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

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

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

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

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

The politics of decency

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. Those aren’t my words; George Orwell wrote them back in 1941 in his book All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays.

Fast forward 77 years and Hungary has just come through another general election. In the lead-up to it, the media was full of who said what and when and about whom. Accusations and half-truths were flying around like missiles seeking a target. The opposition was scrambling to put aside their differences, and their egos, and reach some sort of agreement to present a united front to the voters on 8 April. Memories of events and incidents long past resurfaced. Old grudges gained new ground, ignoring the entreaty of former US President John F. Kennedy who urged Americans back in 1958 not to ‘seek to fix the blame for the past’ but instead to ‘accept [their] own responsibility for the future. In other words, it was business as usual.

For a foreigner with minimal Hungarian, my knowledge of what’s going on is limited to the English-speaking press or at the mercy of Google translation. Asking Hungarian friends for their take on specific happenings helps to a point, if I remember that they’re seeing things through the prism of their own experiences. My struggle to find truth amidst the deluge of information available is a difficult one and as I don’t have a vote, perhaps it’s all a moot point anyway. But when I have an opinion, I like it to be an informed one. And I like to know what’s going on.

Specifics aside, I find myself wondering about politics and politicians, about why we vote into power those we do or worse still why we don’t bother voting at all. I’m spending a lot of time considering the traits I’d like to see in my ideal politician, how I’d want them to behave, what I’d like them to do. And perhaps the day will come when we can have our politicians made to measure – in the meantime I can but dream.

Back in 1948, Herbert Hoover, in his remarks to Wilmington College in Ohio, noted:

It is a curious fact that when we get sick, we want an uncommon doctor; if we have a construction job, we want an uncommon engineer; when we get into war, we dreadfully want an uncommon admiral and an uncommon general. Only when we get into politics are we content with the common man.

And while I might want the leader of my constituency or indeed my country to be an ‘uncommon politician’, I can’t decide if I’d like them to be a man or a woman, or if it matters.

The Internet is littered with studies and reports drawing a (spurious?) correlation with the number of women on the board or in leadership positions with a company’s financial and other successes. Adjectives such as empathetic, ethical, and honest are prefaced with ‘more’ when it comes to describing women in leadership roles. Okay, findings can be massaged and for every report showing a correlation, another refutes it. But is there an added dimension that women bring to politics? Benazir Bhutto said that when she entered politics, she brought another dimension to the table – that of a mother. I think of the women leaders I know and am not at all sure that I see that maternalism in their politics, be they national, international, or corporate.

Before dipping my toe in the pool of diplomacy, I’d have argued long and hard that I wanted the leader of my country to be honest, always, all the time, no matter the cost. I know better now. Former President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski gave a keynote speech back in 2002 at the Morality and Politics conference in Vienna. Entitled Is Honest Politics Possible?, the keynote explores the place of honesty in politics and defines an honest politician as

Someone who regards politics as a tool for achieving the common good. He is not naive, and knows that patience, compromise, and a policy of small steps are often needed. Yet in pursuing partial goals he will not lose sight of higher objectives.

This perhaps I could live with. As long, of course, as those higher objectives were for the greater good. I don’t want to be lied to, but sometimes ambiguity has its place. And anyway, in this day and age, the definition of truth is blurred to the point that it can almost mean whatever you want to mean.

When it comes to describing a good politician in a democratic society, adjectives abound. We want our politicians to be accessible, believable, compassionate, decisive, ethical, faithful, generous, humble, intelligent, jovial, keen, law-abiding, managerial, nuanced, open, pragmatic, questioning, reliable, sincere, trustworthy, utilitarian, veracious, worthy, xenial, youthful, and zealous. No tall order there! We want them to inspire hope, to offer security, make our worlds better. We want them to practice what they preach, to advance our cause, and to take care of the less fortunate. We want them to have a lived a blemish-free life. We expect either too much of them or not enough. We blame them for working the system while we do the same ourselves, albeit on a much smaller scale. We set them up to fail and when they do, we complain, loudly, at their shortcomings.

After much consideration, I’ve decided that Theodore Roosevelt, had it right when he said in his remarks to Harvard and Yale undergraduates invited to Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island, June 1901: the most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency. Decency. That’s what I want. I want my politicians, my leaders, my guardians of tomorrow – I want them to behave decently at all times. Is that too much to ask?

First published in the Budapest Times 13 April 2018

With a nod to all things Irish

When 1 March dawned this year, Ireland was covered in a blanket of white. Fast-forward a couple of weeks later, all thoughts are turning to greening the country. And not only Ireland, but cities like Buenos Aires in Argentina and Tokyo in Japan, who have embraced the celebration of the nation’s patron saint, St Patrick.

