Bamboozled into buying a bottle

Reactions to an interview on national television with Irish bottled-water pioneers Ballygowan in the 1980s resounded with exclamations of incredulity. Just who in their right mind would pay for a bottle of water? Who, in a country boasting a tax rate of 56%, would be so stupid as to hand over their hard-earned money for a water you could get for free from a well?  A ludicrous notion, indeed. So what if our French friends were squandering their francs on Perrier and Evian (try spelling Evian backwards….)? So what if our Italian soul mates were glugging down their lire in the form of Fiuggi or San Pellegrino? The Irish would never fall for that lark. But we did. And people the world over fell for it, too.

Now, thirty years later, we have backed ourselves into a corner. We have created a nightmare whereby we have far too many choices. We can choose between Australia’s Tasmanian Rain, Belgium’s Chaudfontaine, and Croatia’s Jana. We can choose between still and sparkling. We can choose between glass and plastic. And we can also choose to pay for water or do without.

Thwarted by a tap

Trying to get plain old tap water these days is like trying to get blood from a particularly insipid turnip. In Lithuania last week, I was the only one at a table of six who managed to persuade the waiter to give me a glass of tap water. I was playing the environmental card: saying no to plastic; saying no to an ever-increasing carbon footprint; saying no the sheer ridiculousness of paying for water. Here in Budapest, my pleas for csapvíz are growing more strident. What started off as a simple request, morphed into a plaintive cry and is now on the edge of becoming a frustrated hysteric.

If the tap water is bad, if it is undrinkable, then yes, I will pay for bottled water. But even then I have certain expectations. I read somewhere lately that new discoveries in astrophysics suggest that water is not native to Earth but rather was imported from the edges of our solar system as ice trapped in comets. The first ‘delivery’ is estimated to have happened more than four billion years ago. So while ‘importing’ water is not exactly a new phenomenon, I still want my bottled water to have been bottled locally…if not in the same city then at least in the same country. I simply cannot get my head around people buying water in a bottle that has been flown half-way around the world for their drinking pleasure. We’re not talking vintage port here, people…it’s water! Or is it?

Swizzled by a spring

In his book, Fine waters, Michael Mascha points out that water is actually not water. At least the premium stuff isn’t. It’s like wine. It has terroir and it is a natural product that originates from a particular place with unique properties. Perhaps the debate about plastic or glass might be the equivalent of the furore around screw tops or corks. While you might serve your champagne at a refreshing 6°C, the optimal temperature for serving sparkling water is 13°C. Forget your pinot gris, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. When it comes to water, we’re talking spring, artesian, well, and glacier. Remove the young, dry, sweet, mature and full-bodied adjectives and replace with still, effervescent, light, classic, and bold. And when at a water tasting (you wouldn’t believe me if I told you of the images this conjures up), remember to replace aromatic, balanced, crisp, and fleshy, with short, long, focused or wide. When, oh when, did we get so pretentious? When did a glass of water become more than a glass of water? When exactly did we start to forsake the faucet?

So while a large portion of the population pays for the privilege of drinking bottled water, I’m drawing the line at paying for tap water! Unless, of course, it’s for a good cause. UNICEF started the Tap Project in New York back in 2007. Participating restaurants ask their customers to pay $1 or more for water they usually get for free. Just €1 is enough to provide clean drinking water for a child for 40 days. According to UNICEF figures, waterborne illness is the second leading cause of death for children under five years of age; over 900 million people lack access to clean water. If you own a restaurant in Budapest and you’re reading this… why not try doing something similar here next year. World Water Week is 20–26 March 2011. You’ve plenty of time to get organised. In the meantime, I’ll go back to practising my Hungarian – maybe pohar hideg víz might do the trick.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 September 2010

Give a little – get a lot

Let the investment bankers amongst you weep! Last week, in Malta, I put €10 in the collection plate – it was a special collection for environmental refugees. Not ten minutes later, walking up the street after mass, I spotted €20 in the corner of a step, nestling amidst the remnants of Satuday night’s partying. What a return, eh? You give, you get, someone said, when I told them of my good fortune. And that got me thinking…

