Coffee with culture

Way back in 1674, the Women’s Petition against Coffee sought to prohibit men under 30 drinking the drying, enfeebling liquor. Coffee led men to waste their time, spending their money on a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water. A Prince of Spain once passed a law that men should not repeat the grand kindness to their wives, above nine times a night. Yes, nine times a night! But with the advent of coffee, men apparently were no longer capable of performing those devoirs which their duty and our expectations exact.Coffee, it would appear, far from being the stimulant it is today, actually hampered a man’s performance in bed.

Perhaps, though, it was men’s absence from the marital bed that hindered their performance. Perhaps it was because men chose to spend their time in coffee houses, which as well as places to drink and meet, were sites of political discussion, literary review, and late-night high-brow chat. The Spectator magazine was founded in a coffee house. Lloyds of London began life in one. They were cultural places to plot, discuss, and argue…

Hot gossip and grand designs

Coffee kick starts the day, focuses the mind, and readies the body for action. It witnesses the highs and lows of daily living. It’s party to hot gossip, innermost secrets, vengeful plans, and grand designs. It’s a perfect partner in solitude. The world is put to rights by someone, somewhere, every minute of the day as they take the time to sink into a comfy chair and sip their way to sanity. Is there a nicer way to start the day than with a classic Americano, its dark black sheen in stark contrast to the white ceramic cup? Is there a more relaxing mid-morning interlude than a frothy cappuccino that oozes opulence? Is there a better pick-me-up than the liquid gold of an afternoon espresso? And where better to enjoy this simple pleasure than in Budapest, with its tree-lined streets and pavement cafés.

Whether you prefer the old-world luxury of the Centrál kávéház or the retro feel of Ibolya on Ferenciek tere, both offer a refuge from the teeming masses. They are oases of calm in a city that is becoming increasingly westernised, with manic materialism and sterile sameness the order of the day. A little further up the road, Bali Café on Károly körút, contends with the heavyweights Costa Coffee and Coffee Heaven. These international chains are sucking the lifeblood from the city. Budapest’s laid-back café culture will soon be enjoyed only by tourists and those diehards who want to preserve the sanctity of a cup of coffee. The rest of the city, the harried workers and those too busy to stop and smell the coffee beans roasting are being slowly annihilated by ‘the enemy’-  a paper coffee cup, aka coffee-to-go.

Starry-eyed in Starbucks

All week, I’ve heard people talk about the new Starbucks in WestEnd; how exciting it is to have the world’s most famous coffee chain come to Budapest. In some people’s minds it seems to show that the city has arrived.  How short-sighted, I say. It is but the beginning of the end. In my mind, Starbucks and its ilk are responsible for the homogenisation of the world’s coffee culture, destroying individualism, wiping local joints off the table and replacing them with carbon-copy cut-outs. Those cardboard cups with their plastic lids hold within their simple design a force of destruction more powerful than any legislated social change. Like Tesco’s, McDonald’s and other mass-produced industrial landmarks, Starbucks is soulless, another extension of our fast food culture, which is completely counter-cultural to what coffee houses were founded to do.

I moved east because I wanted to get away from the mass consumerism that has engulfed the so-called western world. I wanted to disassociate myself from that throwaway culture, where everyone and everything is moving at an increasingly faster pace and the common chorus screams ‘I don’t have time’. I wanted to go some place where it was normal to sit and dissect the world over a cup of coffee, or simply smoke a cigarette and read a book or newspaper, while enjoying the bittersweet taste, senses undisturbed by bland uniformity. I wanted some place where I could drink in a little atmosphere along with a shot of caffeine, places like District V’s Csendes or District VIII’s Csiga.

Back in 1674, women were ready to ban coffee to preserve the grand kindness that men should do their wives. Me, I’d swap that grand kindness for the simple, pure taste of a dupla cappuccino from Café Alibi on Egyetem tér, with its caramel-and-chocolate-syrup butterfly painstakingly hand-drawn in the froth. This is feeding neither a physical dependency nor an addiction. It is a coffee unspoiled by commercialism; a coffee with culture.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 July 2010

Weather too hot to handle

I was born with a limited supply of patience and I live in fear of it running out before I die. So I ration it. I use it wisely. Others may choose to squander their allotment in their youth, gradually turning into cantankerous old codgers as middle age departs and old age sets in. Not me. So adept am I at rationing my given allotment that many people think I possess no patience at all. And that’s not true. The any-season-but-summer me is patient to the point of proctalgia; but come June, I’m literally too hot to handle.