The tiny Caribbean volcanic island of Montserrat is the only other country in the world in which 17 March is a public holiday. But it’s a coincidence. There, Montserratians commemorate an eighteenth-century revolt by slaves against their European white colonizers, the majority of whom were Irish. Their week-long celebration is about independence.

This year, St Patrick’s Day conveniently falls on a Saturday, and carries on the long weekend that starts with the Hungarian holiday of 15 March which celebrates democracy and freedom, two words very much in vogue in recent times, and commemorates the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. It was declared a holiday back in 1990. On this day, most Hungarians will sport a cockade of the national colors – red (strength), white (loyalty), and green (hope). There’s an alternative interpretation, too, apparently: red for the blood spilled by Hungarian patriots, white for freedom, and green for the land of Hungary.

The Irish holiday on 17 March dates back to 1903 and has more religious overtones, marking as it does the advent of Christianity to Ireland, brought to the shores by St Patrick way back when. The first official government-sponsored parade didn’t take place in Dublin until 1931. Slow as it might have been to catch on, St Patrick’s Day is now a day to be reckoned with in many cities around the world, Budapest included.

Eight years ago, in 2011, 546 people took part in the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. Each year has seen a few more marching, with turnout figures on track to reach the 10 000 mark on the 10th anniversary.

This year, the parade will take place on Sunday, 18th March from Szabadság tér.  The crowds will start convening at 1.30pm to a backdrop of music, face-painting, and a taste of the Ireland that comes in a glass – whiskey and stout. In a nod to sobriety and sanctity, the Irish Free State government banned the selling of alcohol on St Patrick’s Day back in 1927. Our neighbours up North weren’t as drastic and until the ban was repealed in 1961, I’d imagine there was quite a bit of border hopping going on. The parade will step out at 3pm and wend its way through the streets of Budapest over to Akácfa utca 49-51, to Instant VIII, where the party will start in earnest.

The massive venue will morph into a mini Ireland for the day, evening, and night with musicians and dancers doing their bit on all stages. The trinity of Irish revelry – ceoil, caint, agus craic (music, chat, and fun) – will preside over the occasion, one not to be missed.

Some, though, might be feeling a little worse for wear, a little tired perhaps from the previous night’s celebrations. The Annual St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner is set to take place in the Marriott Hotel on the night itself, Saturday, 17th March. This annual event started back in 2006 and has become quite a feature on the Budapest social calendar. With more than 250 people expected to show up in their best bib and tucker, this elegant evening is an opportunity to get a feel for what Irish hospitality is all about. This year, the fab Hungarian dance troupe Coincidance (European Irish Dance champions) will be giving their take on the traditional Irish dance, with Budapest-based Hungarian Irish Folk band Green Spirit supplying the music. It gives this patriotic soul goosebumps to see how Hungary has embraced the art of Irish music and dance and done us proud. A limited number of tickets are still available, so reserve yours now.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the celebrations continue into the following week when on Monday, 19th March, students from schools around Hungary gather for the annual St Patrick’s Festival competition organised by the Vörösmarty Mihály Gimnázium. Secondary schools will be sending their best to compete in five categories: Folk song | Pop-rock song, solo | Pop-rock song, group | Poem or prose | Short scene. And for the second year running, there’ll be a special prize for the best Irish entry.

On Saturday, 24th March, at Folyondár Sports Hall (1037 Budapest, Folyondár utca 15), local, national, and international Irish dancers, will compete in the Budapest Open Feis 2018. Anyone who has watched, gobsmacked, as Michael Flatly and Riverdance took the world by storm, might be interested in seeing these dancers in step. The whole scene has come a long way since I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to dance classes, hating every minute of the ringlets (the de rigueur hairstyle for anyone with hair long enough to take the rags, long before the invention of curling tongs). Years later, on reflection, I wish I’d found a way to get over the fact that I don’t have a musical bone in my body and have a hard time telling a reel from a jig. But such is life.

The international Go Green campaign continues. In Singapore, for example, the Singapore River will run green while the Gateway of India in Mumbai will also go green for St. Patrick’s Day. In Budapest, at time of writing, confirmation is in that MUPA and the Tüskecsarnok will go green and hope is still alive that the Chain Bridge and the Budapest Eye will follow suit. Don’t you just love it when it all comes together.

Kudos to the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle, the Irish Embassy in Budapest, and all their supporters for making this all happen.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh go léir. Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.

 

First published in the Budapest Times, 9 March 2018

Cheers!

