(c) Jonás Mátássy

Birds of paradise

I dislike the mindlessness induced by social media. I loathe the barrage of advertisements I’m subjected to when I engage with it. And I resent the fact that Google and its ilk, with their algorithms, attempt to do my thinking for me. But occasionally, just occasionally, Facebook sends me something I like.

Budapest Up Close is a Facebook page with the tagline: A look at the people, art, innovation, business, and ideas from a land that has influenced the world for decades yet remains a mystery to many. Okay, I thought, a pleasant change from the usual naysaying press that overshadows this country. Curiosity piqued, I made a coffee and sat down to check it out. I was particularly interested in the art offer, as I’d recently come by some spare white walls that needed a little something.

One post caught my eye: paintings by Hungarian artist, Karl Meszlényi. I clicked on the companion website and lost myself in his world. As I scrolled through his work, I fell in love with a painting of a stork in full flight, wings splayed, feathers flighted. Back to the FB page to send a message enquiring about prices and lo and behold it turned out that I knew the woman behind this initiative – American-born Liz Frommer, a long-term Budapest resident.

Frommer is helping promote up-and-coming Hungarian artists, of which Meszlényi is one. But more than simply showcasing the art, she’s all about the artist. Yes, I could go to a gallery and pick my painting, but through Frommer, I got to go to Meszlényi’s studio, meet him in person, and discover the mind behind the magic.

Meszlényi has been drawing since he was 14. Back then, he wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Instead, he was drawn to art and took up painting when he was 19. But it wasn’t until four years later that he had sold and saved enough to pay his University fees and could enrol in Eszterházy Károly College in Eger, where he learned the finer aspects of his art.

A self-professed painter, rather than an artist, he dabbles in all media – pencils, oil, mixed media, acrylic, watercolour – and has several thematic concepts he follows. Birds are a speciality, as are horses and lions and abstracts. He’s drawn to the freedom of birds, their colours, their expressions. I fancied that some of his subjects seemed a little cross, but all of them are exquisite. Curious at the distinction he drew between artist and painter, he explained that artists express themselves while painters study the techniques of visual communication. I liked this, noting to myself that by his reckoning, I’m an artist, but as a painter, I fail miserably.

Meszlényi’s city studio is a small room in his mum’s flat in the XIVth district. Shedding our shoes at the door, we picked our way through into the front room where sparkling wine and cheese and crackers awaited. That wine and art go together is an indisputable fact in my world. I silently applauded. We chatted for a while, with Meszlényi talking about his life, his studies, and the fire that robbed him of so much of his work. He spoke of his collectors, the many ardent followers of his art who live in Brazil, Germany, the USA, the UK, and other countries around the world. [He recently sold at a piece at Saatchi Art in London.] He spoke of interviews and exhibitions, of fame and fortune, of what it takes to make it. And all the while, a little more of the essence of who he is escaped.

Primed and ready, he began to pull out canvases of various sizes and shapes and colours and forms. He paints big, and bright, and bold. And I was lost in an abstracted Rorschachy world. I saw caves and waterfalls and stalagmites. I saw mushroom clouds and tornados and spilt pots of jam. I saw parrot tails and tidal pools and dressing-room mirrors. And these were just the abstracts.

I can’t comment on Meszlényi’s technique. I can’t critique his style. I can’t tell you if he’s good or great or the next Audubon. All I can say is that his work is evocative, it is expressive, it is ebullient. Even the most delicate of his birds oozed character. And the more I looked at them, the more I focused, the more the story developed. I was tripping.

I know I’m given to rhapsodizing. When I find something I like, I get a little carried away. But this was a quieter, more reflective trip. I didn’t like everything I saw. Not every piece had something to say to me. But the ones that did spoke volumes. And lest you think that I’m losing it, check out an interview Meszlényi did last year with Zoltan Alexander of ZOLTAN+, former Editor of the New-York-based Ubikwist magazine, who also visited his studio. He had this to say: ‘To my total surprise I was stunned. “Am I with the incarnation of Pollock-Twombly, wrapped in the dark life of Rothko?” I asked myself. Rarely, I have seen such passion coming from such a young artist. The love for his work was instantaneous.’ And while I can claim little knowledge of the worthiness of art other than what it does for me, personally, she knows a thing or three about the world of painters.

I came, I saw, I fell in love, and I pick up my pieces in January.

Meszlényi is one of the growing cohort of artists that Frommer is promoting. She’s been around them for years, socialising with them and appreciating their work. And with Budapest Up Close, she’s on a mission to bring the world to them, one person at a time.

If you’re in the market for some statement pieces or simply want to see a painter in their home environs, contact her at [email protected]


Tar 170 x 125 cm mixed media on canvas and wood

First published in the Budapest Times 12 January 2018

2018.10.31 Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to correct an error. The interview with Karl was done by Zoltan+ as now noted and posted by Gianni Couiji.  www.zoltanplus.com

ADvent wreath

The advent of gratitude

Advent is here. Christmas is in sight. The season of goodwill and glad tidings is kicking in. The festive mood is about to descend, and moods are beginning to change. There’s something about Christmas that makes things sparkle. But for many – those without homes, without jobs, without money – the pressure is on to make it through yet another season where the haves and the have-nots are clearly divided.

The chocolate Santas were in the shops in October. The Advent calendars arrived in November. It seems as if Christmas gets earlier and earlier each year. For some, this is great. It stretches out the festivities; for others, it just prolongs the misery.

Kids write their lists for Santa, asking for stuff that will help them fit in, keep up with their classmates, be cool. Parents scramble for the money to make it all happen. Office parties, fuelled by booze and boisterousness, might be a little tamer this year as the consequences and confusion surrounding unwanted advances make people just a little more cautious about what they say and do.