Simmering semaphore

Once the temperature in Budapest hits the high twenties, I get flustered and easily irritated. Although usually happy to repeat my limited Hungarian in palinoiac fashion until I utter something approximating the correct pronunciation, I now disintegrate into a blithering idiot if I have to repeat myself even once. My hands take on a life of their own, my facial muscles spasm, and my voice gets higher and higher until I’m practically whinnying in frustration. On any given day in winter, spring or autumn, when my patience is at its best, it might take me five attempts to pronounce the word tej in such a way that it will result in a bag, bottle or carton of milk but no matter. That’s the any-season-but-summer me, the one that’s calm, cool, and collected. But by June, when it’s 27°C in the shade, I would rather milk the cow myself than endure what the heat has morphed into humiliation. To my utter shame, albeit just once, I found myself thinking the unthinkable: why doesn’t everyone in this wind-forsaken urban heat island speak bloody English!

Parboiling prose

When it hits the thirties, I begin to lose my sense of reason. The beatific smile I usually bestow with just the right amount of forgiveness on the poor unfortunate who dares to crowd my space on public transport is but a memory. It is replaced by a withering look that is guaranteed to raise the hackles of the most complacent commuter. Forget perspiring; I’m positively glowing. By the end of my journey, complete strangers have united against me, muttering incoherently to each other, plotting my demise.  Someday, some summer, I’m sure I’ll make the headlines.

The smell of red wine makes me gag. The smell of boiling bacon makes me queasy. The combination of the two in the form of body odour wafting from a lump of lard who’s had a few glasses too many the night before and whose extras pounds are cooking in the heat, is enough to turn my stomach. I know my manners. I know better than to visibly react to something that someone perhaps can’t control. But in this heat, when I find my 5’5” frame neatly spooned into a sweaty armpit, be it male or female, I register the full spectrum of emotion from animosity to belligerence, visible for all to see.

Baked bellyaching

When it hits the forties, I am incapable of coherent speech. I bore myself senseless with my moaning and run the risk of alienating friends and acquaintances. Even the postman thinks twice about knocking. I’m crankier than a teething baby with her tongue caught in a rattle. I’m cantankerous, unpleasant, short-tempered, and prone to using more colourful expletives than usual. I can’t abide the heat, especially the oppressive heat of the city. It brings out the worst in me. It gets to where I can’t stand my own company and can barely tolerate anyone else’s. I’ve tried the baths, but they’re too crowded. I’ve tried waiting until evening before I venture outside but so do the mosquitoes and they’re usually famished. The overnight swings in temperature play havoc with my psyche: low twenties today, mid-thirties tomorrow. Make up your mind, weather! Even the normally tepid Hungarian coffee tastes too hot.

But there is a plus side. Although I’m not a fan of air conditioning, in my search for some reprieve I’ve discovered places I would normally walk by. Budapest is empty at the weekends with everyone either on the Island or down at the Balaton. It’s so pleasant….in the shade or in the shops. The city’s diversity, kept under wraps in colder weather, comes out in full force. Open-air music abounds and if you happen to stumble across the likes of the world famous Taraf de Haidouks (who played an amazing free gig at Magdolna tér in District VIII last weekend) you’re set up.  I may have been too hot to handle that night, completely devoid of patience, and crankier than all git out, but seeing Dinu work that cimbalom was worth every bead of perspiration and every ounce of discomfort. Even when Budapest is bad, she’s good!

First published in the Budapest Times 21 June 2010

The sum of all our choices

Ok – so it’s not an American breakfast, but it’s all I had on film!

When I first went to the USA, choices in Ireland still came in pairs: tea or coffee, catholic or protestant, married or single, cash or cheque. Sitting down to my first all-American breakfast in New York, I was ill-prepared for the verbal onslaught. The harried waitress delivered my options like an AK-47 spewing bullets.  Coffee – black or white, regular or decaf, milk or creamer? Eggs – fried, poached, scrambled, over well, over easy, over medium, sunny side up? Toast – white, wheat, wholemeal, rye, sourdough, granary? It was too much then, yet 20 years later, these options seem quite limited. Have you read a coffee menu lately? Could it be any more complicated? As for bread…I can list 15 different types beginning with the letter B!

Making choices is hard work. The April 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites research who found that were are more fatigued and less productive when faced with myriad choices. Life was a lot simpler then a cup of tea and a slice of toast were the order of the day.

Northside or Southside?

It stands to reason that the choices we made yesterday pretty much determine where we are today. And it seems like yesterday that, having decided to move to Hungary, I faced the potentially life-shaping choice between living in Buda or in Pest. Dublin is also a city of two parts, although the Northside and the Southside are colloquial geographical expressions rather than official administrative areas. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, lived on the Northside; Bono and the lads from U2 went to school there; and that hunk of Irish attitude, Colin Farrell, was born there. The Southside boasts the literary greats James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and the fictional Ross O’Carroll Kelly. Rivalry abounds and the jokes fly both ways: What do you call a Northsider in a suit? The defendant. How does a Southsider get a week off work? He phones his mother!  We talk about having to get a visa to cross the Liffey and ironically, I feel the same way about crossing the Danube.

