Where there’s a need

One of the silver linings in this whole COVID-19 phenomenon is that we’re all slightly more aware of the fortunes and misfortunes of others. Life as we know it came to a standstill and is now limping forward, trying to regain some semblance of normalcy. Initially, much was said about us all being in the same boat. More recently though, a realisation has dawned: yes, we’re all weathering the same storm but no, we’re not all in the same boat.

At one end of the spectrum, there are those in rubber dinghies, patched to within an inch of their lives, just one rip or tear away from sinking. At the other end are those in massive yachts, fitted out with all modern conveniences and enough power and resources in the engine room to get their passengers through to the other side.

When we stop appreciating our good fortune and start taking it for granted, something will happen to remind us. Call it Sod’s Law. Whatever. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve worked for what we have or had it handed to us on a plate, being grateful is the first step forward. Helping those less fortunate is the next.

Several years ago, I met the dynamic Irish-Hungarian duo, Joe and Mária (Bobbie) Keys. There was a youthfulness about them that belied their years, an energy and an enthusiasm for life that was enviable. I’ve bumped into them at various gigs and functions in the interim and had a vague idea from their social media posts that they were one of 1.4 million global Lions Club International (LCI) members.

At the D-119 Annual Convention on 27 June 2020, Mária was sworn in as District Governor. The ceremony took place at the stunning Fertőrákos Quarry and Cave Theatre near Sopron. She takes the mantel from Gusztáv Boronkay and I suspect that LCI in Hungary, ably represented in the country since 1988, continues to be in safe hands. I was curious, though; I had to know more.

What began in 1917 as a club where people could come together to give their time and energy to improving their communities, and in turn, the world, has become a global phenomenon involving more than 47 000 clubs in over 200 countries and regions worldwide. Their mission is to

empower volunteers to serve their communities, meet humanitarian needs, encourage peace and promote international understanding.

In Chicago in 1913, Melvin Jones joined The Business Circle in 1913, a luncheon group of businessmen designed to ‘advancing the business interests of its members’. Jones was an insurance man and together with other members, reaped the benefits of this association. Some years later, in a moment of reflection, Jones asked himself:

What if these men who are successful because of their drive, intelligence, and ambition, were put to work helping improve their own communities?

As a response to the social problems created by WWI, Jones invited business clubs from all over the USA to come together on 7 June 1917 at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago to explore the possibility of uniting. And so, the Association of Lions Clubs was born. [The history of the organisation and its relevance are laid out in Lions Clubs in the 21st Century by Paul Martin and Robert Kleinfelder.]

In 1925, Helen Keller challenged the Lions at their International Convention in Ohio, to become ‘knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness’ and almost a century later, Lions worldwide are helping make a difference. In Hungary, the Lions Vision Bus travels the country offering free eye tests and, for those who are in need, free glasses, too.

In 1968, the Lions Club International Foundation came into being with the aim of

…support[ing] the efforts of Lions clubs and partners in service communities locally and globally, giving hope and impacting lives through humanitarian service projects and grants.

Over €1 billion later, LCI is still a force for good. Hungary is in District 119, home to 42 Lions Clubs and more than 800 Lions.  And for 2020/2021, District 119 will have Mária Keys at the helm.

The Keys Family. Photo by Tibor Urbán.

Born in 1950s Pécs, Mária’s boat was of average size. Her father György was a lawyer, her mother Mária, a nurse. Her brother became a doctor, her sister an economist, and Mária herself trained as a teacher. She moved to Budapest in 1984 to be part of a new Swedish method of teaching at Káposztásmegyer. In 1994, she headed to the USA to attend Trinidad State College in Colorado with a view to studying Computer Science and improving her English. There she met and married her husband Joe – the Irishman. Their daughter, Aisling was born in 1996. It’s testimony to the familial strength of LCI that all of them are active Lions. Joe became a Lion while in Shamrock, Texas in 1999 (how an Irishman ended up living in Shamrock is a story for another day) and through him, Mária got involved. Together with their daughter Aisling, all three are charter members of the Budapest Cosmopolitan Lions Club, set up in 2014 and Mária was Charter President.

After several years of owning and operating motels and retirement homes stateside, the pair moved back to Hungary in 2011. With Mária armed with her Agro Operator’s Licence, they bought a property and a vineyard by the Balaton and have been here since.

Ascending the ranks of LCI takes dogged commitment and perseverance. Since 1999, Mária has attended local, regional, and national club meetings. She’s attended leadership seminars at European forums in Bulgaria, Estonia, and Switzerland; taken the District Leadership and  Management course in Austria, and earlier this year enrolled in the Preparation for District Governor course with an intensive session in Chicago.

And although the chains of office are a symbolic reward for over two decades of commitment to the cause, that’s not what Mária is about.

