, to mammy’s bedroom. Magical.

For a country of some 4 million people, Ireland does incredibly well to sustain such a wealth of literature, art, and theatre. I miss it. If you’re in Dublin between now and March, it’s worth checking out.

Cripple of Inishmaan

 

New Year, New Local

The lads have bought a bar. A neighbourhood joint in the IXth district. I was surprised. They’ve put in their time as punters in hostelries around the world, but I’d never figured them for publicans. One’s an architect. Another works in disaster response coordination. The third’s an academic, and the fourth, well, he makes things happen. A Canadian, a Geordie, a Brit, and an American, all have been in Hungary for the best part of 20 years. They speak the language, they love the food, and they get the people. But perhaps most importantly, they have an innate respect for tradition. Read more

Nine Tables

Nine Tables

Corvin Sétány is alive and well. New places are opening on a regular basis. The latest addition that I’ve noticed is Nine Tables, which has taken the spot previously occupied by Bombay Curry Bar, next to Costa. Presumably a Spanish sister to the self-billed American restaurant on Tompa, this piqued my curiosity so much I tried it blind. No sneak peek at the menu beforehand. No price check. No review check. Sadly, I may well have learned my lesson.

True to its name, it has just nine tables, three of which were occupied the night the four of us turfed up, with a reservation. Granted it was early in the week and not a great dining-out night but still, the area has more than its fair share of tourist traffic so I’d have expected more people.

The wine offer was decent enough with a nice array of reasonably priced Hungarian wines to choose from. Interestingly though, the standard glass was 1.6 dl. Not the usual 1 dl or 1.5 dl, but 1.6, I wondered if this was being different for the sake of being different or it if was simply a typo. It must be difficult to divide a 75 dl bottle into 1.6s. But I wasn’t there to do the math. At least I thought I wasn’t.

The menu was limited but enticing. Lamb. Salmon. Prawns. Steak. A little pricey I thought but hey, it’s not every day I see lamb on a menu in Budapest. When we ordered, our waitress cautioned us that the portions were small  – tapas-sized – so we might want to reconsider. Wow. Tapas-sized portions at full-main prices? mmmm…

I like my tapas. I like the idea of sharing different dishes. I like the idea of tasting a variety of stuff. We ordered the lamb, the salmon, the prawns, the chorizo, the croquettes, and some fries, warned as we were that food would come as it was cooked and not all together.

We were four. The first dish up, the croquettes, had three croquettes. We got three prawns, too. And the paper bag with the (cold) bread that came with the chorizo had five slices.

I despaired. Obviously, the whole concept of initiative was missing from the training. Four people sharing a dish designed for three? How difficult would it have been to say – This dish comes three to a plate. Or better yet, this dish comes in threes but we can add an extra one (and charge accordingly)? I felt as if I was back in short socks and mammy was dividing the last sausage between the cousins.

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered whether we’re evolutionizing out of our ability to think independently. Have we become victims to rote training, standard operating procedures, and a blind acceptance of This is simply the ways it’s done. Period. Are today’s service-industry workers allowed any leeway to apply common sense or is theirs simply the job of applying the rules, literalizing the menus, and sticking rigidly to the offer. The last time I remember calling this into question was also on Corvin Sétány in a sushi restaurant that refused to slice its rolls.  Perhaps it’s something in the air.

Nine Tables or no?

The much-anticipated lamb (two cutlets) was bland and overpriced. The whole experience was disappointing. When I wasn’t in conversation and looked around the room, I was drawn to the two skulls on the bar or the TV above it. I’m not quite sure what the game plan is with this restaurant, but it wouldn’t be getting my vote for somewhere to go unless I simply fancied a bowl of excellent fries (really nicely done) and a decent glass of local vino.

 

The gift of art

Nothing makes me feel more ‘of’ a place than running into someone I know on the street. That sense of knowing someone from somewhere else immediately robs the place of its foreign feel. I don’t have to know them well, or even to have known them for long, it’s the knowing that cinches it. I was nearly a year in Budapest before I first ran into someone I knew on the street, before that foreign feeling left me. And even today, chance meetings in the city are a rarity, a symptom perhaps of different lives being lived at different paces. But a few weeks back, while over in Buda, I ran into British artist David Stuart Sutherland. Unusually, both of us had time to spare, time for a quick coffee and a catch-up. It’d been years. Many years. Back when a mutual friend was living in Hungary, we’d socialised a bit.  I’d a faint notion that he painted and took photographs and was into some sort of whacky music, but I didn’t know the half of it.