Shoppers crowding city streets might not be quite as relaxed as usual as, deep down, on some unconscious level, they see their fellow shoppers as a target for some marauding mad (wo)man bent on causing death and destruction with their weapon of choice: a gun, a car, a bomb.

Those attending religious services might add an additional prayer to the litany of asks and thank yous they offer to their god, a simple prayer that they might walk out alive and make it home to enjoy that turkey dinner, that julbord, or that suckling pig.

2017 has been an unforgettable year on so many levels, one that has been predicated on fear. ISIS and its protégés continue to target innocent victims at random throughout the world. Lone gunmen in America are giving a new take to not knowing the day nor the hour. We don’t have to travel far to see how fear can be fomented by propaganda and political spin. Cyberwarfare is making its ugly self known, as the relative peace of the online world is being disrupted by ransomware and debilitating viruses. People in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Yemen, Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Mexico, Israel, Palestine and many other places, continue to live in uncertainty, watching the lives they have built being systematically destroyed as armed conflict rages. And nightmares are being relived as the Harvey Weinsteins of this world are unveiled.

Yes, 2017 is a year that many will want to mark ‘over’.

But in the few weeks we have left, the season of Advent is upon us, that time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity. Yes, it’s a Christian observance, but it’s one that’s made to be borrowed. My Advent challenge to you:

December 3 Make your Christmas shopping list. Think about giving the gift of experience this Christmas, rather than stuff people neither need nor want. Our time is one of the most precious gifts we can give.

December 4 Pay attention to the shop assistant or the ticket collector or the postman or whomever when you interact with them today. Look at them. Focus on them. Smile. Let them know you see them.

December 5 Pick up some litter off the street – even one piece. Someone might see you do it and do the same. You could be the start of something. And if not, your world will be a little cleaner.

December 6 Stop and say hi to a homeless person – ask if you can buy them a coffee or a bowl of soup – and then take the time to do it.

December 7 Buy a bunch of flowers from an old néni on the street or the metro and give it to your neighbour – or anyone – just because.

December 8 Visit a church you’ve not been to before and make three wishes. You don’t need to believe in God to enjoy the grace and quiet.

December 9 Donate some clothes you don’t wear to a shelter or a charity shop. How much stuff do you really need?

December 10 Pay for a coffee for the person behind you in the café. A random act of kindness can go a long way.

December 11 Send a Christmas card to someone who lives alone. Better still, go visit them.

December 12 Stand back and open the door for someone and do it with a smile.

December 13 Pick a charity and start saving your coins for a cause. Give it a year. Then donate the money.

December 14 Leave a big tip somewhere – just because. If they’ve given great service – they’re worth it. If they haven’t, you might inspire them to next time.

December 15 Pay someone a compliment, and mean it. Cheer them up.

December 16 Send words of encouragement to someone who might need it.

December 17 Tell someone special what they mean to you – a lot of times, we take close friends and family for granted and just assume that they know what they mean to us.

December 18 Leave a book in a public place for someone else to read and enjoy.

December 19 Walk down the street, nodding, smiling at, or saying hello to everyone you meet. So, they might think you’re mad, but it could catch on. And how much nicer the world would be if it did.

December 20 Treat a friend to something – a coffee, a cinema ticket, a beer. Just because.

December 21 Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, just to say hi.

December 22 Spend some time outdoors in a park, in a forest, or walking the streets. Embrace the cold.

December 23 Let someone go ahead of you in a queue.

December 24 Thank someone for something – and do it consciously.

Gratitude can make a difference.

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


To be published in the Budapest Times 15 December 2017

Dream your way out of this one

I brag about Budapest. I brag a lot. I brag to the point that I’m beginning to sicken my friends. Those who have been here to visit know what I’m talking about and don’t need reminding. Those who have yet to visit feel as if I’m nagging them. Enough, they say. Stop it. We’ll get there eventually.

It’s not just the fabulous architecture, the riverside vistas, or the city parks that gets me going. It’s not all about the excellent wines, the artery-clogging langós, and the famous marzipan. And it’s certainly not limited to the ruin pubs, the garden bars, and the rooftop venues. My main brag lately has been the sheer variety of affordable music that’s available any night of the week.

Homegrown talent like Frenk, Budapest Bár, and Quimby. Imported talent like Ripoff Raskolnikov and Ian Siegal who play in town so often they may as well be local. And Irish talent who pass through on tour.

This time last year, in November, we had the fabulous Little John Nee, who wowed the audience in Beckett’s and had us begging for more of his peculiar brand of story-telling and repartee. This month, we have Niall Connolly returning for two nights. He plays Club Pop Up in Zalaegerszeg on Sunday, 12th November and Beckett’s in Budapest on Monday, the 13th.

Credit: Art Heffron

Connolly is no stranger to Budapest. I first saw him as part of the The Voice & The Verse ensemble in Treehugger Dan’s on Lazar utca back when Treehugger Dan was doing his thing to entertain the masses and ensure quality entertainment at an affordable price. [Dan, we miss you.] The Budapest stops are usually part of epic tours that take in bars in Koloszvár, jazz clubs in Prague, bookstores in Kraków, and underground venues in Vienna. These boys will travel. And what both Nee and Connolly bring with them is their innate Irish ability to tell a good story. That, coupled with their talent as songsmiths, makes them special.

Connolly has played international festivals from Glastonbury UK to Cuala NYC in the USA.  He’s played the Prague Fringe, the Cork Folk Festival, and the Acoustic Festival in Düsseldorf. Classifying his music is beyond my limited arts vocabulary. I only know that I like it. But those in the know, like the Chicago Tribune, describes his stuff as folk-pop: ‘Terrific. Disarming and beautifully craft folk-pop.’ The Irish Independent says his stuff is very much ‘in the vein of early Dylan’ (and that I can see). No Depression says he’s ‘among the most vibrant, poignant, and authentic Indie folk artists in New York City.’