Eastside or Westside?

I’m a Northside girl who leans towards the west. So, when I first arrived in Budapest, it was only natural that I looked towards Buda. I asked around. I consulted those in the know (locals, estate agents, long-term expats) and the consensus was that if I could afford it, I’d be better off living in Buda. It was more salubrious, they said; a better investment.  It was leafier, greener, and the air was better. And there were fewer Roma (yes, shockingly, that was an actual sales pitch!). But I wanted grit, diversity, earthiness, and attitude. I wanted to live, not retire. So I settled on the Eastside, in Pest.

Begrudgingly, as I was flying in the face of conventional wisdom, they spoke to me of districts. They told me not to buy in district VIII (aka ‘the ghetto’), as that was where the majority of the minorities lived, along with the hookers and miscellaneous petty criminals. They said that V was lovely, but I probably couldn’t afford it. They said that XIII was nice, too, but that heirs apparent were camped on doorsteps waiting to move in once their elderly relatives moved on.  They said that VI was almost as good as V but less expensive. Ditto moving down the line to VII; even the pastel-painted IX ranked up there as having some potential. I should buy anywhere but district VIII. So 57 flat-views later, I bought…in district VIII.

Style or substance?

Baglyas Gyuri (Beyond Budapest Sightseeing) was quoted in the New York Times recently. He rightly described district VIII as ‘the city’s best part: a laboratory of diversity, art, music and architecture’. If it’s salubrious you want, check out Keleti pályaudvar and step back in time when you step into its gorgeous old ticket hall; visit the ‘little Basilica of Esztergom’ on Rezső tér; and sit a while in the Golden Salon of the Public Library on Szabó Ervin tér. For green and leafy, there’s the Botanical Gardens on Illés utca, Orczy kert (behind the old Ludovica Military Academy) or the wonderful Kerepesi cemetery. Diversity is the key to unlocking the hidden gems of district VIII…gems like the new African Buffet at Bérkocsis utca 21 or the beautifully bricked music mecca, Grund Hostel, on Nagytemplom utca 30.

Given the 23 districts I had to choose from, I picked well. District VIII is where it’s happening. It has both style and substance and a personality all of its own. If Albert Camus is to be believed, and life is the sum of all our choices, then living in the ghetto definitely adds up!

First published in the Budapest Times 7 June 2010

Wanted: a good man

Jim Carrey, that Canadian-born actor with an extensive library of grins and grimaces, put it well when he said ‘If you ain’t desperate at some point, you ain’t interesting’. And I’ve reached that point of desperation which has elevated my being interesting to stratospheric levels. 

Now let’s be clear from the outset. I am not, I repeat, not desperate to find a man simply because I’m tired of paying single supplements in hotels, cooking for one, or talking to myself all day. Neither am I desperate to find a man because I am fed up being a fifth wheel in this contracting world of couples, have run out of socks to darn, or have an egotistical desire to procreate.  And I’m certainly not desperate to find a man in order to ‘complete’ myself! It’s far more serious than that.

A little too comfortable

I’ve had a couple of OMG moments in the last week which have made me realise that I’m getting way too comfortable being on my own. And before you get your knickers in a knot, I know there’s nothing wrong with being single…just let me explain. 

I was in Ireland doing the family thing.  At mass on Sunday, the priest said something that left me gasping. For the non-Catholics amongst you, there’s a prayer in the mass that includes the line ‘protect us from all anxiety’. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember (at least since Vatican II). With the congregation muttering in unison, it was easy to hear the priest as he boomed his modified version into the microphone: ‘protect us from undue anxiety’.  Now, anxiety refers to a state of uneasiness and apprehension about future uncertainties. And, truth be told, we could all do without it, ergo the prayer to protect us from it. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have become an accepted fact that anxiety is part and parcel of our lot in life and that what we need protection from is ‘undue anxiety’. This new take on it sent me into a tailspin of introspection, which, as history will testify, is very likely to result in drastic action on my part which is completely out of character.

A little too safe

In a conversation about salary cuts, reduced pensions, currency fluctuations, and the scarcity of jobs, I happened to mention what I earned last year, before tax. The figure drew gasps of incredulity – and yes, I had converted it to euro to make it easy for the zerophobes.  It was so small it wouldn’t have enticed most of those present out of bed, let alone to iron a shirt and shine their interview shoes. Yes I work and I work damn hard but about half of what I do, I do for free. I do it because it interests me, because it’s for a good cause, or because I’m learning something in the process. And because I’m single, with no dependants, incur minimal costs, and, as one ex-boyfriend put it, can cook potatoes in more ways than are known to man, I won’t starve. I enjoy a better quality of life than many of my materially wealthier friends who are dotted around the world.