Way back when, before the industrial revolution, before money became our god, and urbanisation made strangers of us all, volunteering was second nature. We gave – we gave of our time, our skills, our energy. We shared – we shared our food, our homes, our experiences.  Clothes were passed on, tools were borrowed, and lives were intertwined. Whole communities survived with the helping hands of neighbours. Harvests were brought in, homes were built, roads were repaired, children were minded, the sick were cared for – we looked out for each other.

Volunteerism stakes a place

In 1920, shortly after WWI, a group of Austrian, English, French, German, and Swiss volunteers – some of whom had fought on opposite sides in the War – began to rebuild a village near Verdun.  And thus the first modern volunteer movement was born: the French Service Civil International (SCI). Many more followed and soon volunteering was once again playing a significant part in contemporary life. Organisations like the US Peace Corps, or Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offered great opportunities for going abroad to ‘help out’. In Ireland, growing up, we talked of ‘going on the missions’ – not in a religious context – but to help out in Africa. There were bake sales and book sales, poker classics and whist drives, table quizzes and raffles, with all proceeds going to someone’s sister or brother, uncle or aunt, who was out on the missions, volunteering.

Those who stayed at home were involved in youth clubs and Scout groups. They volunteered at the hospice and the hospital, the children’s home and the old folk’s home. They coached football, taught adult literacy, got involved in home-help scheme and respite programmes.  The community pulled together and worked as one. We may not have been as well off materially, but in other, far more important ways, we were rich beyond measure.

Commercialism creeps in

One night, as we were all sleeping the sleep of the just, commercialism crept in. Suddenly those 12-month voluntary posts overseas were reserved for professionals – for doctors, nurses, nutritionists, engineers and the like. The rest of us, although willing to serve our time for the betterment of mankind and, if truth be told, for the betterment of ourselves, were asked to pay for the experience. Up front. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem at all with paying my way to get to wherever, but to pay to stay there and volunteer? There is something not quite right with that picture.

At home, governments began to regulate every ounce of community spirit out of us. With restrictive health and safety regulations, background checks, and a leporine multiplication of forms to be filled to hold any position in a voluntary capacity, suddenly volunteering simply wasn’t worth the effort. But hey, all was not lost. We had money. We could help out by donating cold hard cash instead of our time, skills, and experience. Not quite the same admittedly, but if we had a conscience to salve, then cash was the balm to hand.

But gradually, once again, this avenue, too, became the stomping ground of the professionals – this time, the professional money-makers: those who could afford to shell out big bucks for charity dinners; who could afford to bid extravagantly at charity auctions; who had the wherewithal to be charitable.

But what of the rest of us? Where do we fit?

Pessimism postponed

Much an all as I enjoy living in Budapest, I miss that sense of community. That sense of knowing I’m contributing to making my city a better place. That sense of giving. That sense of belonging that only really comes when you’re actively contributing to where you live. So if your Hungarian is as abysmal as mine, and you’re not in a position to pull up a chair to the charity fundraising table, what options are there to volunteer, to help out? The British Women’s Association requires you to have a British passport. The North American Women’s Association is for women from North America. The International Women’s Association, well you have to be female. But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is working to reignite that community spirit here in Budapest by supporting people in their fund-raising activities, not matter how small, and by identifiying opportunities for all of us to donate our time and skills to community-based projects rather than just our money.

A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.

Rudolf Steiner, Austrian philosopher and scientist

First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2010


Putting the foot back into footpath

The word ‘footpath’ can be traced as far back as 1425. Unlike the term ‘babysitter’, footpath is pretty much self-explanatory. In essence, it’s a path for those going on foot, or as the Collins English Dictionary so eloquently puts it:  a narrow path for walkers only. Simple. Uncomplicated. Footpaths are not bicycle paths. Cycling is not walking. Cyclists, unless they’re pushing their bicycles, are not travelling on foot. Ergo, cycling cyclists do not belong on footpaths. Could it be any simpler?