And it’s NYC that this Irish lad born in 1970’s Cork currently calls home.

In an interview about his album Sound, back in 2013, Connolly describes himself (and his songs) thus: ‘I’m interested in people, and as much as anyone, I’m sensitive to suffering of others, and I get riled up about things. And I love singing. I feel like if I’m going to write a song I better mean it. Because, the reality is, I’m going to sing that song hundreds, if not thousands of times. And I want to mean it every time.’ And it’s that authenticity that makes him memorable.

One of the many songs that resonates with me is one he wrote to commemorate James Connolly on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising last year. He wrote it from the perspective of JC’s daughter. Beautiful stuff.  And like everything else about both Connollys, there’s a story to this song, too. He first performed it as part of the Cuala NYC festival at Cooper Union in New York City, in a room where James Connolly himself had spoken many times. Then, later that year, the fab Glen Hansard (the Oscar-winning talent behind the song Falling Slowly from the movie, Once) asked him to perform it with him in Coughlan’s in Cork, and again on the roof of Apollo House in Dublin as part of the public protest against homelessness in Ireland. Hansard sings on the studio version of Connolly’s latest album Dream your way out of this one and, wait for it, Javier Mas (guitar player with Leonard Cohen for years) features on lead guitar. Our Irish lad has done good.

But, you might think, what appeal, if any, would Connolly and his repertoire have for a Hungarian audience? Funny you should ask. Hungary, not only Budapest, but also Győr, Szombathely, Debrecen, and Pécs have strong Irish connections. I’m very fond of quoting a line from James Michener’s 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, in which he describes Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. We share a sameness. Speaking with a Hungarian friend some time back, about the similarities between the two peoples, I quoted WB Yeats: 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?

Connolly’s songs are both sad and uplifting. They’re real. They speak to the goodness in people, that need to do something to make the world just a little better (Samurai). He identifies with universal troubles, with lines like ‘to bring home the bacon, you have to work with pigs’ that hit hard at modern-day compromises (Work with pigs). And lines like ‘I will not let the hatred in me change the man I try to be’ that speak to the fear that is choking twenty-first-century living (No cause of alarm). I’ve listened to the album several times now, and find that at each listen, a different song draws me in. And lately, one I’d really like my politicians to listen to, on repeat, is Open your eyes. Open your eyes to all that’s true and good.

Do yourself a favour. If you’re in town, go see him in Beckett’s on 13 November. He’s live. He’s true. And he’s good.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 November 2017





Timeless elegance

In the Corinthia Hotel recently for breakfast, I was struck by the timeless elegance of this grand institution. One of the Maltese-owned stable of hotels in the Corinthia Group, it’s a city landmark. My colleague, a regular visitor, struck up a conversation with a waiter, an older man whose manner and bearing embodied the style and elegance of the setting. It was as if someone had pressed a button and I was back in a time when hotels were more than rooms with beds and their guests more than passing trade. I wanted an introduction.

Sometime later, I sat down with Ernő Varga and his friend and colleague Tibor Meskál to have what I hope will be the first of many conversations.

Ernő Varga

Both men, now in their seventies, have spent a lifetime in the hospitality business. They’ve seen the changes brought by the turn of the century and speak wistfully of a time when waiting was a trained profession rather than something young people did to get them through college.

Both started as apprentices in the Corinthia when it re-opened back in 1961 as the Grand Hotel Royal. Varga spoke of a time when they had teachers, experts who trained them to recognise class and behave appropriately. How they stood, moved, spoke – it was a little like being in the military, he said, with a smile. Back then, as a waiter, he could afford handmade shoes and tailored suits. His profession was one that was valued.

Up till the late 1980s, hotels in Budapest were run by a government-owned company that moved staff around according to need. There was a hierarchy back then, with the Grand Hotel topping the list. It always had salmon and caviar and olives and exotic fruit while, say, the Gellert and the Astoria would only get these treats on special occasions. Varga received an all-round training and is, as Meskál put it, home and host in all areas. For 10 years, he ran Fekete Holló, a restaurant in the Castle District, on a profit-sharing scheme with the government, but was outbid when it was auctioned in the privatisation of 1993. In 2004, he returned to the Grand Hotel Royal (now the Corinthia), where he works mornings and covers breakfast.

As much an institution as the hotel itself, this quietly spoken man (who, as district champion, regularly beats 20-year-olds at ping pong) oozes style. He shares his wealth of knowledge and experience with new waiters, schooling them in the skills they need to perform well on the restaurant stage. It is a delight to watch him at work, to see his attentiveness to detail and the pleasure he takes in doing what he does and doing it well.


Tibor Meskál


The path Meskál took was slightly different. This debonair septuagenarian is now Senior Duty Manager at the Corinthia and judging by the number of times his phone rang, he’s in demand. He, too, apprenticed in the Grand Hotel Royal from 1961, later moving to Gundel, where he won a waiter competition in 1963. And he, too, knows his trade.

Meskál left Hungary in 1966, following the path of not-so-true love which took him to Australia via a refugee camp in Italy and cafés in Rome. In Australia, he met a Hungarian woman who would eventually bring him back home.

He spoke of the history of the grand hotels in Budapest, of the climate of 1896 that left its mark on these institutions. Szabadság híd, then Franz Joseph bridge, was opened. Work on Parlament had finished. Metro 1 was in operation. The Grand Hotel Royal was the first hotel to be built around a Turkish bath, one of many in the city. It held afternoon tea dances in the Palm Courtyard which attracted milliners and shop assistants, accountants and tailors, factory workers and lawyers, everyone turned out in their best attire. Class divisions were parked at the door as classiness and style won out inside.