My family have been so fortunate in our lives, and one way to show how appreciative we are is to serve the less fortunate. Just look around and see how much need there is everywhere in our communities. Through the Lions, we hope to make a difference. ‘Where there’s a need, there’s a Lion.’

As the Federation’s strapline tripped off her tongue, I wondered what clubs in Hungary were doing to help better the communities they served. The Vision Bus is just one of the many projects they’re involved in. They also run free diabetes testing and organise sports days for those with physical and mental disabilities. They sponsor orphanages and organise hospital visits for those who have no one else dropping by. Their five main priorities are helping the blind, alleviating hunger, protecting the environment, helping children with cancer, and those with diabetes. But as she said – where there’s a need, there’s a Lion.

While LCI has five main funding/operational streams, each club operates individually, developing their own projects according to the local need. As District Governor, Mária wants to encourage clubs to work together more and share their talents and resources. A national cooperation of this kind will make the Lions stronger and help them achieve even more and bring the Lions ‘closer in friendship, respect, and understanding’. Instead of being wrapped up in the present, Mária has an eye on the future and the need for LCI to stay relevant and to create a strong succession plan. They need more young people (and indeed, people of all ages) to get involved and carry on the great work being done by current members.

In the 1950s, LCI developed the Leo Program for young members. Today there are more than 175 000 Leos and 7000 Leo Cubs in 140 countries. In Hungary, there are over 60 Leos and 7 Leo Cubs.

Like just about every other charity and voluntary group, the Lions have been hit hard by COVD-19. Meetings are all online. Many projects involving face-to-face interaction have been put on hold.  Fundraising has come to a halt. The District is helping local clubs with grants to keep projects going and LCI sent personal protection equipment to be distributed where needed most.

Like many other international organisations, LCI has a sense of cohesiveness and solidarity. I can imagine Mária rocking to a local meeting of the Ulaanbaatar Bichigt Lions Club in Mongolia and being welcomed with open arms. Just being a member gets you on the boat. And it’s a big boat. Given that pre-1987 women had separate clubs and were knowns as Lionesses, it’s is great to see a woman at the helm.

I’ll admit to having an innate suspicion of large charities and prefer to donate to individuals and grassroots organisations with little by way of administrative overheads. That said, LCI consistently gets four stars from the Charity Navigator. It’s reputable. It’s transparent. And it’s been around for more than 100 years, so it must be doing something right.

I’ve no doubt that Mária Keys will champion the cause:

I am very humbled to have been elected by my fellow Lions to lead District 119 for 2020/2021. These are trying times. The challenges are many. You will not find me shying away from the time, energy, and dedication needed as Governor. Remember, kindness matters in all things.

Where there’s a need, there’s a Lion. She is woman; hear her roar. If you’re interested in signing up or knowing more, contact Mária at [email protected]

First published in the Budapest Times, 17 June 2020

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I saw a vapour trail in the sky last week. A rarity these days. The white streak across the blue sky reminded me of a series of paintings by Budapest-based Scottish artist Jim Urquhart. Minus the buildings of course. His paintings have buildings. I was perfecting what the Japanese call boketto – the art of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking. All I could see were trees. All I could hear were birds. All I wanted to do was be on that plane. Read more

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With so much being written about COVID-19, there’s very little left to say. Yet writing about anything else seems inconceivable, as the virus consumes our thoughts, restricts our movements, and turns our worlds upside down. Read more

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It’s difficult these days to know who is right. Whose truth is THE truth? Is there even one truth any more? Was there ever? Read more

To go or not to go, that is the question

I’m due in Budapest tomorrow. I had planned to be there because we were expecting visitors from the USA who are no longer travelling. And because they were going to be there and I had a workshop on Wednesday (now cancelled), and the Gala dinner on Saturday (now cancelled), I was going to be there for the week, too.

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Get your green on

Get your green on

St Patrick’s Day 2020 falls on a Tuesday. In countries where it’s a national holiday, like Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat, Tuesday parades will be in order. In Budapest, the parade and festival will take place on Sunday, 22nd March, but the day itself will be marked by the city’s Irish pubs (noted here in alphabetical order lest I be accused of favouritism).

What the Irish pubs are doing

Beckett’s Irish Bar and Restaurant, a beacon for Irish abroad since first opening its doors in 1994, is now six years in its new home on Liszt Ferenc Tér 11. Its namesake, Samuel Beckett, is probably best known for his contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd, Waiting for Godot. And I’m sure many have had Godot-like moments in this establishment. With a nod from the playwright himself who advised the world to ‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order,’ Beckett’s has quite the line-up, with U2 tribute band INKA-H at 8pm on Friday the 13th; a Six Nations rugby feast on the 14th (Coronavirus permitting), and then Sunday, they’re offering a Hangover Sunday Bloody Mary Breakfast Special with live music that night by John Murphy. On Tuesday, the day itself, there’ll be an all-day party.