The prologue

As cyclists across the city rise up on their pedals at my exclusionary language, let me offer two words: Margit hid. Currently under reconstruction and likely to be that way for the foreseeable future, pedestrian traffic across Margit hid is restricted to one footpath. Traffic is two-way. Four thin people can walk abreast but more often than not, pedestrian traffic is reduced to single file from both directions as people of various shapes and sizes navigate the narrow walkway. It’s like walking a gauntlet. Walkers adjust their pace to strollers. Runners stop running. With a couple of polite interjections and seizing up the flow of oncoming traffic, those on foot dodge their way across without doing any damage. But ignoring the large posted signs advising them to dismount and walk their charges across the water, a sizeable number of cyclists still insist on cycling. On my latest venture to the Island, I counted eight bikers biking and just one pushing. It’s inconsiderate, unnecessary, and downright dangerous. Tempers are fraying. Unrest is brewing. Pedestrians are pissed off.

Act I: Scene I

Last week on Margit hid: Cyclist, weaving his way in and out through the thread of people crossing the bridge, runs his handlebars into the ribs of a pedestrian. It hurts. Pedestrian says so. Cyclist shrugs, apparently not at all bothered, and makes to continue on his way. Pedestrian, a regular bridge user and victim of other near misses since reconstruction began, grabs cyclist by the wrist and asks him to dismount. Argument ensues. Cyclist dismounts. Pedestrian walks on. A woman coming from the opposite direction gesticulates wildly at pedestrian – something is happening behind him. He turns to see a kryptonite bicycle lock bearing down on him. Pedestrian grabs cyclist by the wrist. And on it goes, around in circles.  But it’s not just Margit hid. Szabadság hid staged similar scenes when it was under reconstruction, and can now be found on many of our city’s footpaths.

Act I: Scene II

In our carbon-challenged world, everything possible should be done to encourage people out of their cars and onto their bikes (or their feet). I’m all for cycling and the health benefits it entails, even if the health benefits of cycling in the shadow of exhaust plumes are a little dubious. Cyclists are in a Darwinian contest for survival with motorists. They’ve been hard done by. They take their lives in their hands every time they shove off.  Last week on Kiraly utca:  Inconsiderate driver opens his car door without checking his mirror and knocks cyclist off his bike. Driver gets out and checks on cyclist. Cyclist writhes in agony. Driver pulls out mobile and calls for help. Aggression is notably absent. Interesting hierarchy.

Budapest has 170 km of pathways for bicyclists, which includes cycling paths, cycling lanes, and side streets designated as suitable for cycling. This is targeted to increase to 300 km by 2015. And although I’m sure that it’s nowhere near enough, that’s what we have to work with. I can empathise with the frustration of having pedestrians walking along designated cycle paths. I’ve been blown out of it by cyclists on more than one occasion when I’ve failed to realise that I was walking between the painted red lines, and deservedly so. That’s their space. And as a pedestrian, I have no business being in it, unless it’s an emergency (a little like using the men’s loo).

The reviews

At various stages in my life, I’ve played all three roles: the motorist, the cyclist, and the pedestrian. I know that if you put all three actors in a room for an hour they’d have no trouble trading accusations and recriminations. And key to each diatribe would be the word ‘consideration’. Inconsiderate drivers pull out without looking and knock down cyclists; inconsiderate cyclists break red lights and knock down pedestrians; inconsiderate pedestrians stray into cycle paths, and force cyclists to ring their bells. Three actors each playing a part in what is becoming an increasingly aggressive street performance where one plot-line might read: cyclist, feeling victimised by motorist, turns on pedestrian.

