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

ADvent wreath

The advent of gratitude

Advent is here. Christmas is in sight. The season of goodwill and glad tidings is kicking in. The festive mood is about to descend, and moods are beginning to change. There’s something about Christmas that makes things sparkle. But for many – those without homes, without jobs, without money – the pressure is on to make it through yet another season where the haves and the have-nots are clearly divided.

The chocolate Santas were in the shops in October. The Advent calendars arrived in November. It seems as if Christmas gets earlier and earlier each year. For some, this is great. It stretches out the festivities; for others, it just prolongs the misery.

Kids write their lists for Santa, asking for stuff that will help them fit in, keep up with their classmates, be cool. Parents scramble for the money to make it all happen. Office parties, fuelled by booze and boisterousness, might be a little tamer this year as the consequences and confusion surrounding unwanted advances make people just a little more cautious about what they say and do.

Shoppers crowding city streets might not be quite as relaxed as usual as, deep down, on some unconscious level, they see their fellow shoppers as a target for some marauding mad (wo)man bent on causing death and destruction with their weapon of choice: a gun, a car, a bomb.

Those attending religious services might add an additional prayer to the litany of asks and thank yous they offer to their god, a simple prayer that they might walk out alive and make it home to enjoy that turkey dinner, that julbord, or that suckling pig.

2017 has been an unforgettable year on so many levels, one that has been predicated on fear. ISIS and its protégés continue to target innocent victims at random throughout the world. Lone gunmen in America are giving a new take to not knowing the day nor the hour. We don’t have to travel far to see how fear can be fomented by propaganda and political spin. Cyberwarfare is making its ugly self known, as the relative peace of the online world is being disrupted by ransomware and debilitating viruses. People in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Yemen, Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Mexico, Israel, Palestine and many other places, continue to live in uncertainty, watching the lives they have built being systematically destroyed as armed conflict rages. And nightmares are being relived as the Harvey Weinsteins of this world are unveiled.

Yes, 2017 is a year that many will want to mark ‘over’.

But in the few weeks we have left, the season of Advent is upon us, that time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity. Yes, it’s a Christian observance, but it’s one that’s made to be borrowed. My Advent challenge to you:

December 3 Make your Christmas shopping list. Think about giving the gift of experience this Christmas, rather than stuff people neither need nor want. Our time is one of the most precious gifts we can give.

December 4 Pay attention to the shop assistant or the ticket collector or the postman or whomever when you interact with them today. Look at them. Focus on them. Smile. Let them know you see them.

December 5 Pick up some litter off the street – even one piece. Someone might see you do it and do the same. You could be the start of something. And if not, your world will be a little cleaner.

December 6 Stop and say hi to a homeless person – ask if you can buy them a coffee or a bowl of soup – and then take the time to do it.

December 7 Buy a bunch of flowers from an old néni on the street or the metro and give it to your neighbour – or anyone – just because.

December 8 Visit a church you’ve not been to before and make three wishes. You don’t need to believe in God to enjoy the grace and quiet.

December 9 Donate some clothes you don’t wear to a shelter or a charity shop. How much stuff do you really need?

December 10 Pay for a coffee for the person behind you in the café. A random act of kindness can go a long way.

December 11 Send a Christmas card to someone who lives alone. Better still, go visit them.

December 12 Stand back and open the door for someone and do it with a smile.

December 13 Pick a charity and start saving your coins for a cause. Give it a year. Then donate the money.

December 14 Leave a big tip somewhere – just because. If they’ve given great service – they’re worth it. If they haven’t, you might inspire them to next time.

December 15 Pay someone a compliment, and mean it. Cheer them up.

December 16 Send words of encouragement to someone who might need it.

December 17 Tell someone special what they mean to you – a lot of times, we take close friends and family for granted and just assume that they know what they mean to us.

December 18 Leave a book in a public place for someone else to read and enjoy.

December 19 Walk down the street, nodding, smiling at, or saying hello to everyone you meet. So, they might think you’re mad, but it could catch on. And how much nicer the world would be if it did.

December 20 Treat a friend to something – a coffee, a cinema ticket, a beer. Just because.

December 21 Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, just to say hi.

December 22 Spend some time outdoors in a park, in a forest, or walking the streets. Embrace the cold.

December 23 Let someone go ahead of you in a queue.

December 24 Thank someone for something – and do it consciously.

Gratitude can make a difference.

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

 

To be published in the Budapest Times 15 December 2017

Dream your way out of this one

I brag about Budapest. I brag a lot. I brag to the point that I’m beginning to sicken my friends. Those who have been here to visit know what I’m talking about and don’t need reminding. Those who have yet to visit feel as if I’m nagging them. Enough, they say. Stop it. We’ll get there eventually.