I love my life. I get to do pretty much what I want, when I want, time and weather permitting.  I travel. I read. I cook. I write. I talk. I have no one to answer to but myself; no one to consult before I accept or issue an invitation. In short, I have been blessed with an anxiety-free life.

A little too incredible

But is it sustainable? Is life a little too good? Should I be this content? We’re in a recession for God’s sake. Times are tough. Things are bad. The future is dim. If everyone else is so miserable, at their wits end trying to survive yet another spate of redundancies, keep their creditors at bay, and cope with climate change, what’s wrong with me? What has me so happy?

Why is my life so free from anxiety? Could it be because I live in one of the greatest cities in the world and enjoy my work so much that I’ve forgotten that it’s actually work? Or that I don’t have to commute? Could it be because I really value my quirky friends and supportive family who keep me sane? Or that I consider myself truly blessed? Surely not! It must be because I’m single…mustn’t it? Perhaps I need to test that particular hypothesis.

Man wanted: must be low maintenance, socially adept, honest, independent, solvent, able to punctuate, and in possession of all his faculties.  Ideally will be able to laugh at himself, hold down an interesting conversation, and be capable of making decisions. spontaneity a plus.  All replies considered.

First published in the Budapest Times, Tuesday 25th May 2010

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The more I learn about the world, the more I realise how little I actually know. Last week, what I knew about South Africa had been gleaned from newspapers, TV documentaries, reports by aid organisations, Internet blogs, and the occasional conversation about the state of the nation with some Afrikaaner friends. I have vague memories of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin. I remember the strikes against apartheid and the celebrations when South Africa gained its freedom. I’ve seen the cartoons featuring President Zuma standing under the symbolic showerhead (he apparently believes that showering after sex will prevent the transmission of Aids).  I’m still wondering at FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup there this summer. In short, if my mind were a computer and you did a search on ‘South Africa’ you’d find a complete mismash of information that says far more about me and my misconceptions than it does about South Africa. Everything I have read or heard about the country has been filtered through a perspective that is the product of the life I have lived so far; a perspective that is influenced by my education, my upbringing, and my spiritual beliefs; a perspective that has been largely coloured by the reported experience of others rather than any first-hand experience of my own.

Learning by doing

A South African friend of mine, recognising this huge gap in my education, invited me to join her on a visit home to the grasslands in Wakkerstroom just south of Pretoria. To see another country, not as a tourist, but as a resident, however temporary, is an honour that is all-too-often taken for granted. To see it in the company of someone who is revered (and occasionally reviled) for the work she has done in breathing new life into this small town is a privilege indeed. Were I here as part of a tour group, staying in a guesthouse or hotel, eating in restaurants featured in guidebooks, my vision of South Africa would probably still be intact. My preconceptions – the cities are dangerous; Aids is prevalent; life is cheap; racism is rife; whites are rich; blacks are poor – may have gone unchallenged.

Instead, I have been party to conversations unfiltered by judicious editors or biased press officers. I have stayed in suburban homes built in guarded complexes, often surrounded by two or three layers of fencing. I have listened to horrific accounts of how rage and anger manifest themselves in senseless, brutal assaults on young and old alike. I have seen how differently people react to the threat of violence; how political correctness is severely curtailing growth and prosperity; and how affirmative action, without the necessary provision of skills and knowledge, is eroding hope for a sustainable future. My somewhat naïve questions about the sanctity of elephants have been met with patient explanations of the damage and the danger and the missed opportunities inherent in not allowing herds to be culled. Heated debates on the dire state of public infrastructure, the inability of politicians to cope with growth and development, and the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made in the post-apartheid era all seem somewhat familiar.

Home thoughts from abroad

Interestingly, I find myself contributing to the conversation with stories of what’s happening in Hungary. I hear myself drawing parallels between post-communism and post-apartheid politics; between the Roma and the Zulu; between the townships in South Africa and the villages of Eastern Hungary. I recognise the insularity of the rich and the powerful; the insecurity of those threatened by the devolution of power; and the humility of those who know enough to realise they have so much yet to learn. Corruption, racism, and the ever widening gap between the very rich and the very poor exist to a greater or lesser extent in both countries, as does a growing if unconscious dependency on China. Likewise, patriotism, nationalism, and cultural history abound.

Both countries are beautiful and surprisingly, a lot alike. The great open plains of the Puszta are mirrored by the vastness that lies under the South African sky. The birding paradise of Hortobágy bears a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Wakkerstroom. There is no time difference. The extreme variance between highest and lowest daily temperatures is comfortingly familiar…at least at this time of year as Hungary moves into her summer while South Africa edges towards winter.