Were I directing this particular play, the last line would be an impassioned plea to cyclists: get off your bikes and walk the bridge…and give me back my footpath.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 August 2010


An orderly queue of one

I am spending an inordinate amount of time lately in airports and on airplanes. This new-found intimacy with all things aviation has also been a voyage of self-discovery. While I’d like to consider myself a bit of a radical, fearless when it comes to speaking out against the norm, I’ve had to face the fact that, actually, I’m a conformist.

Strategic positioning

If I don’t have an assigned seat, I will queue.  I live in fear of being sandwiched between two talkative strangers on a flight that lasts longer than it takes for me to order and drink a gin and tonic. If my flight starts with a bus journey from the gate to the plane, I don’t worry about it. Nine times out of ten, if I’m strategically positioned next to a door opposite the driver, I’m one of the first up those gangway steps. But if we’re talking about direct-access planes and unassigned seating, I’m first in line. Queues, I have discovered, are the personification of civilisation. To each who waits his or her turn, come many rewards: the sure knowledge of where you are in the pecking order; a clear estimate of how long it will take you to reach the desired goal; and a somewhat pathetic sense of accomplishment once your bags are stowed in the last available overhead space. Where else in our manic, twenty-first century lives are we assured of the orderliness afforded by a good queue… the certainty, the cleanliness, the precision?

Mikes Gyorgy, that artful Hungarian writer who so beautifully captures the essence of being English, nailed it when he wrote: Some nations have queuing down to an art form. An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. The English queue; the Americans wait in line. Both nations respect the ritual and pay homage to this embodiment of patience, this physical manifestation of civility.

Was Moses Magyar?

Some Hungarians, on the other hand, seemed to have missed out on this queuing gene. The rest of us mere mortals may patiently stand in line, but not them. Marching straight ahead without so much as a by your leave, they solider through. Elnezest is the golden word… the Hungarian version of ‘Open Sesame’. It’s like watching the parting of the Red Sea and makes me wonder if Moses were Magyar. When this happens at Ferihegy, it goes unremarked; most of those lined up like regimental soldiers have either lived here long enough for this particular phenomenon to have lost its pallor, or are tourists returning home, too knackered to care.

In Dublin Airport on Monday, boarding a flight to Budapest, I saw a couple of stylishly dressed Hungarian queue-jumping women elnezesting their way to the front. Heads held high, they charged ahead, measuring their progress in persons, the bolder of the two carving out a path for her more timid friend to follow. In their wake, they left a legacy of disbelieving frowns and incredulous glances, as their meeker Irish counterparts froze, transfixed by their audacity. Those who had charted their progress from the back of the queue were moved to comment once they themselves had been successfully navigated. Loud declarations that ‘there is a queue, love’ or ‘who the blazes do they think they are?’ reverberated around the waiting area. But our fearless Magyars pressed forward, seemingly oblivious to the caustic comments and the seething anger emanating from dozens of Irish eyes, eyes no longer smiling.

Dress for success

In Rennes airport on Friday, I was queuing patiently in a tunnel outside the terminal building. It was blistering hot. Most of my fellow passengers were either Irish or French. Conditioned as we are to queuing, there wasn’t as much as a murmur of complaint. A well-dressed man of indeterminate age began to weave his way through the line. The worn sheen of his leather suitcase spoke of years of exotic travel. The silk pocket handkerchief peeping from the breast pocket of a beautifully tailored suit shimmered in the sunlight. His gold-rimmed sunglasses reminiscent of the 1950s reflected our collective awe. He was neither a tall man nor a big man but from his immaculate white hair to the tips of his manicured fingernails, he oozed presence. He turned occasionally, beckoning to his companion, urging her to come forward. He quietly side-stepped each one of us, yet we were the ones apologising for standing in his way. As I followed his progress to the top of the line, I noticed that unlike Monday’s Maygars, this man left a trail of bonhomie. There was no acrimony, no resentment. Never once did he say ‘excuse me’. Perhaps Hungary’s one concession to politeness, the elnezest, has outlived its day.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2010

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