It’s not just the fabulous architecture, the riverside vistas, or the city parks that gets me going. It’s not all about the excellent wines, the artery-clogging langós, and the famous marzipan. And it’s certainly not limited to the ruin pubs, the garden bars, and the rooftop venues. My main brag lately has been the sheer variety of affordable music that’s available any night of the week.

Homegrown talent like Frenk, Budapest Bár, and Quimby. Imported talent like Ripoff Raskolnikov and Ian Siegal who play in town so often they may as well be local. And Irish talent who pass through on tour.

This time last year, in November, we had the fabulous Little John Nee, who wowed the audience in Beckett’s and had us begging for more of his peculiar brand of story-telling and repartee. This month, we have Niall Connolly returning for two nights. He plays Club Pop Up in Zalaegerszeg on Sunday, 12th November and Beckett’s in Budapest on Monday, the 13th.

Credit: Art Heffron

Connolly is no stranger to Budapest. I first saw him as part of the The Voice & The Verse ensemble in Treehugger Dan’s on Lazar utca back when Treehugger Dan was doing his thing to entertain the masses and ensure quality entertainment at an affordable price. [Dan, we miss you.] The Budapest stops are usually part of epic tours that take in bars in Koloszvár, jazz clubs in Prague, bookstores in Kraków, and underground venues in Vienna. These boys will travel. And what both Nee and Connolly bring with them is their innate Irish ability to tell a good story. That, coupled with their talent as songsmiths, makes them special.

Connolly has played international festivals from Glastonbury UK to Cuala NYC in the USA.  He’s played the Prague Fringe, the Cork Folk Festival, and the Acoustic Festival in Düsseldorf. Classifying his music is beyond my limited arts vocabulary. I only know that I like it. But those in the know, like the Chicago Tribune, describes his stuff as folk-pop: ‘Terrific. Disarming and beautifully craft folk-pop.’ The Irish Independent says his stuff is very much ‘in the vein of early Dylan’ (and that I can see). No Depression says he’s ‘among the most vibrant, poignant, and authentic Indie folk artists in New York City.’

And it’s NYC that this Irish lad born in 1970’s Cork currently calls home.

In an interview about his album Sound, back in 2013, Connolly describes himself (and his songs) thus: ‘I’m interested in people, and as much as anyone, I’m sensitive to suffering of others, and I get riled up about things. And I love singing. I feel like if I’m going to write a song I better mean it. Because, the reality is, I’m going to sing that song hundreds, if not thousands of times. And I want to mean it every time.’ And it’s that authenticity that makes him memorable.

One of the many songs that resonates with me is one he wrote to commemorate James Connolly on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising last year. He wrote it from the perspective of JC’s daughter. Beautiful stuff.  And like everything else about both Connollys, there’s a story to this song, too. He first performed it as part of the Cuala NYC festival at Cooper Union in New York City, in a room where James Connolly himself had spoken many times. Then, later that year, the fab Glen Hansard (the Oscar-winning talent behind the song Falling Slowly from the movie, Once) asked him to perform it with him in Coughlan’s in Cork, and again on the roof of Apollo House in Dublin as part of the public protest against homelessness in Ireland. Hansard sings on the studio version of Connolly’s latest album Dream your way out of this one and, wait for it, Javier Mas (guitar player with Leonard Cohen for years) features on lead guitar. Our Irish lad has done good.

But, you might think, what appeal, if any, would Connolly and his repertoire have for a Hungarian audience? Funny you should ask. Hungary, not only Budapest, but also Győr, Szombathely, Debrecen, and Pécs have strong Irish connections. I’m very fond of quoting a line from James Michener’s 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, in which he describes Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. We share a sameness. Speaking with a Hungarian friend some time back, about the similarities between the two peoples, I quoted WB Yeats: Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy. You could easily switch ‘Irish’ for ‘Hungarian’, I said. And what about Sírva vigad a Magyar, they asked… wouldn’t Sírva vigad az ír work just as well?

Connolly’s songs are both sad and uplifting. They’re real. They speak to the goodness in people, that need to do something to make the world just a little better (Samurai). He identifies with universal troubles, with lines like ‘to bring home the bacon, you have to work with pigs’ that hit hard at modern-day compromises (Work with pigs). And lines like ‘I will not let the hatred in me change the man I try to be’ that speak to the fear that is choking twenty-first-century living (No cause of alarm). I’ve listened to the album several times now, and find that at each listen, a different song draws me in. And lately, one I’d really like my politicians to listen to, on repeat, is Open your eyes. Open your eyes to all that’s true and good.