In the years since we last met, Sutherland has come into his own. Focusing exclusively on his art, his interplay with mixed-media painting, analogue photography, and sound belies an innate curiosity about stuff. Yes, stuff. Plain, ordinary, everyday stuff. Standing one day with the guts of a Hoover bag in his hands, he upended the contents. There among the dust were pieces of his son’s Lego, splotches of colour that greyed out the already grey dust. Where I’d have seen a mess, he saw a pigment. The result was a 25 cm x 25 cm piece called Ash Vacuum: vacuum cleaner dust and paper on canvas, a piece I’m secretly coveting.  Sutherland doesn’t limit himself by paint when he makes paintings. His thing is to mix found materials. A 1966 ledger he found on the street in Budapest, the forerunner of the modern-day Excel spreadsheet, resulted in a series of three pieces entitled Harbor, and heralded his venture into ‘found’ art.

But his work is not just about physical media that can be fashioned into something for people to look at. Sutherland is also into sound as art. In 2014, he founded the audio-visual group m o n o f o g with  Tamás Ilauszky. The pair of them dug out some lo-fi, junk instruments and started playing. Their work looks at acoustic bodies as art objects as well as sound makers. And here, too, there’s the thread of found art and a homage to our disposable world. Imagine a fiddle bow tickling the spokes of a bicycle wheel and you’re one step closer to picturing what they do. If you need to hear it to believe it, have a listen to their track, Dodo do do, on Sutherland’s website https://www.davidstuartsutherland.com/sound-works. It’s heady stuff.

With photography part of everything we do these days, some say that that the art itself is dead. Mind you, didn’t they say that about painting, too? With the millions of photos posted hourly on social media (an average of 95 million photos were uploaded each day on Instagram alone in 2018), everyone with a smartphone fancies themselves a photographer. Digital has done wonders for the democratisation of photography but how much of the art itself has been diluted by editing tools and filters? I wonder. Sutherland is old school, though. He’s analogue all the way. His black-and-white photos of the city are shot on a MicroPress 5×4 Xenar 1:4 camera with a 7/134 Schneider Kreuznach lens. He develops the sheet prints in his home studio and then makes the contact prints. His series Budapest F32 is in Mai Manó House, the Hungarian House of Photography, over on Nagymező utca (signed, dated archival prints are available for sale: my picks are Vajda and Liszt). There’s an old-world feel to these contemporary images that grabs hold of you. It’s like being transported back to a place where people had both the time and the inclination to stop and look and listen. There’s something about Sutherland’s work that resonates; it’s almost as if he’s been around before.

The curator at Rugógyár Galéria thought so, too. Earlier this year, Sutherland was chosen as part of the gallery’s Innen és Túl az érzékelés határain (From here and beyond the limits of perception). He was in good company. Featuring abstract paintings from 1947 to 2018, the exhibition showcased the works of three artists: Tamás Lossonczy (1904–2009), Árpád Szabados (1944–2017), and David Stuart Sutherland (1966–) himself. It sought to find the parallels between the three artists, to find a share visual language, and in doing so to show how even though we come from different places and live in different times, our views of life can be similar. To share the same wall space with Lossonczy, who learned the tools of modern art from Picasso in Paris in the 1930s, had an almost poetic feel to it.  Back in 2005, Sutherland and his wife Judit took their infant daughter to Műcsarnok, a contemporary art museum in Budapest. There, they fell in love with one of Lossonczy’s paintings. They positioned her pram in front of the painting and snapped a surreptitious photo. Little did Sutherland know that some 13 years later, his own paintings would be hanging beside those of Lossonczy in a new gallery on Szarka u. 7.

Sutherland’s work is being exhibited as part of the December Group Show at Rugógyár Galéria, alongside paintings and sculptures by Daniel Horváth, Szilárd Cseke, Tamás Lossonczy, Árpád Szabados, Balázs Veres, Henrik Martin, and Ágnes Hardi. It runs from 11 December.

As Christmas approaches, shopping lists grow longer. Decisions on what to buy for those special people can wreck your head. Consider giving the gift of art this year. I’m making it easy for you; I’ve given you my three Sutherland picks 😊

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir | Boldog karácsonyt mindenkinek | Happy Christmas to you all.

Published in the Budapest Times December 2018

Ether Tide (acrylic on canvas 50x50cm 2018)

 

The Fridge is Open ( acrylic on canvas 70x70cm 2018 )

 

Sputnik 1000 (acrylic on canvas 70x70cm 2018)

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.

 

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

 

Scream, Shout

I’ve had a string of bad news lately. Death and dying are featuring heavily in my conversations. Death notices are more frequent than marriage announcements and funerals more commonplace than weddings. It sucks.