Back in the 1960s, hotels in London, Paris, and Zurich were seen as the pinnacle of service, with professional waiters who revelled in their trade. Today, he says, waiters are prostituted by restaurant owners, paid little for poor work, and dependent on tips to pay their rent. A far cry from Varga’s handmade shoes and tailored suits of the 1960s. Hotels take people off the street, many of whom can’t set a table. They may have the look but they lack the style. Things, he said, are spiralling downwards.

But in Australia, in the New World, the opposite is happening. Back in the late 1960s when Meskál first arrived, the country didn’t have a School of Gastronomy. Waiting was not a recognised profession. But when European emigrants like himself came ashore and went to work in the country’s finest hotels, they brought their style with them. The Sydney Opera House opened its doors in 1973, the same year that the School of Gastronomy opened, too. The spokes of the hospitality wheel were finally recognised as skilled trades.

Meskál, who himself has twice served the Queen of England, was one of the first professionals in the country to take apprentices under his wing. Those first six, who started at the Sydney Hilton, still visit him today. Three have their own restaurants, two manage hotels, and one left the fold to become a landscape gardener.

When he came back to Budapest in 1996, Meskál went to work in the Intercontinental, a hotel in which the Vatican once held shares. Sought after for his international experience and his innate understanding of the psyche of the Hungarian waiter, he began a new chapter. He himself had once learned from the masters. Now it was time to return the favour.

Today he’s involved in training, lecturing at the  Schnitta Sámuel Association for Hungarian Restaurant Culture. There’s a book in the offing and an instructional film for those who want to learn the art of waiting. And it is an art. Or rather, it was. Both he and Varga are on a mission to save the waiting world and to reawaken the style and class they both embody.

Gentlemen, it was a pleasure chatting with you.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 October 2017

Hitting the spot

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years.

Some time ago, a colleague decided to take two weeks’ holiday. He told the boss that he’d be unavailable. He was going somewhere to switch off: no laptop, no smartphone, no connection to anyone other than those he was with. He wanted a break. The boss was a little piqued. Surely he could find time in the day to check his emails? And if it took an hour to answer them, was that too much to ask? My colleague needed to get with the programme. To come in line with twenty-first-century living. He needed to live up to expectations. But my colleague was adamant. He got his two weeks.

Not being part of the structured work system, some might argue that I’m on a permanent holiday. I can work from wherever I have an Internet connection. The downside is that I’m always working and rarely, if ever, am I completely offline for more than a couple of days. My choice. My lot. My decision. But summer has a way of being summer. In Ireland at the start of the season, I was basking in a cool 14 degrees when friends in Budapest were melting in 40. At breakfast one morning I noticed how everyone was in their summer gear – sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, sandals – even though it was cold and wet outside. No matter the weather, summer is summer.

I know I’m in summer mode when I start to plan everything I want to do over the three months or so from June to August. I make a list of places I want to visit, seasonal restaurants I want to try and other summer-dependent spots I want to take in. The plan being that once tried and tested, I can then take my summer visitors to enjoy them, too.

But invariably, there are some gems I discover too late, just as they’re about to close, their money made, their season over.

A friend of mine recently spent 11 days walking around the Balaton – some 244 km. She’s a natural researcher and had done her homework before turfing up to some village or other. She wanted to discover the best of what’s out there so that she could then share her finds. Two in particular are worth noting. For next year.

The lakeside village of Vonyarvashegy is on the north shore of the Balaton and is home to about 2000 people. The strand is well-tended, a lovely open spot offering access to the lake for people with disabilities. Popular with German tourists, it has a bigger-than-usual restaurant offer, perhaps the smallest of which is The Spot Grill & Bar. In its third year of operation, this little gem opens from 21 May to 10 September, offering trout, chicken, salads, and the requisite Balaton burgers. Probably tired of people dithering between ordering a burger or a langós (both summer favourites), the chef decided to join the two and instead of a burger bun, has encased the patty in a langós. Genius. The desserts, both of them, are seconds material. The tiramisu (the Italian pick-me=up) could have come from Treviso, Italy, and the cheesecake, served in a glass, is delicious. The cocktail list is decidedly upmarket with the Cosmopolitan made from cranberries – something hard to find in Hungary. Added to the excellent food, the simple décor, and the fresh feel of it all is the excellent service. Robert has it nailed – always available, never intrusive, and very helpful. The Spot could hold its own just about anywhere. Class all the way.

The much smaller village of Káptalantóti swells in size for the Sunday market, Liliomkert. Hundreds of visiting tourists and summer residents (mainly German) descend on the place, turning the village into an obstacle course and the local fields into parking lots. With everything from a jar of honey to a kitchen dresser on offer, the place is a mecca for those looking for a piece of Hungary to take home. Nestled in the heart of the Badacsony wine region, the village has several vineyards of note, my current favourite being the Sabar Borház.

The enterprising local tourist board has organised a hop-on, hop-off wine bus that leaves the village 7 times daily every two hours to visit local vineyards.  A daily ticket will set you back 1500 ft. A must for next year. This year, I settled for a stop-off at Istvándy Winery. The restaurant was booked solid, which is no wonder, considering that everything on the menu is locally sourced – even the beef, which come from the herd of grey cattle looking over the fence. The panoramic vista of the Balaton and the vineyards is stunning. And, testament to the attention this family-run business pays to its customers, those of us sprawled on picnic blankets (supplied) on the hill below the restaurant didn’t feel the slightest bit cheated. As we ate our toasted sambos (mangalica pork and trout were the two on offer that day), sipped our grape-juice fröccs (so tasty I could actually fool myself into thinking I was drinking wine), and enjoyed the view, it struck me that life couldn’t get much better.