Davy Byrne’s Irish Pub is having its first St Patrick’s Day in Budapest. Those with a literary bent might remember James Joyce mentioning the Dublin Davy Byrne’s in both The Dubliners and Ulysses. For many years, the Duke Street pub attracted some of the greats of Irish writing – Brendan Behan, Patrick Cavanagh, Myles na gCopaleen. It was known to serve Michael Collins and host meetings of the outlawed Irish government back in the day. The Budapest Davy Byrne’s (Jókai u. 4) is on track to making its own history. It has live music Saturday night after the rugby and on Sunday, 15th March, there’s a comedy night headlined by Irish comedian Brian Gallagher supported by Joe Dowlin and James Rankin. Start time 7.15pm. On the day itself, there’s live music from 7pm. On the 18th, a St Patrick’s Day themed quiz night will challenge those with a still-functioning brain. Paddy McMullen will be back with more music on the 22nd after the parade.

Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub and Restaurant recently celebrated 10 years in the city where it has carved a niche for itself on the tourist trail with many tourists and pub alumni coming back year on year. The original Jack Doyle had quite the resumé. The Corkman was a boxer, a singer, an actor, a lover, and a drinker. He was a name amongst names. He came to blows with Clarke Gable over actress Carole Lombard and his ex-wife Movita Castaneda would go on to marry Marlon Brando. Noted for saying, ‘a generous man never went to hell’, Doyle would have found no shortage of people to listen to his stories in Jack Doyle’s Budapest. JD’s has a full calendar with live music from 22:30 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night and from 20:00 on Tuesday, the 17th. It, too, will be showing the Six Nations matches on the 14th, if they’re played. Located on the pedestrian street Pilvax köz 1-3, it’s best to use the street address of Varoshaz u. 10 if you’re in a taxi.

More to the day than drinking

If, over the week, you find yourself craving a full Irish breakfast but can’t face the thoughts of going anywhere near a pint, check out ÍRish Budapest on Kiss János altábornagy 54. This family-run café/restaurant caters for vegan, coeliac, and all other tastes. With Irish soda bread a firm fixture on the menu, this new venture has quickly gained a reputation for serving up the ould rashers and sausages with a side of Irish banter.

If you’re planning on making your own breakfast and but don’t want the hassle of baking yourself, get your  Irish soda bread and scones from Áran Bakery on Wesselényi utca 23. They taste as if they’ve come from an Irish mammy’s kitchen. Tesco stocks Kerrygold butter and Lidl does an Irish country butter that passes muster, so you’ll be set.

The glam side of the festivities

With the day itself done and dusted, celebrations will continue on Saturday, 21st March, with the St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner at the Marriott Hotel hosted by the Irish Hungarian Business Circle and sponsored by Pannonia Bio. This annual Black-Tie event is a fixture on the Budapest social calendar and a great excuse to get dolled up. An evening filled with fine food, live traditional music, entertainment, and dancing, this year it features the Tóth-Mayo Duo, Kearney’s Dogs, and DJ Woods. In aid of the IHBC Charitable Foundation, proceeds will support local communities in Budapest and all over Hungary. To reserve a ticket, email [email protected]

And the festival begins

Sunday, 22nd March, is the day many people are waiting for: the 10th annual St Patrick’s Day Parade.  This year, the call to gather is for 13:00 at Erzsébet tér. The parade will depart at 15:00 headed by a band of pipers. With thousands expected to join the festivities, it’ll take about an hour to wend its way through the streets of Budapest. This is a free event for the whole family.

The Festival After-Party will take place at Akvárium Klub from 16:00 with all the ceol, damhsa, bia, deoch, agus craic you can manage. Yes, music, dancing, food, drink, and fun are the order of the day. Tickets are available now from the venue. 1800 HUF in advance or 2500 HUF on the day. The first 500 tickets get a free Guinness hat or t-shirt.

When the Normans invaded Ireland in 1066, they settled so well that they were described as Níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil féin (more Irish than the Irish themselves). Over the last ten years, more and more Hungarians and people from all over the world have been joining the annual celebrations in Budapest. This year is set see a record turnout, so get your green on and be Irish for the day…or the week.

Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh. Happy St Patrick’s Day.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 March 2020

And after we went to press, I heard that The Celtic Barber will be dyeing hair and beards green and will be serving their patrons Jameson and Guinness. Lads, there’s no better day to get a haircut or a beard trim.

And since then the Gala Dinner and the Parade and the After-Party have been cancelled 🙁 and best to check with the pubs before heading out on the day – so much can happen between now and then

The Celtic Barber

I’m having flashbacks to 1994 and the birth of the term ‘metrosexual’. The portmanteau of metropolitan and heterosexual describes a man who has discovered moisturiser and manicures. The marketing world had suddenly woken up to the fact that men had money and liked to spend that money on looking good. Real men were now looking after their skin, their nails, and their hair.