In a previous life, while working with a think-tank in London, a report came across my desk that shocked me. It coined the term Ghost Town Britain. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of banks and post offices – they’re both big businesses; the streamlining of services is part and parcel of their operations. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of corner shops; I could see for myself how the behemoths like Tesco and Waitrose were bagging up the competition. What really got to me was the reported demise of the local pub. A colleague of the Muslim faith didn’t understand why I was upset. Fewer pubs meant fewer people drinking, and that had to be good, he said. But, I argued, pubs are much more than shorts and pints; they’re often the backbone of community life.

This, perhaps, is particularly true when you’re living in another country, away from what’s familiar, in the process of making a new life. I’ve looked back at the various cities in which I’ve lived and realise that many of the friends I made (and am still in touch with), were friends I met in a pub.

Starting over can be daunting. And the older you get, the more difficult it is to break into well-established social circles. Having a local pub helps, a concept embodied by the long-running TV show, Cheers!, and its theme tune with the refrain “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Expat pubs are like nation-states, serving up a fare that appeals to the displaced. In Budapest, for example, Jack Doyle’s and Becketts both fly the Irish flag and attract a community of expats from all over. The Caledonia gives a nod to the Scottish presence in the city. And strangely, it was from the Cale that a local Hungarian pub was born, one that is rapidly becoming a contender in the home-from-home market for many English-speaking expats in the city.

Back in 2009, Budapest-born Zoltán Farkas started working at The Caledonia as a bartender. He soon endeared himself to the clientele. Over the next eight years, Zoli got to know his punters by name and nationality. Although he’s never been to Scotland (or Ireland, England, or Wales for that matter), then co-owner Patrick McMenamin (himself a Scot) introduced him to the concept of banter, that back and forth between punter and publican that is such an inherent part of the ultimate pub experience. A quick study, Zoli soon realised that it’s not enough to offer good beer, fine wines, and decent food – the pub needs to have a personality, too.

Last year, Zoli got the opportunity to go out on his own, to see if he could replicate the down-home experience and create a pub where everyone would be welcome, where everyone would want to go, where people would be known by name. A regular Hungarian customer had spotted his talent, listened to his dream, and decided to back him. A family man with a beautiful wife, Szandra, and two lovely daughters, Zoli’s decision was influenced by the need to take a step forward in his career. And so, Kisrabló Pub was born.

Well, not so much born as re-imagined. The Kisrabló name (trans. Little Robber) has hung over the door of Zenta Utca 3 since 1925. In the 1990s, it was one of the most popular upmarket restaurants in the city, with a very good reputation. It closed for a time from 2015 to 2017, having suffered from a steady decline in service, something Zoli and his crew are serious about rebuilding.

Unlike Jack Doyle’s, Beckett’s, and The Caledonia, Kisrabó is on the Buda side of the city, in a part of town that has plenty by way of cafés and restaurants, but not so much in the line of proper pubs. But it’s accessible from just about anywhere by the M4 metro, trams 4, 6, 19, 41, 47, 48, 49, 56, and buses 133e and 7.

The only light shining on Zenta utca, the two-storey pub has capacity for about 170 people. The main floor alone has seats for 110, with six TVs screens, and a sound system. It’s a haven for sports enthusiasts who can watch pretty much any sport that’s being screened. Zoli has made this a priority, focusing on the English Premier League and rugby. As host to OLSCH, the Official Liverpool Supporters Club in Hungary, every Liverpool game in the season gets airtime. [And if you’re not into watching TV, the pool table and the dart board are free to use, while the csocsó (table football) works with a 100ft coin.]

The lower-floor event room can host 60 customers with a separate bar and its own staff. Wired with a standalone sound system and TV, it’s calling out to tasting events, parties, family events, company nights out, and live music gigs. On 2 March, the Irish Hungarian Business Circle will host its monthly First Friday event there, with special guests from the Italian Chamber and music by the fab Green Spirit. This is the first of many such events Zoli plans for Kisrabló, events that embody the essence of what the pub is about – inclusiveness.

And while the whole pub experience is about far more than simply drinking, the drinks offer is quite extensive, including 10 draft beers with English ales and Irish stouts, Hungarian handcrafted beers, and Czech lager, too. It also boasts more than 30 different bottled beers and about 10 different ciders. And, I hear, the plan is also to focus on quality spirits, building the offer week by week.

I’ve been a few times when I’m in town and there’s a rugby match on. Zoli and Szandra always have a welcome and a word for me. But last week, Beni, one of the bartenders, called me by name. And something clicked. I felt at home. Cheers, lads! Here’s to many good years ahead.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 February 2018

Birds of paradise

I dislike the mindlessness induced by social media. I loathe the barrage of advertisements I’m subjected to when I engage with it. And I resent the fact that Google and its ilk, with their algorithms, attempt to do my thinking for me. But occasionally, just occasionally, Facebook sends me something I like.

