Hotline to heaven

I was born and raised an Irish Catholic. My baptismal certificate might say “Roman Catholic” but I prefer to think of myself as “Irish Catholic”. A subtle distinction perhaps, and one many people fail to recognize unless they have been on the wrong end of a dose of Catholic Irish guilt! We have a peculiar logic that almost defies reasoning; at times, we even find it difficult to understand it ourselves. I survived 12 years of Catholic Irish Convent School education and have lived to tell the tale, even if my therapists are still reaping the rewards!

Since I first left Ireland in 1990, I have managed to observe the weekly ritual of going to mass on Sundays. At first this religious observance was because I didn’t want to have to lie to my parents if they asked…even if I was living 6000 miles from home and long since an adult in the eyes of the law. But gradually, going to mass on Sundays became an established part of my life; a part of who I am. Sometimes, of course, it simply wasn’t possible to go. I’ve lived in places that only had visiting priests once a month; where avalanches closed the only road into town and snowstorms prevented planes landing.  I’ve been on airplanes and trains when the bell for mass was ringing and I’ve also heard it from my sick bed.  Sometimes, when I simply can’t find a church, I will spend an hour or so alone, in conversation with my God. Whatever works.  

When I first moved to Budapest, I rented a flat in District V. Within a ten-minute walk from my front door, I had a choice of seven different Roman Catholic churches, each with mass at different times. This is one of the many perks of living in such a lovely city. I was spoiled for choice….mass on the hour every hour from 8am to 8pm. I had no excuse, nor did I need one. I’ve sat through mass in any number of languages and although the words may differ, the song is pretty much the same. The ritual, the observances, the protocol… it rarely changes. One irreligious friend of mine likened mass to an international aerobics class and, to the uninitiated, she may have a point. Truth be told, I quite like not being able to understand the sermons; it gives me a chance to make up my own!

But when it comes to confession, it’s a completely different story. In order to get absolution, the priest needs to understand what it is you’re confessing if for no other reason than to be sure that the penance fits the penitent. I would feel rather hard done by to receive three decades of the rosary for a sin that warranted no more than one Hail Mary!

A few years ago, in Rome, I had a very hard time finding confession in English. I could have recited my litany of sins in any number of languages but unlike many of my friends here in Hungary, my linguistics skills are minimal.  In Budapest, the vast majority of Catholic services are in Hungarian…which is only to be expected. My Hungarian isn’t anywhere near the point where I could confidently confess:  ‘én vétkem’ might start me off well but it wouldn’t take me very far! So on the rare occasion I go to a mass conducted in English, and find a second priest in the confessional hearing confession, it makes for a good day indeed.

One particular Sunday, I struck lucky.  During the sermon, I slipped into the confessional, knelt down, and readied myself to begin. The priest drew back the screen and welcomed me. Through the mesh, I could see the unmistakable blue glow of a computer screen. I did a double take. Yes… there… plonked on his lap was a laptop. In confession! Well, I know the Hungarian Neumann János was around at the start of the computer age but this apparent ‘hotline to heaven’ was truly one for the books. Was the priest going to enter my sins in a global database which would then compute the appropriate penance? Or would he simply instant message heaven if he needed a second opinion? Either way, I knew I had to make this confession a good one.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned…

I have paid my taxes in full and on time… I have made my customers feel welcome and appreciated… I haven’t dodged one tram or bus fare this since my last confession…

This article was first published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2009

Saps and saplings

I have amused myself to the point of inanity in recent months trying to work out a pattern to BKV’s seemingly random staffing of controllers at my local metro station. Just when I felt I was on the brink of some major discovery, after nearly five months of mental note-taking and complex calculations, they’ve disappeared. And they left without even saying goodbye. For two days now, I’ve had to brave the escalators into the wider world without their customary cheery jó reggelts and köszönöms. I feel like my right arm has been cut off… the one that’s itching to wear one of those armbands.

I’ve heard tell of those who’ve passed through the jegyellenőr gauntlet with the same ticket twenty times or more; or those who’ve travelled for weeks on an expired pass. So I have to wonder what exactly is it that my friends with the armbands think they’re controlling. I’m not the first to wonder why the BKV doesn’t just install ticket machines at metro stations. Or have front-entry buses? And I certainly won’t be the last sap to ask why not? So why not?  

Sledges, skis or saplings?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the BKV. I really am. It’s one of the best public transport systems I’ve encountered in my travels. Its detractors should trying living in cities where buses travel in bunches, if they travel at all, or where timetables express hope rather than intent. Perhaps we’re both on the same cycle but I’ve rarely, if ever, had to wait more than five minutes for a bus, tram or metro to come get me. There are clocks to tell me exactly how long I can expect to be kept waiting. The journey planning tool on the website has demystified Budapest for me making even the remotest parts accessible. And the English-language instructions about what I can carry with me are simple and to the point: one sledge, one pair of skis, one wrapped sapling tree or a pram.

Back in the early days when, although a seasoned traveler, I was a BKV novice, I thought that as long as I stayed underground my ticket was valid. I changed lines and didn’t validate a second ticket. I was nabbed at Nyugati, my book of tickets confiscated, and demands made on me for my passport and 5000 ft. I had neither. I asked to go to an ATM to get the money and by the time I got back, the lady with the armband (the one I’m itching to wear) had vanished. I reckoned I owed the universe about 3000 ft (the fine minus the cost of a book of tickets), a debt I duly discharged using the next homeless man I met as my broker. It wasn’t an experience I particularly wanted to repeat. So, after calculating that I’d cover the cost of my pass by Day 17 (I can be a little dim at times), I decided to cross over to the other side of the tracks and go the Havi Budapest-bérlet route. I also corrected that unwitting mistake I made when first recounting this story: my ticket wasn’t inspected…I was controlled!