The summer is nearly over. The cool evenings are setting in. And as the autumn raises its head over the parapet, I can enjoy my favourite time of year knowing I have a head start on what I’ll do in summer 2018.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 September 2017


Hungary happened

I’m not a great one for making plans. Most of my major life decisions were taken on the spur of the moment. I’m definitely a heart-over-head type. There’s a closetful of clichés that talk about regret, and intuition, and going with your gut, and if I had a rule by which to live, it would be to go for what feels right. At the time.

Some 10 years ago, I decided to see what it would be like to spend time in Budapest. I knew nothing of the city other than a glimpse I’d had on two separate weekend trips some four years apart: one in the dead of winter and the second in an unseasonably warm spring. I liked what I saw. I liked the feel of the place. And I’m on record as saying that I believe Budapest has an energy about it that I’ve not found anywhere else. I’ve been at my most productive here and somehow, everything seems possible, even when I’m banging my head off a bureaucratic brick wall and decrying the city’s ability to make the simplest act hair-tearingly complex.

I’ve seen the city change. District VIII is a case in point. Ten years ago, it was probably the least desirable address to have in the city. Today, with the development around Corvin Negyed, Corvin Sétany, and the walk between Klinikak and Nagyvarad tér, it’s one of the most attractive. The castle district has undergone a facelift as has the parliament and a host of other buildings and churches that dot the skyline. Shops and restaurants and cafés have come and gone but the delightful old stalwarts are still there, places which take enjoying a cup to an art level.

The politics hasn’t changed much. The pendulum swung a little left and then a little further right but it keeps swinging. Antisemitism, never far from the surface, is obvious to greater and lesser degrees. Likewise, the pervasive attitude to the Roma. Public involvement in how the country is run has enjoyed various upswings and downswings with the passivity scale hitting minus figures at times. Hopefully, though, it’s on its way back.

Like a lot of capital cities, Budapest is often perceived as epitomising the whole of the country. Those who have visited on a weekend break will claim to have been to Hungary in the same way as Dublin tourists think they know Ireland and Parisian visitors think they know France. But if I’ve learned one thing over the course of the ten years that I’ve been spending time in Budapest, it’s that Budapest is not Hungary, not in its entirety. It’s like a city-state within a larger state, where time runs faster, imbued with an urgency and a sense of must-do or must-be-seen-to-be-doing that sets it aside from other cities in the country.

Like every other country on the global map, Hungary has its detractors and its supporters. Blanket statements of Hungarians being miserable, never smiling, always complaining, amuse me. I file them in the same bin as claims that every Irish person is an alcoholic or every German was born with a punctiliousness that borders on pedantry.  They’re simply not true. But perhaps, if you were to view the city’s inhabitants on any morning, when the army of workers wends its way to their desks, then yes, perhaps the smiles might be missing. As they are in London, or Dublin, or Paris, or any major city where the populace moves in synchronised droves at given times.

I read a series of posts recently from expats who had lived or spent some time in Hungary and apart from a few positives, they were overwhelmingly negative. The Hungarian fear of foreigners. The high levels of corruption. The chronic homelessness. The poor wages. The high costs (relative to other EU countries like Spain and Italy). The unwillingness to help strangers. The language difficulties. And I’m sure that all complaints are valid, not imagined, but very real to those who wrote in. I can still remember bawling my eyes out in frustration walking down the körút having failed dismally to make myself understood and having been dismissed unceremoniously from a shop by a sales assistant who told me that I was too big for their clothes.

But it’s unfair to say that a Budapest experience constitutes the Hungarian reality, just as a Berlin experience isn’t Germany and a Pretoria experience isn’t South Africa.

Bureaucracy is a symptom of city life. Harried people live in fast-paced cities. Those looking in from the outside tend to focus on the centre of policy, on where the politicians meet, on where the cruise ships dock. International reporting is naturally drawn to the headliners. And the result is a pixelated picture of Hungary that however accurate in isolated detail, leaves a lot to be desired as a complete image.

Go outside the city. Visit other cities. Go to Veszprém or to Keszthely or to Vác and see how different they are. Spend time in the villages and market towns and see how inordinately helpful people are. See the lengths they go to, to circumvent the petty bureaucracy because they have the time to see how inane the rules are. Witness how non-English-speaking locals make Herculean efforts to understand and make themselves understood. They, too, have the time. And time makes a difference.

Ten years ago, a tarot card reader in Brighton told me that I’d spend 10 years in Budapest. I didn’t believe them. That’s wasn’t part of the plan I didn’t have. But life has a way of taking over and things simply happen. Hungary happened.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 August 2017

Something to think about, with Ealy Mays

What I know about art could be written on the back of a postcard. My approach is simple: if it speaks to me, I like it. If it says nothing, then no matter how much the artist is revered by others, no matter how many times they’ve been exhibited or how often they’ve been critically acclaimed, I can’t get excited.

I go to exhibitions of work by the greats so I can decide whether they speak to me. So far, I’m drawing blanks. While individual paintings speak – like Whistler’s Reading by lamplight (which is technically an etching), or Van Gogh’s Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette, or Monet’s The Magpie – I cannot say that I’m a fan of any one painter’s body of work. I don’t prefer a particular style, or rate a particular form (although I am rather partial to pen-and-ink). But that might be about to change.