The more I learn about  both countries, the more I realise how little I actually know about either of them. What I have learned though, is that to really appreciate a country, I need to live in it. And to really live in a country I need to make a concerted effort to understand both sides of the story.

First published in the Budapest Times Tuesday 11th May 2010

In vino veritas

Not too long ago, some friends of mine in Ireland – aka ‘de wimmen’ – told me that it would be pointless my going to France with them as I neither drank wine nor ate olives. I was a tad peeved at this but not put out enough to do anything about it. I was happy with the odd gin and tonic and the occasional pint of cider on a hot day. Wine was way too pretentious for me.

The age of innocence

Sometime later, I was in a pub in Oxford with a mate of mine who had recently returned from a trip to New Zealand. He had ‘discovered’ wine and was full of interesting snippets. For instance, did you know that the first vines were planted in New Zealand by a missionary named Samuel Marsden in the north of the North Island in 1819, but that the World Atlas of Wine in 1970 doesn’t even mention New Zealand? Well, now you do! Anyway, according to my mate, the Montana Sauvignon Blanc was as close as you can get to liquid perfection. So, putting personal preferences aside, I indulged him and tried it. Just a glass. That particular combination of green grassy notes and ripe tropical fruit mellowed me.  I enjoyed it. And what’s more, it was now just a matter of downing an olive or two, and I’d earn my place on the ferry to France.

The thin red line

This new-found sophistication – oh no, dahling, I’m not a Chardonnay girl – left me breathless and eager to venture further afield. I began to winter my way around the world of white wine, with an occasional summertime dip into a chilled Rosé. Thankfully I realized early on that I was in little danger of losing my fortune to the champagne gods as I’d rather an Italian Prosecco, a Hungarian Pezsgo or Spanish Cava any day of the week, especially on Sundays! And to those who say that it’s a wine’s duty to be red, I have no answer. The red-wine smell wafting from an open bag of wine gums turns my stomach and even the promise of a thimbleful of the 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam – a bottle of which sold at a Christie’s auction in 1997 for more than $100,000 – wouldn’t entice me from my knitting on a Friday night!

After a while though, I began to notice something peculiar. I actually take on the personality of the wine I’m drinking and become even more susceptible than usual to word association. Give me a glass or two of a Chilean Sauvignon from the Casablanca Valley and, like Bergman’s Isla Lund, I find myself crying dramatically to the nearest Bogart: Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time. Now in a crowded club in Budapest, this may be no bad thing, but not when you’re at a reception for a missionary priest just back from Santiago…

A glass or two of the Spanish Marqués de Riscal and I’m positively dangerous. Hands flailing dramatically like a real-life toreros, I’m liable to punch-uate each sentence quite forcibly, which is all well and good if my listeners are wearing gumshields rather than hopeful smiles. The last poor unfortunate to risk a bottle of Riscal with me is still wondering what hit him…

Being Irish, I’m allowed a little poetic license. We need little encouragement to tell a story, but a glass or two of the Italian Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi will literally have me saying mass. It’s as if I split in two: one part of me can hear the other half tell the stories and just sits back and laughs, all the while sipping. Sometime I really amaze myself. Convincing some Canadian sailors from the HMS Iroquois that I was a novice nun had me rooting in my purse for my rosary beads…

A dark horse

But it’s the white wine from the Hungarian pince Nyakas that has been my undoing.  I just have to see the head of that black horse to feel the stirrings of invincibility that will only later be reined in by insecurities. I’ve said before that Budapest has a peculiar energy to it – an energy that seems to make anything possible. There is a life bubbling beneath the surface of this city that emerges every now and then to push you just a little bit further than you’d thought possible. Hopes and dreams manifest themselves in thoughts and actions. Couple that sense of power with a glass or two of a Nyakas Pinot Grigio and I’m capable of doing or saying just about anything. Which is why I’m sitting here, munching olives, trying to decipher the illegible note I made in my diary last night – did I really book a ferry to France?

First published in the Budapest Times 26 April 2010

Nincs probléma

As a child, I hated going to the dentist. I couldn’t stand the way this kind, well-meaning man would tell my mother that the p-a-i-n wouldn’t be too bad but that the d-r-i-l-l might be s-c-a-r-y. I was 10 years old for God’s sake. Surely he knew I could s-p-e-l-l? As a teenager, I dreaded going to the hairdresser.  My colourist once got into an argument on the phone with her boyfriend and forgot about my peroxide. This happened the same day my passport expired. I had to live with that photo for ten years.  As an adult, living in Budapest, I now break out in a cold sweat at the thoughts of going anywhere near a phone company. To date, by my reckoning, my attempts to get wireless Internet in my flat have cost me 21 hours, a complete set of fingernails, and my dignity.

