Chernobyl Diaries

Of all the questions expats ask of each other, what do you do is probably right up there as the most common. I’m in finance. I’m in sales. I’m in publishing. Package expats, those working in Hungary for a multinational, are a breed apart from the freelancers, the English teachers, the artists. And while the paid pensionable positions significantly outnumber less lucrative take-the-work-when-you-get-it (in my experience), there’s an undercoat of artistry and creativity seeping to the surface.

I first came across British artist Michael Pettet a couple of years ago. At the forefront of digital art, Pettet embraced the challenge of imbuing the product of technology with soul. He showed me how his canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop. He approaches his digital paintings much as he did when he used traditional materials. The end result evolves from the interweaving of thought and inner dialogue and, as with any art, the magic lies in its interpretation.

With his environment a major influencer of his work, Pettet’s portfolio can be categorised by location. One of my favourites, Lament, harks back to memories of his childhood holidays in Scotland, a series entitled Scapa Flow. Another, one I still covet, is from the Sala de Uyuni (salt flats) from his time in Bolivia.

A huge fan of his work, I was intrigued to hear of his Chernobyl Diaries, most likely because Chernobyl is the bogeyman in my life, the personification of a danger that has indelibly tainted the power of nuclear in my mind. In the aftermath of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Irish activist Adi Roche went to help with the children who had suffered the consequences and in 1991, set up Chernobyl Children International. That the environment was damaged is a given. But the lasting human scars, the legacy of that radioactive explosion,  removed from the abstract of news reporting and made all so real to the Irish of my generation by Roche’s work are something nightmares are made of. It may have happened over 30 years ago, but the disaster that is Chernobyl isn’t going anywhere.

The CCI website says:

Two million people in Belarus, of whom 500,000 are children are high-risk, still live in heavily contaminated zones. Continuing low dose exposure through the food chain remains a huge risk for the populations: Some areas of land will be radioactive for 24,000 years, as much as 1 million hectares cannot be farmed for 100 years.

Pettet recently visited the ghost town of Pripyat. What he saw there left a lasting impression, an impression he has diarised in his art, covering the explosion and its aftermath and the faint attempt at rejuvenation. But his artistic commentary isn’t limited to one incident and its consequences. Pettet’s latest series holds up a mirror to our global self-indulgence and reflects the consequence of our failure to adjust our lifestyle to mitigate climate change.

That we are ignorant of what might be in store is no longer credible. The evidence is there. Science has spoken. That we are ignoring the signs of what the future holds speaks either to a seriously misguided optimism that it’ll all work out or a carpe diem lassitude that takes living in the present a step too far. Twenty-first-century hedonism has little regard for consequences. Consumerism is our new mantra, smartphone screens our preferred landscape. We’ve eschewed both the broader picture and the microscopic viewpoint, preferring to live in echo chambers of our own making. Our complete disregard for nature, our wanton destruction of our natural habitats, and our reckless depletion of our natural resources mark us as misguided idiots, at best. For Pettet, Chernobyl embodies the

conflict between humanity and nature, how we are going to manage our existence with ever increasing energy demands and how things can go horribly wrong if we cut corners or become complacent.

The pieces that make up the Chernobyl Diaries include broad sweeping images of an empty world and smaller compositions of the minutest detail that suggest atoms at play. Each one speaks to the viewer and positions itself in their memory, coloured by their recollection and knowledge of what happened in 1986. Pettet deliberately plays to our fears, tapping into the concerns that riddle our collective consciousness.

Although no stranger to the topic of war and disaster [most of his work is about conflict, even his portrait series, which deals with internal conflict as we enter the age of real vs virtual existence], the Chernobyl Diaries are more about the tenacity of nature rather than the horror of nuclear disaster.

I decided not to challenge myself to deal with the horror as above all I wanted to impress that whatever we do to the planet, it will survive us. It may take many thousands of years to recover from our parasitic consumption of its abundant resources, but nevertheless, recover it will.

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 3 (92cmx93cmn

Viewed through this lens, this body of work is both inspiring and chastening. Each piece, like a single diary entry, can be taken alone, but together, they tell a story of evacuation and desertion driven by radiation and destruction. They tell a story of reclamation and rejuvenation. They tell a story of resilience, of how the planet will recover, of how it will survive, despite our best efforts to destroy it.

The Chernobyl Diaries are the result of a conversation between the artist and his subject. The exhibition facilitates a conversation between the viewer and Pettet’s art. At first glance, they’re gripping. But when viewed a second or even a third time, something shifts. It’s this fluidity that marks his work as special. Through this body of work, Pettet’s ‘realisation of just how small and insignificant we are and yet how dangerous and threatening we have become’ shines through.

On exhibition at The Studios, BrodyLand (Vörösmarty utca 38) until 23 April, Chernobyl Diaries then moves to Fuga Art Gallery (Petőfi Sándor utca 5) opening 4 May and running for three weeks. One not to be missed. Check him out at https://www.michaelpettet.com/

First published in the Budapest Times 12 April 2019

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 5 (60cmx60cm)

First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2019

 