A couple of years ago, a young Hungarian friend of mine, Timea Klincsek, introduced me to the work of Ealy Mays. She was quite excited about it. Living in Paris at the time, she had met Mays through a Polish friend Barbara Brzoska, who was, in a sense, his agent. Mays and Brzoska had met in a bar one night in 2012 and got to talking about art and broken hearts. She went to see some of his exhibitions and became a fan. The following year, when Mays had a falling out with his agent, Brozska stepped in and began organising exhibitions for the artist around the city. In 2014, Klincsek joined what is now the Ealy Mays Attelier (EMA) team and, together, the two young women restored Mays’ faith in agents. They collaborated with rising stars in the fashion and jewellery world to create events that appealed to diverse audiences. Brzoska brought with her a background in Art History and her familiarity with the Parisian art scene, while Klincsek, having studied Fashion and Journalism, added new strengths to the team. [Official website: ealymays.com]

The two young women were impressed with Mays’ honesty. He, in turn, showed them a side of Paris they wouldn’t normally have seen. He introduced them to American, Russian, and Mexican art history, and through his social and political commentary, exposed them to new worlds. ‘His work doesn’t just reflect his own community, but captures experiences of many different cultural backgrounds, making his artwork a never-ending journey. There is always something new to discover both in his art and in his character’, says Klincsek. Mays does what other artists often fail to do: he makes people think.

He is fond of saying that ‘every new idea comes from an old book’. And while he often quotes his father’s advice of imitate, initiate, and create, he insists on originality in thought, form, and composition. Resisting the urge to conform and caring little about the opinions of art critics, Mays’ originality is what makes him special.

Born in 1959 in Wichita Falls, Texas, USA, Mays started painting at the age of 4. When he was 8, he had a piece exhibited in the White House. Yet despite such auspicious beginnings, he would forsake his passion and choose instead to follow the path carved out by his father and two older brothers, medical doctors all. He opted to study medicine at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara in Mexico, so that he could indulge his passion for art. While he studied, he painted. His Last Train to Chihuahua, an evocative portrayal of a revolution-era train arriving at a station, received a lot of coverage by the local press.

Back in the USA, his work came to the attention of Jacob Lawrence, the most widely acclaimed African-American artist of the twentieth century. In a letter of reference to the Studio Museum in Harlem, Lawrence described Mays as a ‘pure painter’, emphasising his natural talent and his audacity in never following the crowd. Not bad, considering Mays hadn’t received a whit of formal training.

In search of an ‘intellectual environment to think, to breathe, to paint’ Mays moved to Paris in the 1990s where his series The Migration of the Superheroes was twice exhibited at the Carrousel du Louvre, once in 2005 and again in 2007. Mays sees himself as a social critic. His work embodies ethnicity, politics, history, religion, and satire. And yes, it makes you think.

Now living back in Budapest, Klincsek decided it was time that her home city got to see Mays in person. And again, she’s quite excited. Although the art and collector circle in Budapest is not anywhere near the scale it is in Paris, there’s a curiosity in the city, an appetite for new work, and a willingness to introduce international artists to Hungarian art lovers.

As a self-confessed neophyte, I’m quite taken with this piece A Savior is Born and had I $20 000 or so to spend, it would be on my wall. I’m even more enthralled by Cosmic Cloud, a piece that took me places and gave me lots to think about. I’m hoping these two will be included in Mays’ Budapest debut. Think outside the box – an Ealy Mays retrospective 1987-2017, showcasing 30 years of his work, opens at the Pintér Gallery (Falk Miska Utca 10) on 20 July and runs until the end of the month, Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6pm and Saturdays, 10 am to 2pm.

I’m looking forward to meeting the artist in person; I believe he will be in attendance most days. I’m also looking forward to seeing Brzoska and Klincsek in action. Their passion, their drive, and their determination in promoting Mays’ work is admirable. He’s fortunate indeed to have two great women behind him.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 July 2017

AGGI rocks!!!

The world has gone off kilter. We’re in the midst of a big family feud that is pitting sister against brother, spreading to neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend. Our politics are polarising. Opinions are expected. It’s not fashionable to simply not know, to be neutral, to admit to being unqualified to decide. Sides must be taken.  And as we become increasingly quick to point out how others are different, consumerism is wielding its sameness over the world. Ikea-furnished flats, be they in Budapest or Adelaide or Dubai, lend a stagnancy to travel. Chain restaurants like TGI Fridays, with a presence on all five continents, are serving up the same fare. Clothing stores like Zara are dressing up the sameness from Albania to Vietnam and everywhere in between. Is it any wonder we’re confused?

I’ve noticed lately that I’m drawn to the odd, the peculiar. I’m craving the remarkable, the unusual. I’m sick of more of the same. My faith in tomorrow is weakening. I’ve been out and about, talking to people of all ages, from all walks of life, and were I to invent a new word to describe the mood in my tangential world, it would be ‘saimless’.

People are treading water waiting to see what will happen next, forgetting that life waits for no man. Plans have been derailed by various elections and failing pension funds. There’s an uncertainty in the 20-somethings, and indeed the 30-somethings, who seem directionless, flitting from one job to another, from one career to another, if they’re lucky enough to have either. Even the attractiveness of the much-touted nomadic lifestyle made possible by the Internet is wearing thin. Decisions are being postponed. Life is being put on hold.  Wait and see is what it’s about.

Yep, I’d made myself pretty miserable thinking of the perceived futility of it all. I wanted to take the world by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake. Yell at it to wake up, to take charge, to get out there and make it happen. And then I met AGGI – her of the all caps.

(c) Paul Mc

The 22-year-old from Gyomaendrőd in Békés county moved to Budapest about six years ago. She’s studying English Literature and American Studies at Károli Gáspár University and plans to graduate early next year. Her dissertation focus is on Stephen King’s novel, Rose Madder, in which he deals with the bruising issue of domestic violence. She has a keen interest in gender issues and woman power and is determined her voice will be heard. Although born in Hungary, AGGI feels very much a citizen of the world and wishes that we’d all simply just get along. The concept of being foreign is one she abhors.

