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

Hotline to heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bless me Father, for I have sinned…

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

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

Saps and saplings

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

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

Sledges, skis or saplings?

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

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

Off tramway

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

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

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

This article first published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2009

Butterflies, tigers and Budapest bars

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

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

Pubs with soul

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

Everything measured, everything matched

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

A Magyar tigris

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

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

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

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