The Greening of Budapest

St Patrick’s Day this year falls on a Sunday, which is perfect for the St Patrick’s Day Parade, the ninth annual gathering of painted faces and leprechaun hats walking beneath banners and behind Irish wolfhounds celebrating one of the patron saints of Ireland. When the first 546 people showed up in 2011 for the inaugural St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest, I wonder if they had any inkling of how popular an event it would become. Participants, now numbering in their thousands, will start gathering around 12 noon at Szabadság tér for face-painting and the like, with the parade itself starting at 3 pm. There’ll be live Irish music on a stage with majorettes twirling up a storm. 6:3 Borozó will be running a bar, a food truck will be whipping up 100% Irish beef burgers, and Guinness will be on tap to pour you a pint of the black stuff. You’ve no excuse. Come for lunch! And don’t worry if you don’t have your green; there’ll be plenty of Paddy’s Day t-shirts on sale. Read more

Juli and Flo Catch Budapest

Catch Budapest – Learning Hungarian

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

New Year, New Local

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

The gift of art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Budapest Times December 2018

Ether Tide (acrylic on canvas 50x50cm 2018)

 

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

 

Sputnik 1000 (acrylic on canvas 70x70cm 2018)

Save this man

In 2013, when the Hungarian government first criminalised homelessness, the  BBC reported figures from The civic group, the City Belongs to Everyone, estimating that 10,000 people lived on the city’s streets or in shelters they had fashioned in the forests on the outskirts of the capital. Yet, they said, there were fewer than 6,000 places in hostels, a serious shortfall. But the government said there was ample shelter available, almost 100%.

In 2018, it’s difficult to tell what the real figures are, but a simple walk around the city shows that homelessness in Budapest is pervasive. Last month’s amendment to the Constitution which now reads ‘Habitual residence in a public space is forbidden’ has flooded social media channels with opinions for and against the edict.  Those supporting it want the streets cleared, conscious as they are of the approaching winter and of the inherent aesthetic blight; those against say it does little more than criminalise poverty.

But shouldn’t the issue be how to prevent homelessness in the first place?

Meet A_. Born in 1964 to a music conductor and a socialite mother, A_ has been beset by illness since he was a baby. His mother, more concerned with her social standing than the wellbeing of her baby, left him out in the rain in his pram for a day. His kidneys never recovered. A_ trained as a cook and worked in restaurants in the city and also inherited some musical talent from his father. He was, he says, quite a good bass guitar player. Life was good. He had a job, a doting father, and his music.

At 30, A_ was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and sentenced to life in a wheelchair. His father bought him a tiny house in Páty village in Budapest county. He managed okay until his father died, leaving him alone in a house he was unable to maintain. His wheelchair sentence was miraculously commuted; he regained some of his mobility, but not enough to do the necessary maintenance on his home. His disability pension didn’t stretch to paying anyone to do it either.

Two months ago, A_ had a heart attack while in the village. An ambulance took him away. Had he been at home, he’d surely have died. My friend in Páty noticed he hadn’t been around and knowing he was short on relatives and friends, tracked him down. She took him money, clothes, and food. He was well looked after in the hospital and came home with a new pacemaker. But his living conditions had deteriorated in his absence.

Today, the roof of his cabin has a gaping hole. The only thing stopping the rain and snow from coming in is a thin sheet of plastic.  There is no insulation. No bath. No shower. No kitchen. No gas. No heating. No chimney. Just about all it has, in addition to its four walls, is running water and electricity. But last month, the electricity failed. A_ has paid his 300 ft bill each month (he uses just one 25w lightbulb) but his system has worn out. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years. To bring it up to code will cost at least 120 000 ft. This has to happen before ELMÜ will switch his electricity back on.

A_ is resilient. He’s a survivor. He can take the hunger, the dirt, the cold but he cannot handle the darkness. A passionate writer of short stories, freestyle poems, and self-reflections, writing has become his life, his raison d’etre. But he cannot write in the dark. Preferring to go hungry and be cold, he spends his money candles. If neighbours offer to bring him food and clothes, he asks instead for typewriter ribbons.

His future looks bleak. Although intelligent and well read, A_ has some psychological problems that make him incapable of arranging complicated things like the electricity reconnect. It won’t be long before his house falls down around him, leaving him homeless. As for moving to a shelter, he says he’d rather freeze in the dark than give up his independence.

A_ visits my friend regularly. She washes his clothes and feeds him. They chat about books, films, and music. He recites chapters from his favourite novels and verses of his favourite poems. He’s very positive, she says. Although he’s in constant pain, always cold, and most probably hungry, he still has a sense of humour. That, and his passion for writing keep him going.

A_, like so many others, is just a hair’s breadth from being homeless. But with help, he can live with dignity, maintain his independence, and keep on writing. And if this help is immediate, local, and well-directed by someone who cares about his needs and dignity, A_’s home can be saved.

Christmas is just around the corner. The ads are out. The tinsel is in. The shops are gearing up for the inevitable tide of mass consumerism. Hundreds of euro and thousands of forints will be spent on presents often neither wanted nor needed. My decision was an easy one. When my friend told me his story, I knew immediately that helping to keep A_ housed and warm and writing would be a better use of my Christmas budget. I made the transfer to help sort his electricity problem so that ELMÜ will reconnect his power. But his roof still needs fixing and his house still needs heating.

Are you disillusioned with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? Do you realise that but for the grace of whatever God you worship or whatever force you believe in, you could be in A_’s shoes? Do you believe that local solutions to local problems work better than the overly costly, unnecessarily legalistic, and very quickly political solutions introduced by state bureaucracy? Would you like to help save one man’s home, and in doing so, save his dignity? Let me know. I’ll put you in touch with my friend in Páty who is working to make sure it all happens.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 November 2018

 

Scream, Shout

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

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

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

Photo by Bardócz Letti

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Bardócz Letti

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

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

First published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2018

A Scottish man walked out of a bar…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2018

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