Do yourself a favour. If you’re in town, go see him in Beckett’s on 13 November. He’s live. He’s true. And he’s good.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 November 2017

 

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Timeless elegance

In the Corinthia Hotel recently for breakfast, I was struck by the timeless elegance of this grand institution. One of the Maltese-owned stable of hotels in the Corinthia Group, it’s a city landmark. My colleague, a regular visitor, struck up a conversation with a waiter, an older man whose manner and bearing embodied the style and elegance of the setting. It was as if someone had pressed a button and I was back in a time when hotels were more than rooms with beds and their guests more than passing trade. I wanted an introduction.

Sometime later, I sat down with Ernő Varga and his friend and colleague Tibor Meskál to have what I hope will be the first of many conversations.

Ernő Varga

Both men, now in their seventies, have spent a lifetime in the hospitality business. They’ve seen the changes brought by the turn of the century and speak wistfully of a time when waiting was a trained profession rather than something young people did to get them through college.

Both started as apprentices in the Corinthia when it re-opened back in 1961 as the Grand Hotel Royal. Varga spoke of a time when they had teachers, experts who trained them to recognise class and behave appropriately. How they stood, moved, spoke – it was a little like being in the military, he said, with a smile. Back then, as a waiter, he could afford handmade shoes and tailored suits. His profession was one that was valued.

Up till the late 1980s, hotels in Budapest were run by a government-owned company that moved staff around according to need. There was a hierarchy back then, with the Grand Hotel topping the list. It always had salmon and caviar and olives and exotic fruit while, say, the Gellert and the Astoria would only get these treats on special occasions. Varga received an all-round training and is, as Meskál put it, home and host in all areas. For 10 years, he ran Fekete Holló, a restaurant in the Castle District, on a profit-sharing scheme with the government, but was outbid when it was auctioned in the privatisation of 1993. In 2004, he returned to the Grand Hotel Royal (now the Corinthia), where he works mornings and covers breakfast.

As much an institution as the hotel itself, this quietly spoken man (who, as district champion, regularly beats 20-year-olds at ping pong) oozes style. He shares his wealth of knowledge and experience with new waiters, schooling them in the skills they need to perform well on the restaurant stage. It is a delight to watch him at work, to see his attentiveness to detail and the pleasure he takes in doing what he does and doing it well.

 

Tibor Meskál

 

The path Meskál took was slightly different. This debonair septuagenarian is now Senior Duty Manager at the Corinthia and judging by the number of times his phone rang, he’s in demand. He, too, apprenticed in the Grand Hotel Royal from 1961, later moving to Gundel, where he won a waiter competition in 1963. And he, too, knows his trade.

Meskál left Hungary in 1966, following the path of not-so-true love which took him to Australia via a refugee camp in Italy and cafés in Rome. In Australia, he met a Hungarian woman who would eventually bring him back home.

He spoke of the history of the grand hotels in Budapest, of the climate of 1896 that left its mark on these institutions. Szabadság híd, then Franz Joseph bridge, was opened. Work on Parlament had finished. Metro 1 was in operation. The Grand Hotel Royal was the first hotel to be built around a Turkish bath, one of many in the city. It held afternoon tea dances in the Palm Courtyard which attracted milliners and shop assistants, accountants and tailors, factory workers and lawyers, everyone turned out in their best attire. Class divisions were parked at the door as classiness and style won out inside.

Back in the 1960s, hotels in London, Paris, and Zurich were seen as the pinnacle of service, with professional waiters who revelled in their trade. Today, he says, waiters are prostituted by restaurant owners, paid little for poor work, and dependent on tips to pay their rent. A far cry from Varga’s handmade shoes and tailored suits of the 1960s. Hotels take people off the street, many of whom can’t set a table. They may have the look but they lack the style. Things, he said, are spiralling downwards.

But in Australia, in the New World, the opposite is happening. Back in the late 1960s when Meskál first arrived, the country didn’t have a School of Gastronomy. Waiting was not a recognised profession. But when European emigrants like himself came ashore and went to work in the country’s finest hotels, they brought their style with them. The Sydney Opera House opened its doors in 1973, the same year that the School of Gastronomy opened, too. The spokes of hospitality wheel were finally recognised as skilled trades.

Meskál, who himself has twice served the Queen of England, was one of the first professionals in the country to take apprentices under his wing. Those first six, who started at the Sydney Hilton, still visit him today. Three have their own restaurants, two manage hotels, and one left the fold to become a landscape gardener.

When he came back to Budapest in 1996, Meskál went to work in the Intercontinental, a hotel in which the Vatican once held shares. Sought after for his international experience and his innate understanding of the psyche of the Hungarian waiter, he began a new chapter. He himself had once learned from the masters. Now it was time to return the favour.