For the purpose of this account, let’s not go with the usual Company A, Company B, or Company C. Let’s instead do something completely radical and call them, say, Company T, Company U, and Company V.

T is for thrasonical

My electrician assured me that my flat was wired for a phone and therefore I should get wireless Internet. Nincs probléma, he said. I cajoled a Hungarian friend of mine into coming with me when I paid the first of three office visits to Company T. I had every form of ID imaginable, including my birth certificate and vaccination records. Best be prepared. We explained that I wanted wireless Internet in my flat and that my KFT was registered at one address but that the Internet was to be installed at another. We filled in the forms, handed over the various proofs of identity and were assured that a technician would call out, to the right address, the following whenever.  Nincs probléma.

And call he did, on schedule, but to the wrong address. I called my friend. She called Company T. They said they’d have to reschedule. Nincs probléma. Then they sent me a letter confirming that I had cancelled my contract; shame we couldn’t do business, etc. What? I went back to Company T with yet another Hungarian-speaking friend and went through the whole scenario again: explanation, confusion, clarity, assurances, forms, ID, and signatures.  Almost two hours into the process, just as I’d signed my name for the umpteenth time, I was told: sorry, whoops, Company T didn’t service my building after all.  mmmm…

U is for unthirlable

So I tried Company U. I decided to phone. The woman I spoke to was a breath of fresh air. Of course they could supply me with Internet. Nincs probléma. What package did I want? I was on a high. I couldn’t believe it. The technician would be out in a couple of days. He came. He saw. He told me the wires wouldn’t reach from the second floor to the fourth floor. Terribly sorry and all that…but they couldn’t help me after all. Anyway, he said, almost as an afterthought, I should be dealing with Company T as they provide Internet to most of this building.  I checked with two of my neighbours and yes, one used Company T, and the other used Company U. mmmm…

So back I went to Company T. I knew the drill:  explanation, confusion, clarity, assurances, forms, ID, and signatures.  Just let me check one thing, the girl said, again nearly two hours into the process. Yes…. it appears that your building is oversubscribed. Sorry! Oversubscribed? I blew a gasket.

V is for verisimilitude

Next stop on the Internet tour was Company V. Same drill: explanation, confusion, clarity, assurances, forms, ID, and signatures Nincs probléma. But, wait! They could only give me mobile Internet. It wasn’t what I wanted but I was desperate. It worked fine for three days. All was well with the world. Life was good. Then, for no obvious reason, it stopped. I went to their office with my laptop and the offending stick. It works fine, the chap said, having checked it on his machine. He was busily texting his mate and not even looking at me! In a voice that would freeze the blood in Berlusconi’s veins, I reminded him that I was the customer; that I should be his priority; that he should cease texting and look at me; that I was paying for a service I wasn’t getting; and that my Internet DID NOT WORK. And then I broke down.  Dignity? What dignity? I flung myself across his desk and bawled.  I couldn’t take any more of this. People got hooked up with Internet every day. Why not me? He checked my laptop. He checked the stick. He did what he had to do. And he fixed it. Nincs probléma.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 April 2010

Pulmonary rape

I’ve been accused of a lot of things in my time. Some I readily owned up to; others didn’t warrant dignifying with a response. Some I immediately discounted, given the dubious mental state of the accuser(s); while others I took to heart. I’ve resolved most of them to my satisfaction but one or two return unbidden at the most inconvenient of times.

Practice makes perfect

I smoke. I don’t smoke every day, or every week, but I smoke and have done so intermittently since 1984. My Orwellian character was a drop-dead gorgeous third-year engineering student. In the University pub one night, he offered me a cigarette, which I took. I was planning to put it in my scrapbook, to preserve it for posterity. Then he held out a light. What could I do? I was young, innocent, and very impressionable. I took my first drag, just as he asked me my name. As I opened my mouth to answer, my words were lost in a billow of smoke. How uncool! I was mortified. I spent the rest of the night in front of my bathroom mirror, practicing, lighting cigarette after cigarette, taking a drag, and saying my name. When I finally managed to hold the smoke in nether land until I’d had my say, I felt I’d accomplished something remarkable. And indeed I had – like Bill Clinton, I can say, hand on my heart, that I don’t inhale and that not inhaling has cost me a small fortune!

Guardian of the ashtray

I’m a very considerate smoker…when I smoke. In mixed company, I’m the self-appointed guardian of the ashtray making sure that cigarettes don’t smolder and that smoke doesn’t blow in the direction of the non-smoker(s). When I’m smoking, I try to smoke when others have lit up, matching my cigarette with theirs, and thus increasing the amount of ‘smoke-free’ time. I won’t smoke around children or pregnant women, and only sheer desperation would drive me to smoke in a car with a non-smoker passenger. So this accusation of pulmonary rape hit me quite hard: destroying her health by forcing smoke into her lungs against her will? I ask you! I don’t remember asking her to sit beside me!