Most of all though, what AGGI wants is to be herself. Not a carbon copy of some other 22-year-old, pressurized by expectations to fit someone else’s preconception of who she should be. She doesn’t want to be told what she should or should not do with her life. She has a plan. She knows what she wants. And she’s making it happen.

A few months ago, AGGI teamed up with songwriters and fellow musicians Terry Etheridge (Tuesday Night Rodeo) and Joey MacOnkay (Paddy and the Rats). Introduced by mutual friends, the lads discovered in AGGI a unique voice, a quiet certainty of her worth, and a determination to make life happen. They’d been on the look-out for new talent, someone who stood out from the sameness that pervades the Hungarian music scene (and so much of the world).  Things are going well; they’ve already recorded six songs and are working on an album and they’re actively seeking band members. So, if you’re interested, get in touch.

AGGI splits her time between university, her part-time job as a cashier, and the recording studio. I was curious to know if the stage version of herself is very different to the one I was having coffee with. I noticed a little of the rock-chick going on, but hers is more of an understated style than her idol Pink. Yet the individuality is definitely there. When I listened to her music, I could hear strains of Debbie Harry in her voice and perhaps a tinge of Transvision Vamp in her music, but show me an artist anywhere who hasn’t been influenced by another and I’ll jog all the way to next Tuesday.

Her focus in high school was on business and economics. Today she’s studying English. Both will serve her well when she hits the market and the world opens up to her music. She writes and sings in English because it travels better. She graduates next year, but her career as a musician already takes centre stage. She’s lucky in that she has a supportive family who believe in her and what she’s doing. There’s no pattern set, no script for her to follow.  She gets to write it as she lives it. They’re happy for her to be the best that she can be. And she’s happy making it happen.

Ours wasn’t a long conversation. She was rushing to work, I was already late for a meeting. But in the time we did get to chat, AGGI did more to ease my angst than a week on valium. In her, I can hope. In her, I can believe. And I don’t doubt for a minute that she will make it happen.

Rock on, sister. Rock on.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 June 2017.


Other people’s lives

There is a growing discontent in the air in Budapest. Something that goes beyond the normal level of human complaint. What I’m hearing now is more systemic, more worrying.

A friend announced recently that he planned to leave Hungary. To emigrate. I was surprised. I asked why. Why now? He said his friends are polarised, on one side or the other. Lines are being drawn. Sides are being chosen. His career has been stymied. He’s been branded by those in power as being pro-Jewish, one who surrounds himself with liberals. He feels he’s left with no other option. I heard strains of the Hollywood cliché: you’ll never work in this town again.

Another told me of hearing friends of their 14-year-old daughter talk about how bad Brussels is, about how dangerous it is for Hungary to be a member of the EU, about how we need to detach ourselves. When they asked the teens why they thought this, they said they’d read the billboards, they’d seen the advertisements, they’d heard the government speak. They are 14. They are our future. And whatever they are being taught in school apparently doesn’t involve critical thinking.

A third, a lecturer at a higher-level institution, told me of a student walking into the classroom with twenty minutes to go in the tenth of a twelve-lesson series. This was his first time to come to class. He wanted to write the four essay assignments he’d missed because he needed to pass the class. In twenty minutes? No. He expected my friend to stay that afternoon and supervise. To work, for free, to accommodate his schedule. When they said no, he accused them of being inflexible. He was a sportsman. These lessons were interfering with his play. They needed to be more accommodating. That my friend had already extended the deadlines for each assignment to accommodate the litany of excuses from a body of students who didn’t seem to understand the concept of deadlines was neither here nor there. After a tirade of abuse, he left, promising to take it further.

Another lecturer-friend told me how their bonus (an extra payment on top of their pittance of a salary) was tied to the students’ appraisal of their teaching. I was gobsmacked. So, if you are lax in your teaching, flexible with your deadlines, kind in your marking, you will make more money but your students will be ill-prepared for the world that awaits them. But if you are rigorous in your teaching, steadfast in your deadlines, and critical in your marking, you lose out. The students will gain, but you will lose. Why are teachers in Hungary undervalued so? They are responsible for producing the minds that will govern tomorrow. Education is a crucial part of shaping our future. Why is it being undermined? The new laws affecting CEU are high-profile, but the problems appear to run right through the education system.

But the most disturbing conversation I’ve had in recent weeks struck me as encapsulating the palpable frustration of a society that seems to be imploding. There’s a building in Buda where one tenant has been intimidating his neighbours for years. House meetings are no longer attended because of the abuse he hurls at the other tenants. He has sabotaged plans to improve the building so it’s decaying. It’s a small house. Many of the tenants are retired couples who have lived there since it was first built. They’re good people, another friend told me. They want little more than a safe environment in which to live. One free of harassment. A community that works together for a common cause.

They tried hiring external companies to manage the upkeep of the building and the common cost each of them pays towards its maintenance. In the last seven years, five such firms have quit because of this one man and his bullying behaviour. Now, the word is out. The monthly common cost has spiralled upwards because each new company wants an exorbitant fee to manage this one tenant.

His life is consumed with filing lawsuits against the tenants’ association, petty suits that don’t stand up in court. And while he might lose, it costs the other tenants money to defend themselves. Pleas to the courts to recognise what he is doing have gone unheeded. The courts have seen his record. They know what he’s at. But they keep hearing him out.