Budapest Up Close is a Facebook page with the tagline: A look at the people, art, innovation, business, and ideas from a land that has influenced the world for decades yet remains a mystery to many. Okay, I thought, a pleasant change from the usual naysaying press that overshadows this country. Curiousity piqued, I made a coffee and sat down to check it out. I was particularly interested in the art offer, as I’d recently come by some spare white walls that needed a little something.

One post caught my eye: bird paintings by Hungarian artist, Karl Meszlényi. I clicked on the companion website and lost myself in his world. As I scrolled through his work, I fell in love with a painting of a stork in full flight, wings splayed, feathers flighted. Back to the FB page to send a message enquiring about prices and lo and behold it turned out that I knew the woman behind this initiative – American-born Liz Frommer, a long-term Budapest resident.

Frommer is helping promote up-and-coming Hungarian artists, of which Meszlényi is one. But more than simply showcasing the art, she’s all about the artist. Yes, I could go to a gallery and pick my painting, but through Frommer, I got to go to Meszlényi’s studio, meet him in person, and discover the mind behind the magic.

Meszlényi has been drawing since he was 14. Back then, he wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Instead, he was drawn to art and took up painting when he was 19. But it wasn’t until four years later that he had sold and saved enough to pay his University fees and could enroll in Eszterházy Károly College in Eger, where he learned the finer aspects of his art.

A self-professed painter, rather than an artist, he dabbles in all media – pencils, oil, mix media, acrylic, watercolour – and has several thematic concepts he follows. Birds are a specialty, as are horses and lions and abstracts. He’s drawn to the freedom of birds, their colours, their expressions. I fancied that some of his subjects seemed a little cross, but all of them are exquisite. Curious at the distinction he drew between artist and painter, he explained that artists express themselves while painters study the techniques of visual communication. I liked this, noting to myself that by his reckoning, I’m an artist, but as a painter, I fail miserably.

Meszlényi’s city studio is a small room in his mum’s flat in the XIVth district. Shedding our shoes at the door, we picked our way through into the front room where sparkling wine and cheese and crackers awaited. That wine and art go together is an indisputable fact in my world. I silently applauded. We chatted for a while, with Meszlényi talking about his life, his studies, and the fire that robbed him of so much of his work. He spoke of his collectors, the many ardent followers of his art who live in Brazil, Germany, the USA, the UK, and other countries around the world. [He recently sold at a piece at Saatchi Art in London.] He spoke of interviews and exhibitions, of fame and fortune, of what it takes to make it. And all the while, a little more of the essence of who he is escaped.

Primed and ready, he began to pull out canvases of various sizes and shapes and colours and forms. He paints big, and bright, and bold. And I was lost in an abstracted Rorschachy world. I saw caves and waterfalls and stalagmites. I saw mushroom clouds and tornados and spilled pots of jam. I saw parrot tails and tidal pools and dressing-room mirrors. And these were just the abstracts.

I can’t comment on Meszlényi’s technique. I can’t critique his style. I can’t tell you if he’s good or great or the next Audubon. All I can say is that his work is evocative, it is expressive, it is ebullient. Even the most delicate of his birds oozed character. And the more I looked at them, the more I focused, the more the story developed. I was tripping.

I know I’m given to rhapsodizing. When I find something I like, I get a little carried away. But this was a quieter, more reflective trip. I didn’t like everything I saw. Not every piece had something to say to me. But the ones that did spoke volumes. And lest you think that I’m losing it, check out an interview Meszlényi did last year with Giannie Couji for the New-York-based Ubikwist magazine, who also visited his studio. She had this to say: ‘To my total surprise I was stunned. “Am I with the incarnation of Pollock-Twombly, wrapped in the dark life of Rothko?” I asked myself. Rarely, I have seen such passion coming from such a young artist. The love for his work was instantaneous.’ And while I can claim little knowledge of the worthiness of art other than what it does for me, personally, she knows a thing or three about the world of painters.

I came, I saw, I fell in love, and I pick up my pieces in January.

Meszlényi is one of the growing cohort of artists that Frommer is promoting. She’s been around them for years, socialising with them and appreciating their work. And with Budapest Up Close, she’s on a mission to bring the world to them, one person at a time.

If you’re in the market for some statement pieces or simply want to see a painter in their home environs, contact her at lizfrommer@gmail.com

 

Tar 170 x 125 cm mixed media on canvas and wood

First published in the Budapest Times 12 January 2018