Choose your poison

Passive smoking happens but its effects are open to debate. A 1998 WHO study showed that not only might there be no link between passive smoking and lung cancer but that it could even have a protective effect. But were these findings made public? Not so as you’d notice. Exhaust fumes are far from healthy and yet you don’t hear anyone complaining about people driving! Stand at any tram stop in the city for just five minutes and see how much toxic air you inhale. Open your street-facing windows on a still day and watch as the smog settles on your sofa. Catch a bus in the heat of the summer and choke on the chemical combination of stale sweat and cheap deodorant. Deliver me from the anti-smoking, self-righteous, judgmental zealot, who screams ‘pulmonary rape’ as she waddles towards her SUV, her hairspray cutting a hole through the ozone, her perfume wilting weeds in her wake! Passive smoking, luv? There are worse things in life!

Preventable death by heart disease nearly matches smoking-related deaths in the USA, while obesity-related deaths are climbing…but where’s the accusation of ‘artery rape’? Big industry contaminates our rivers and our seas, clears our forests, and pollutes our air to make products that we can’t get enough of. And yet you’d have to listen very carefully to hear even the faintest echo of self-gratifying consumers crying ‘environmental rape’. But I’m raping her lungs? As the great Ambrose Bierce once put it: hypocrisy… prejudice with a halo!

Intellectuális reggeli

Let’s forget about those who smoke automatically, out of habit, not out of pleasure, with little thought for anyone but themselves: those who exhale great plumes of smoke indiscriminately as they walk along the street or stand waiting at a tram stop; those whose hair and clothes smell like week-old ashtrays; those you will to be silent because their breath smells like they’ve had dirty socks for dinner. Let’s focus instead on those who enjoy and appreciate smoking for what it is and remember that Budapest is one of the few European capitals where smoking is still allowed in public places. It’s a freedom that’s likely to disappear in the not-too-distant future, one that should be treated with respect. My local café, Francesco’s on Ferenc Tér, offers an intellectuális reggeli: a coffee, a newspaper and a cigarette. It’s heaven on a hectic day. And as I sit angelically on my cloud of smoke, with my cigarette for company, I give silent thanks for the simple, uncomplicated pleasure it affords.

First published in the Budapest Times, 1 March 2010

The Catch 22

 I am not political. I have never been political. The permutations and combinations that need to be worked out in order to decide who gets to sit in parliament, any parliament, are way beyond my simple maths. I have yet to understand the nuances that lie beneath the political rhetoric offered by opposing sides: to me, it all sounds the same. In Ireland, the differences between political ideologies are slim enough to be practically invisible and to my unpoliticised mind, the same could be said of many other countries. The end goal of any party seems to be pure, unadulterated power. And so, for the first time in my apolitical life, I find myself a little concerned. Actually, I’m downright nervous about the idea of one political party, any political party, in any country, having a majority that will effectively allow them to change the Constitution without referendum. For a nation’s people to be so powerless is scary. But then again, I’m not a politician.

Before I cast my vote, I’d like the answer to two questions: Why – in a country that has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners, a notable collection of writers, artists, composers, scientists and mathematicians – are teachers so underappreciated and horribly underpaid? Don’t they hold the future of this country in their classrooms every day? G. K. Chesterton said that ‘without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously’. Now, more than ever, we need our children to be educated to think for themselves, to form opinions, to question the status quo, to learn right from wrong, to forget about how it has been done and to think about how it should be done, to face up to their responsibility as citizens of this great country.

Gullible or naive?

I’ve recently heard Hungarians I know recount stories of faking diplomas, having someone else sit their exams, paying someone to write their thesis or dissertation and then being coached by them to defend it. Any minute, I thought, the candid cameraman will jump out and laugh at me for being so gullible as to believe it all. But he never did. Perhaps this happens the world over…and ‘naive’ is my middle name! But I was shocked. And I can’t help but thinking that if teachers were given the respect their responsibility deserves and paid accordingly, if the disease were treated, and not merely the symptoms, then education might once again be something to be proud of and the future might look a little less bleak.

Health is wealth

That brings me to Question No. 2. Why are doctors and nurses paid so little? Society’s obligation to its elderly, its sick and its infirm surely goes without saying. Recent conversations with doctors, specialists and medical staff have left me flabbergasted. When a man in an Armani suit gets to jump the hospital queue and the little old lady has to wait for yet another hour, there is something not quite right. When families are subsidising their doctor sons and daughters so that they can work the wards, something is wrong. When patients are giving backhanders to ensure a level of healthcare that is their right, something is very wrong. When countryside practices lie empty because those who might have staffed them have gone abroad to countries where their expertise is valued and rewarded accordingly, something is very, very wrong. Who will take care of those left at home?