Time is being wasted. Reputations are being ruined. General funds are being depleted. And his attacks are not limited to his fellow tenants. When individually they hire someone to work on their flats or to fix, say, lights in the hallways, he harasses these workers, too. Like the management companies, they also require what amounts to ‘danger money’ to work there. He has physically assaulted one tenant, verbally abused the others. The police were once called to forcibly remove him from the Management company’ office. His verbal rants have been documented on video, to little avail. The nightmare continues.

The courts have let them down. The property management companies are reluctant to get involved and charge exorbitant prices to do so.  The legal system isn’t helping. And a group of people who simply want to live peaceably with their neighbours is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. As long as he’s in residence, their flats won’t sell. So, they can’t move. With little option but to stay and persevere, they’re forced to live in the shadow of a blustering bully who picks on the vulnerable, stands in the way of development, and is seemingly determined to ruin his own little fiefdom.

These people are at their wits’ end. If you’re a lawyer, and have a suggestion, let me know. If you’re a tenant with experience of handling such a situation, please comment. If you can help at all, get in touch. Doing nothing shouldn’t be the last resort.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2017

More than a cosmetic fix

Social media has been agog this week with video footage of a homeless Spanish guy who was given a make-over by an upmarket salon in Palma celebrating its third anniversary in business. They transformed him from scraggy, grey-haired, bearded tramp to hippy hipster, and no doubt changed his life for the good.

José Antonio has been homeless and living on the street for the last 25 years or so. He earns a few bob as an unlicenced parking attendant. Last week, his make-over went viral. He cried when he saw the transformation. I cried when I saw it, too.

More than a few lifetimes ago, my then boss advised me to invest in my hair, nails, and glasses as these are accessories I wear every day. I took this advice to heart and pay over the odds for my hair and glasses, preferring to cut my budget in other areas to compensate for these extravagances. I have that option. For many though, particularly those who are jobless, homeless, and fighting to keep their families together, haircuts and manicures are an unaffordable luxury.  And yet, if they want to have any hope of getting a job that will lift them out of the cycle of poverty in which they are spinning, they need to look the part. Salons, like the one in Palma, are fleeting ministrations to an all-too permanent need.

Ten years ago, Magdolna Rózsa was working in a posh beauty salon in Brussels opposite the European Parliament, styling the rich and famous. Today, she’s a social worker in Budapest’s XIVth district ministering to the not-so-rich and even less famous. She’s still cutting hair, doing nails, and giving make-overs, but she’s doing it at no cost to her clients, many of whom are jobless, homeless, and looking for a way to get back on track.

So, what’s new, you say. MASNI (Munkaerő-piaci Aktivizálást Segítő Nőbarát Iroda) has been doing this in the VIIth district for ages. There, social workers work alongside hairstylists, manicurists, and beauticians to prepare women for work. Magdolna … she does it all.

(C) Kaszás Krisztián

A qualified hairstylist, beautician, and nail technician, she also holds a Bachelor’s in Social Work and is currently studying for her Master’s. Her clients don’t just go to her for a chat and a make-over. They bring their issues, their problems, their needs. And she’s eminently qualified to dish up help and advice while putting the finishing touches to that French polish or dying those roots.

Since inception, in January 2017, Tükörkép Műhely, a project proposed and sponsored by the district’s Deputy Mayor, Rebeka Szabó, has seen about 150 clients: men, women, and children alike. Employed full time by the Zuglói Családsegítő Központ (Family Care Center), Magdolna opens shop in small, two-room salon funded by the Önkormányzat (Mayor’s Office), located at Erzsébet Királyné útca 89 for two days each week. Unlike a traditional beauty salon or barber shop, often portrayed as gossip centres and meeting points, Magdolna sees just one client at a time. Her clients are sent to her by way of a voucher from the Family Services Centre entitling them to an SOS makeover (hair and make-up as preparation for a job interview) or the full works (hair, face, and nails) as a mental health need we all have, that emotional fix for when life gets too much to handle without help.

For the other three days, Magdolna works purely as a social worker. Her goal, though, is to work the social salon full-time. She wants to set up a Foundation to make it happen, to offer these services, free of charge, to people in need from all over the city, not just from Zugló.  She wants more beauticians and stylists to get the basic qualification required to work in social work so that this particular blend of skills can be put to good use. [And she’s in need of a pro bono book-keeper.]

During the conversations she’s had with her clients, Magdolna has seen other needs emerge. A clean shirt. A smart jacket.  A pair of decent shoes. Even a bus ticket to get to the job interview. Some clients are hungry for nutritious as well as cosmetic sustenance. They have kids who haven’t had a new toy in years. They’re in temporary housing hoping against hope to get a job that will right their world. Magdolna does what she can.

Crammed into her two-roomed salon are clothes, shoes, and toys, all donated for her clients. They can come here, find an outfit, get a new look, and leave with hope in their hearts and a spring in their step.

A single mother of two, Magdolna has first-hand experience of how life can knock you over. Her 10-year-old son celebrates two birthdays. One is the day he was born, the other the day he was reborn. Three years ago, he had a bone-marrow transplant and is currently symptom free. Yet it will take another two years for doctors to certify that the Leukemia has left his body for good. What spare time she has when not looking after her kids, working full-time, and attending university for two days every other weekend, Magdolna donates to homeless shelters and other temporary homes. She regularly organises job-seeker events with the district, preparing her clients mentally and physically for meetings with potential employers at mini job-fairs.

Hair dye, hair products, nail polish and creams don’t come cheap. Magdolna works with local suppliers and distributors, often translating product information from English to Hungarian taking payment in product. Recently, the charity arm of the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, in recognition of what she is accomplishing, has offered to help out. Members will soon go to redecorate the salon, and kit it out with shelves, mirrors, and wardrobes. Check the IHBC Facebook page for details.

This is how we change the world: one small project at a time.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 April 2017