Off tramway

My pass is like a front-row ticket to a series of vignettes played out in front of me at least once a day. As the controllers board and take a minute to get in costume, the actors take their cues. The martyred monthlies sigh in exasperation as they root through their bags and pockets, annoyed that their respectability is being called into question. Those on the precipice of pensiondom frown slightly, adding those all important extra wrinkles in their attempt to look just a little beyond the magic age of 65. Those who have already passed this mark smile a peculiarly self-congratulatory smile that admonishes ‘you, too, can travel for free when you’ve clocked up as many miles as I have’. The pubescent plugged-ins barely miss a beat as they languidly show their passes. And then there are the dodgers; highly skilled performers of a different kind.

The starers simply stare, be it out the window or into space or at their shoes, hoping the controller won’t be too persistent. The diversionists get on their mobiles and launch into a very important business call from which they cannot possibly be disturbed. The magicians disappear out of one carriage and reappear in another. The expressionists look amazed at the fact that their passes have expired. The innocents smile and simper…and make like tourists. It’s a Mecca for the method actor.

But because I’m concentrating on not behaving in a way which is scandalous or antisocial, and because I don’t get to wear an armband, I’m relegated to sitting quietly with my wrapped sapling tree and enjoying the performance.

This article first published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2009

Butterflies, tigers and Budapest bars

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it… or so said the legendary Frank Zappa…and I think he said it after one of his trips to Budapest. Whether it be the light features made from empty wine bottles in Köleves, the seats made from old bathtubs in Szimpla kert, or the complete interior remake from someone else’s trash in Csendes, the Hungarian ability to make something from nothing is artistic simplicity at its best.

I had the (mis)fortune to be in Alaska when the Celtic Tiger took up residence in Ireland. Happily ensconced in my log cabin, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, I was quite oblivious to its antics. Ireland had practically full employment; GDP was growing in double digits on a yearly basis; and for the first time in living memory, emigrants were returning in their droves. And I missed it all. While I was living off Copper River reds, frying up moose-burgers and chewing my way through last-season’s caribou jerky, Ireland was wining and dining in Michelin-starred restaurants, gorging herself on oysters and caviar, and becoming all too familiar with Dom Perignon and Ms Bollinger. And I was happy for her. Her day had come.

Pubs with soul

Before the Celtic Tiger was born, you could find pubs in Dublin where floors were covered in sawdust and used as ashtrays; where granny’s hand-crocheted anti-macassars decorated flea-ridden sofas whose patterns had long since faded into oblivion; where grandfather clocks signaled closing time. Pubs where musicians on their fiddles and tin whistles and bodhráns lulled us merry punters into a happy melancholy, providing a soundtrack for the heady Guinness-fuelled opinionating on everything from the state of world politics to the odds of Dublin winning yet another All-Ireland final. Pubs where elderly couples sat in companionable silence, having said all there was to say and the boys in the back played the odd hand or two of cards for a few quid to carry them over till payday. Back in the day, before the Celtic Tiger, pubs in Ireland’s capital had soul.

Everything measured, everything matched

But as the Celtic Tiger grew into an all consuming monster, the slow death of tradition began. I know we welcomed it with open arms…and who could blame us? After so many years of playing second fiddle to other EU states, it was time we had our turn on the world’s stage, and we relished it. But at what cost? Old pub interiors were gutted and replaced with shiny new wood and brass fittings. Quirkiness was replaced with more of the same. Designer candles took centre table. Cocktail menus offered screaming orgasms, sex on the beach and long slow comfortable screws up against the wall. Everything was measured; everything matched. Yes, the price of a pint had gone through the roof but sadder still, that witty deconstruction of the week’s events had been replaced by a dreary discourse on the price of property. With the smoking ban in place, smirting (smoking and flirting) outside in the freezing cold was nonetheless much better craic than staying indoors to be browbeaten by loud piped music and tales of killings made on the stock exchange.

A Magyar tigris

I moved to Budapest for many reasons and for no particular reason at all. Perhaps I was hoping to get in on the földszint of what I was sure was going to become another European success story. To see first-hand what happens when EU money swells the coffers of a relatively impoverished nation; when foreign investment wipes out unemployment; when talented emigrants return to the fold bringing with them a new perspective; when non-nationals flood to the country, armed with exotic languages and spicy foods. But now, two years later, there’s ne’er a sniff of a Magyar tigris. The only black and orange creature I’ve seen here is a butterfly. And when I sit in one of the many ruin pubs in Budapest, I give silent thanks.

I dare not say aloud what I am thinking. Selfishly, I want the bars in Budapest to stay as they are. The collection of random furniture; the smoke-filled rooms alive with animated, intelligent conversation where music accompanies thought rather than drowns it out; long tables scattered with half-smoked boxes of cigarettes and novels in many languages; people moving effortlessly from Hungarian to English to German so that everyone is included in the conversation, the toe-tapping beat of gypsy jazz. Nothing matching; nothing measured; everything unique.

And then I look across the road and see the shiny modern interior of a new pub through huge, brightly lit windows…and the smudge on the glass looks remarkably like a paw print.

This article was first published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2009