It sucks to see people spirited away before they’ve had time to finish what they’d started. Granted, many of us haven’t a clue what it is we want from our time on this earth, other than some vague notion we have to be happy. More of us as so focused on the next goal that we lose sight of the life unfolding around us. All too few of us manage to strike a workable balance.

Thinking about drive and ambition, what came to mind was a seesaw, with that duo balanced by the twins, value and worth. I recalled an interview I did about a year ago with a 22-year-old from Gyomaendrőd who was set to take the music world by storm. She goes by the name of AGGI (the caps are all hers). What struck me about her was her determination to be herself, not a carbon copy of some other 22-year-old, pressurised by expectations to fit someone else’s preconception of who she should be. She didn’t want to be told what she should or shouldn’t do with her life. She had a plan. She knew what she wanted. In need of affirmation that the world was working for someone, I thought I’d see how she was getting on.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

She’s still writing, still recording, still singing. She went back home in April and topped the bill at the Gyomaendrődi Nemzetközi Sajt és Túrófesztivál and was thrilled to see her 91-year-old great-grandmother up front and centre along with 700 or so proud locals who’d come out to see their girl on stage. In May, she played a more intimate live gig at Legenda, and in September, she opened for The Hooligans when they played Barba Negra Tracks. That’s some progress. AGGI comes into herself when she’s on stage. She has stuff to say and she wants the world to hear it.

Already a regular on local and national radio, a sponsorship deal from a Japanese guitar company, Guyatone (and another with their US parent company DeMont), led to AGGI getting lots of airplay in Japan of all places. They love her. She has a regular slot on Radio FM RaRa (in English) on the third Saturday of each month and judging by the amount of fan mail, her 10-gig Japanese tour scheduled for spring 2019 will be a sell-out. ‘My voice is in Japan’, she told me, understandably excited. People 9000 km away have heard her sing, like what they hear, and want to hear more.

In February, on her birthday, she got the present of her dreams – a record deal from a record company in Italy. But AGGI chose not to unwrap that particular gift. Rather than jump at the deal just to have a deal, she and manager Terry V decided to hold off and wait for the right one to come along. And it will. It’s just a matter of time. The girl has plans. And she’s making them happen.

Last time we spoke, she told me she was doing her dissertation on Stephen King’s novel, Rose Madder, in which he deals with the bruising issue of domestic violence. I remembered that she’d had a keen interest in gender issues and woman power and was determined her voice would be heard.  I asked her if she’d graduated, if she’d finished the dissertation. The completer-finisher in me was a little disappointed to hear that she’d taken a gap year to focus on her music, and was only now returning to complete her final year of study. ‘But’, she said proudly, ‘my voice was heard.’ She and Terry V had written a song to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Scream, Shout was released on 25 November and for a few hours that day, AGGI’s video featured on the UN website. It tells the story of a young woman who takes back control and finally says Enough! It’s a simple, powerful video that stands on its own.

Although she’s not yet a household name, AGGI seems far too grounded to let the recognition that comes with national and international airplay, the sponsorship deals, the live gigs, the upcoming tour, the strong video following on YouTube, and her growing fanbase go to her head. But while she likes the intimacy of smaller gigs, she thrives on big crowds. When facing a teeming audience visibly engaged with what she’s doing on stage, she’s in her element. ‘It’s feedback’, she said. ‘I need feedback.’  At one gig, a former colleague came up to congratulate her on how far she’d gone since they’d worked together. She was chuffed. A classmate who’s also studying music told her that hearing her play gave the younger girl the confidence to keep pursuing her own dream. Her family is still as supportive as ever and goes to all her gigs. Her brother and sister have been in both her videos. She’s playing to nobody’s tune but her own.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

AGGI, along with her co-writer and manager, Terry V (guitar), Bence Kocsis  (drums), and Benedek (Beni) Nagy  (bass), has been busy doing what she told me she’d do. She’s making things happen. Listening to her music, it’s evident that she has a very strong sense of worth. At 23, she knows what she wants and knows the hard work it’ll take to get it. But most importantly, she wants it all for the right reasons: She has a voice, she has something to say, and she’s determined to be heard. Music was her hobby. Now it’s her life.

Is the world working for AGGI I wondered? I think it’s more case of AGGI making her world work for her. An example to us all. Catch her at Dürer Kert on 22 November.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2018

A Scottish man walked out of a bar…

Bring up the topic of football stadiums in Hungary and you’re guaranteed eyes will roll. So many have been built in recent years it’s laughable. The Field of Dreams approach of build it and they will come hasn’t quite worked out. These magnificent edifices stand against a backdrop of somewhat mediocre football in a country that is waiting (im)patiently for the second coming of the Aranycsapat (the Golden Team) of the 1950s.