The buck stops here

To my unpoliticised mind, it’s not the alphabet army of CEOs, CFOs, and COOs, or the politicians who should be earning the big bucks; it’s the teachers and the doctors and the nurses. Those people whose very job it is to nurture society, to educate it, to keep it healthy and strong, and to care for it as it grows older. For only with a strong, educated, and healthy mind, is society in a position to effect change: to right the wrongs, to grow its economy, to take its place on the world stage. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about: a future in which we abdicate responsibility to whatever political party has come up with a majority; a future in which citizens are in danger of losing control of their Constitution; and even worse, where they are too worn out and apathetic to care one way or another.

But the Catch 22 is that in order to accomplish anything, the government needs money. And for this to happen, people need to pay taxes. But for this to happen, the tax system needs to be reformed and the government’s accounting made transparent. A flat rate would be a start, followed by society disowning those who avoid their responsibility as citizens. But hey, what would I know? I am not political.

First published in the Budapest Time 15 February 2010

Irish goulash or Hungarian stew?

Way back in 1957, American author James Michener immortalized a little bridge on the Hungarian/Austrian border. In his book, The Bridge at Andau, Michener chronicles the reality of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution using a series of both composite and real characters, with names changed to protect the innocent. I think I’m safe in saying that in 1957, not many Irish people had been to Hungary, but Michener must have had met his fair share of both nationalities as he came to the conclusion that, at least back then, the Hungarians were the Irish of Eastern Europe. I’ve just come back from a longer-than-usual visit to Ireland and if Mr Michener were around today, I’d love to sit him down and have a chat about this. If anything, I think the Irish are becoming the Hungarians of Western Europe!  

The long and the short of it

Hungarian is a lengthy language. It takes longer to say mass in Hungarian than it does in English, even though the translation is the same. I know. I’ve timed it. Well, over on the island, Ireland has gone mad adding extra words where they’re not needed…and I’m not talking about the traditional story-like embellishments for which we’re famous. Those don’t count.  I’m talking about slipping in ‘do’ and ‘would’ and ‘like’ where they’re simply not needed. RyanAir staff saying ‘We do hope you enjoyed your flight, and we do hope that you travel with us again …’ The Gardaí (the Irish Police) saying ‘We would ask drivers to slow down…’ And every young one old enough to wear high heels saying ‘Yeah, like, it was, like, a great night, like…’

Brace yourself, Bridie!

The Irish are not known for being openly affectionate. Just ask anyone who has dated someone Irish in the last century. When Pope John Paul II stood in front of a crowd of 200,000 of Ireland’s finest back in 1979 and shouted ‘Young people of Ireland, I love you’  it was the first time that four-letter word had been aired in public. With the advent of the EU, the more upwardly mobile Irish social set replaced the traditional handshake with a peck on the cheek but, still, this public display of affection was usually reserved for maiden aunts and grannies. With the birth of the Celtic Tiger, air-kissing became de rigueur for anyone with a second mortgage! Hold out your hand in Dublin these days and you’ll be dragged into a two-cheek kissing frenzy that has crossed all class boundaries and age groups. Everyone’s at it. Now, just as in Budapest, it takes an age to say hello or goodbye to a group of people. And there’s the added trauma of that split-second decision as to whether you should or shouldn’t go for broke… I mean, how well do you have to know someone before you get familiar with their cheekbones?

Whose round is it?

A gang of us met up in our local pub in Dublin last week. It was a typical Friday after work and the recession had taken the night off. The place was heaving. We had stools but no table and when there are more than four involved, a table is essential to focus the conversation. Next to us sat a young couple chatting away over a remarkably clean and empty table dotted with pristine beer mats and not a drink in sight. Surreptitious glances on our part gave way to open stares until someone voiced what most of us were thinking. They had to be foreign.  I went one better and reckoned they were Hungarian. Budapest is the only European Capital in which I’ve seen people who have the wherewithal and the fortitude to sit in pubs with an empty glass in front of them or without a drink at all. In Ireland, the sight of the level of beer in just one glass on the table sinking below an inch is enough to start a mad reach for the wallets and a dash to the bar. The thought of not having another pint primed and ready before the first one is drained is enough to stir the coldest corpse. But there’s no mistaking a Dublin accent. When they finally left and said their goodbyes, the pair turned out to be Irish.

While I was sharing my theory with a Hungarian friend earlier this week, I illustrated the similarities further with the famous WB Yeats quote: 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?

I rest my cutlery.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 January 2010