Today he’s involved in training, lecturing at the  Schnitta Sámuel Association for Hungarian Restaurant Culture. There’s a book in the offing and an instructional film for those who want to learn the art of waiting. And it is an art. Or rather, it was. Both he and Varga are on a mission to save the waiting world and to reawaken the style and class they both embody.

Gentlemen, it was a pleasure chatting with you.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 October 2017

Hitting the spot

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years.

Some time ago, a colleague decided to take two weeks’ holiday. He told the boss that he’d be unavailable. He was going somewhere to switch off: no laptop, no smartphone, no connection to anyone other than those he was with. He wanted a break. The boss was a little piqued. Surely he could find time in the day to check his emails? And if it took an hour to answer them, was that too much to ask? My colleague needed to get with the programme. To come in line with twenty-first-century living. He needed to live up to expectations. But my colleague was adamant. He got his two weeks.

Not being part of the structured work system, some might argue that I’m on a permanent holiday. I can work from wherever I have an Internet connection. The downside is that I’m always working and rarely, if ever, am I completely offline for more than a couple of days. My choice. My lot. My decision. But summer has a way of being summer. In Ireland at the start of the season, I was basking in a cool 14 degrees when friends in Budapest were melting in 40. At breakfast one morning I noticed how everyone was in their summer gear – sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, sandals – even though it was cold and wet outside. No matter the weather, summer is summer.

I know I’m in summer mode when I start to plan everything I want to do over the three months or so from June to August. I make a list of places I want to visit, seasonal restaurants I want to try and other summer-dependent spots I want to take in. The plan being that once tried and tested, I can then take my summer visitors to enjoy them, too.

But invariably, there are some gems I discover too late, just as they’re about to close, their money made, their season over.

A friend of mine recently spent 11 days walking around the Balaton – some 244 km. She’s a natural researcher and had done her homework before turfing up to some village or other. She wanted to discover the best of what’s out there so that she could then share her finds. Two in particular are worth noting. For next year.

The lakeside village of Vonyarvashegy is on the north shore of the Balaton and is home to about 2000 people. The strand is well-tended, a lovely open spot offering access to the lake for people with disabilities. Popular with German tourists, it has a bigger-than-usual restaurant offer, perhaps the smallest of which is The Spot Grill & Bar. In its third year of operation, this little gem opens from 21 May to 10 September, offering trout, chicken, salads, and the requisite Balaton burgers. Probably tired of people dithering between ordering a burger or a langós (both summer favourites), the chef decided to join the two and instead of a burger bun, has encased the patty in a langós. Genius. The desserts, both of them, are seconds material. The tiramisu (the Italian pick-me=up) could have come from Treviso, Italy, and the cheesecake, served in a glass, is delicious. The cocktail list is decidedly upmarket with the Cosmopolitan made from cranberries – something hard to find in Hungary. Added to the excellent food, the simple décor, and the fresh feel of it all is the excellent service. Robert has it nailed – always available, never intrusive, and very helpful. The Spot could hold its own just about anywhere. Class all the way.

The much smaller village of Káptalantóti swells in size for the Sunday market, Liliomkert. Hundreds of visiting tourists and summer residents (mainly German) descend on the place, turning the village into an obstacle course and the local fields into parking lots. With everything from a jar of honey to a kitchen dresser on offer, the place is a mecca for those looking for a piece of Hungary to take home. Nestled in the heart of the Badacsony wine region, the village has several vineyards of note, my current favourite being the Sabar Borház.

The enterprising local tourist board has organised a hop-on, hop-off wine bus that leaves the village 7 times daily every two hours to visit local vineyards.  A daily ticket will set you back 1500 ft. A must for next year. This year, I settled for a stop-off at Istvándy Winery. The restaurant was booked solid, which is no wonder, considering that everything on the menu is locally sourced – even the beef, which come from the herd of grey cattle looking over the fence. The panoramic vista of the Balaton and the vineyards is stunning. And, testament to the attention this family-run business pays to its customers, those of us sprawled on picnic blankets (supplied) on the hill below the restaurant didn’t feel the slightest bit cheated. As we ate our toasted sambos (mangalica pork and trout were the two on offer that day), sipped our grape-juice fröccs (so tasty I could actually fool myself into thinking I was drinking wine), and enjoyed the view, it struck me that life couldn’t get much better.

The summer is nearly over. The cool evenings are setting in. And as the autumn raises its head over the parapet, I can enjoy my favourite time of year knowing I have a head start on what I’ll do in summer 2018.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 September 2017

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