Mention football to me and you’re guaranteed my eyes will glaze over. My passion for soccer waned when Jack Charlton left the Boys in Green to fend for themselves. While I have fond memories of Italia ’90 when the boys did Ireland proud, I prefer rugby.

But when I ran into the new Business Development Director for Vác FC the other day, I was surprised at how excited I became at the thoughts of having a Hungarian team I could support. One whose values I shared. One whose colours I could wear with pride.  Scottish-born Patrick McMenamin pulled his last pint in 2017 after a 12-year run in The Caledonia Scottish Pub in Budapest and now he’s landed his dream job. He gets to talk football all day, every day.

The second division team is currently playing in the TVE stadium in Budapest’s third district while their own is being renovated: cue eye roll. But it’s a necessary renovation to comply with the new requirement that clubs must have 600 covered seats for their viewing public. When Phase 1 of the development is finished, Vác FC will have an overall capacity of just 1350, and given that the biggest crowd in recent years numbered some 1100, this plan would seem to be based on logic rather than a pipe dream.

But Chairman John Marshall, Head Coach Zoran Spisljak, and McMenamin himself see Vác FC as more than a football stadium. In fact, the S word is an unmentionable one. What the boys are building is a facility that will be open for community use. Think meeting rooms and conference space. Think garden fetes and BBQs. Think workshops and skills sessions. The new and improved Vác FC will be heavily focused on the local community. The players, too, will benefit as schemes like Investors in People are initiated and each footballer is recognised as more than simply a fast pair of legs.

‘Football in Hungary’, says McMenamin, ‘doesn’t have enough good stories. We’re going to write a great one.’ The team is lucky, he says, in that Marshall isn’t chasing promotion. They’re aiming for a top-six finish this year, taking it one goal at a time. With the recent addition of Spisljak as Head Coach, the emphasis is now on more than simply football skills. At the cutting edge of sports coaching, Spisljak is well-regarded for his holistic approach. He recognises the importance of developing his players as people. Their working lives are short. They need to be able to do something when they retire. Any decent FC should help prepare them for life off the pitch while simultaneously developing their prowess on the pitch. And Vác FC seems to have all the hallmarks of a decent club.

I’ve been a fan of Spisljak for a number of years since seeing him work his magic with the players atBékéscsaba (I interviewed one of them for this column some years back). Couple this with Marshall’s pragmatism and McMenamin’s enthusiasm and Vác FC could well become a template for community-focused football clubs.

McMenamin’s mandate is to develop business relationships and attract investors. He’s touting the Társasági Adókedvezmény (TAO) programme whereby 50% of corporate taxes can be diverted to the club of your choice and in addition, your business will receive a 6.5% rebate on the other 50%. And yes, no doubt some eyes will be rolling at the thoughts of even more stadiums being built on the back of these diverted tax forints, but Vác is keeping it simple. ‘Fit for purpose’ was the term used. A club that develops young players, builds on their strengths, and prepares them for their post-football future. A club that works co-operatively with the local community. A club that leverages corporate social opportunity and gives businesses a reason to invest.

The more McMenamin talked about their plans, the more enthusiastic he became. He’s not a one for negativity, preferring to surround himself with positive people who believe in a shared tomorrow. A chat with Spisljak over a cup of coffee about the future of Hungarian football, led to a second coffee with Marshall and the offer of a job.

McMenamin, himself a player with the Budapest Old Boys Club, has been kicking a ball since he was seven when he played Right Wing for St Cuthbert’s RC Primary School back in his native Scotland. What he likes about the Hungarian set up is the Football Association’s commitment to developing home-grown talent. Players in the Second Division aren’t blinded by big money and fast cars; they’re honest, decent young men who wear their jerseys with pride and play their hearts out for their teams. That’s something to be nurtured.

Me? I don’t care a whit for soccer, but I was completely caught up in what this club could be. Many expats struggle to find a local team to support when they relocate. They’re not bound by club politics or traditional loyalties and the choice can be difficult if nothing is ruled out. If McMenamin has his way, busloads of us will be visiting Vác on a regular basis to support our new team and experience the local hospitality. There is life outside of Budapest, he said. It’s just waiting to be discovered.

And, were we to sit down in three years’ time, what would you be telling me, I asked. He thought for a minute and then said: I’d tell you that the city of Vác has a football club they’re extraordinarily proud of. Enough said.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2018

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.