Fast forward a couple of decades and add social media to the mix. Men today compete with women when it comes to posing for selfies, checking hair and profiles. And with beards very much in fashion, barbershops are trending.

In 2018, 813 barbershops opened in the UK, up on 624 in 2017, pretty much the same time as they took off in Budapest. Ireland had reached its barbershop peak in 2016. Note: A barber is not the same as a men’s hairdresser. Both cut hair but your barber will give you a shave, shape your beard, and trim your moustache, too. Men are preening for the pampering.

Curious to see what the madness was about, I ventured up Kiraly utca to No. 90, home of The Celtic Barber in search of the Irish connection.

During Tom Hyziak’s 15-year hiatus in Dublin, he popped over to Budapest for a Formula 1 weekend and then ventured down to Siófok for a few days R&R. That same week in 2014, Mezőkövesd-born Eliza Baranyi was home on holiday from Paris. The two met in a bar and liked the look of each other. In a matter of months Eliza had left the snootiness of the French capital for the more laid-back vibe Dublin had to offer. There, this Polish man and Hungarian woman set up home. Tom was working as a quality controller while building up his online business selling racing-car parts and Eliza needed something to keep her busy.

She’d worked beach bars and restaurants for five years in the Caribbean Islands and then spent seven more working as a personal stylist in Paris. She wanted something different. A friend of hers had started barbering and drafted Tom’s head for practice. Eliza went along to see and figured why not. She did a course, then practised a little at a Romanian’s barbershop in Dublin before going to work for The Grafton Barber. The family-owned company first hung up its pole in 1961 and is now the largest chain in both Ireland and the UK. Eliza learned from the best. Her colleague, a Ukrainian named  Dimitry, shared with her his passion for beards. I suspect she’d already mastered the banter, but her time in Ireland honed her skills even further.

‘I can jump on anyone’s mood’, she told me. ‘I can find something to talk about with just about everyone.’

In October 2018, the pair were ready to move on. Eliza wanted her summers back. Tom wanted to be nearer his native Wrocław. They headed for Budapest with the notion of opening their own barbershop. The Celtic Barber was born.

I’d passed at least five other places advertising haircuts and such for men on my walk from the Körút and wondered at the level of competition in the city. Tom quickly pointed out that there are barbers and there are barbers.

‘Many of them have no idea of the history behind the barber pole,’ he said.

Count me with them, I thought to myself, but I know better now.

Up until Pope Alexander III stopped the practice in the 1100s, monks and priests were the go-to people if you wanted some bloodletting done. Back in the day, bloodletting was seen as a cure for everything from epilepsy to the plague. Imagine having a vein cut open so that the bad blood causing whatever ailed you could escape. Some monks and priests used leeches rather than lancets – equally vile. Anyway, when the job was going abegging, barbers stepped up and became known as barber-surgeons. They’d give their patients a pole to clench to encourage the blood to flow faster, hence the pole; the red-and-white stripes came from the bloody bandages. All rather gruesome. Today’s iconic barber poles show that there’s a real barber in residence, someone who’s skilled with a razor, has mastered the skinfade, and knows their way around a beard. Cue Eliza.

Walking into their shop on Kiraly utca is like stepping into a little corner of Ireland. There’s beer in the fridge, whiskey in the press, and coffee on the table. The walls are full of Irish memorabilia. Sure anyone could do that, you might say. And yes, you can have kits of Irishness shipped anywhere in the world. But what’s harder to transport is the craic, the banter, the easy-going commentary that suggests we’ve been friends for years.

They’ve poured their hearts into the place and it shows. Between them, they speak Hungarian, English, French, and Polish. Over half of their clients are foreigners, a nod to the changing face of the capital. Many are Irish students, perhaps upping their game for the Budapest scene.

Eliza’s professionalism and her streak of perfectionism mean that they don’t need to advertise – their clients do it for them. That they’ve gone from zero clients to a client base that keeps Eliza and their other barber, Ben, busy for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week says it all. Walk-ins are welcome but to avoid disappointment, make an appointment. They’re so busy that they’ve work for three full-time barbers but with so many other shops in Budapest, the pickings are thin. And they need someone who knows their trade and can speak English, too.

Both of them speak with a certain wistfulness about Ireland and their lives there. They think of it as a second home. Indian author Anita Desai reckons that ‘wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow’ and Tom and Eliza are living proof that this is true.

I never thought I’d regret being a woman and not having a beard. I made an appointment for himself instead.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2020

 

2020 Grateful 49: Marking St Brigid’s Day in Budapest

In a letter to the Irish diaspora, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins spoke of a woman who was ‘unafraid to raise her voice in a male-dominated world’. He wasn’t talking about a modern-day feminist, but one who lived in Ireland back in the fifth century – St Brigid. Read more