Selflessness in action

The village of Tarnabod sits 113 km east of Budapest. A shadow of its former self, today success and plenty are but a memory. Like other villages in rural Hungary, things are bad in Tarnabod. Jobs are scarce, resources few. And, for many villagers, by the last Saturday of the month, food and money have run out.

In 2011, Gabriella, a then Budapest-based journalist, visited the village to do a piece on child poverty. It was the beginning of a journey that saw her and her best friend and fellow journalist Kata, getting involved in making life a little easier for the locals. Tarnabod és mi (Tarnabod and us) was born. What started as donations of food, clothes, and cleaning materials has grown into solid support. Their relationship with the village is open and trusting, and their help is much appreciated.  When the kids go back to school, Kata & Co., provide school supplies. When the football team needs new boots, they are there. When the village needs hot food, they’re there, too.

Photo by Péter Horgas / Tarnabod és Mi

The Saturday I was there, it was -12°C. I watched as Chef Daniel, from Revolucíon Budapest, one of the city’s top Tex-Mex restaurants (Akácfa u. 57), and his team tried valiantly to get the barrel fires going. They were there to cook a hot stew for the villagers (all 600 or so of them). They’ve been doing this every month in winter and every second month in summer since 2015.  They worked outside, on open fires, in freezing temperatures. When the food was ready, word went around and the people came to collect.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Up the road, in the tanoda (study hall), Zsuzsa and her gang from Caledonia Social Bites prepared hot chocolate. We were lucky. We got to work inside. In the next room visiting singers, musicians, and storytellers entertained the kids. The place rocked. Two of the local young lads have gotten places in a gymnastic school in Budapest – one is particularly talented and destined for great things. They both come from large families with unemployed parents. This scholarship is their way out of the cycle of poverty in which the village is mired. And that’s Kata’s aim – to show the kids that they can have a life outside the village, that theirs can be a different world.

As we worked, I met other volunteers from other groups, all there to contribute in their own way. Volunteers like 20-year-old Selina, German born of Turkish descent, who’s spending her gap year working in Tarnabod. An Order of Malta programme funds her food and accommodation and gives her pocket money in return for the work she does at the preschool, the kindergarten, the primary school, and the tanoda. There are far more glamorous places to spend a gap year, but a 10-day student exchange to Debrecen sealed her fate. Selina fell for Hungary in a big way and wanted to contribute to the greater good. She’s one of a group of 12 young people on the programme from Spain, Germany, and Poland aged 18–29 who are volunteering around the country, giving of their time and energy and getting invaluable life experience in return. The kids love her and she gives every ounce of that love back, and more besides.

A car pulled up. Heni and Szilvia had arrived from Debrecen with bags of clothes. They got involved with Tarnabod és mi after experiencing first-hand how activism and volunteerism work. For nearly 80 days straight they worked their day jobs and then helped man the train station in Debrecen from 6pm till 1am helping refugees figure out where they were going. With a multinational student cohort at the local university, they had lots of willing translators and interpreters who juggled exam schedules to be available. Since then, the pair have continued to do what they can for those in need. They joined forces with the Bike Mafia in Debrecen to feed the homeless and are in the process of setting up an NGO.

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

A couple of weeks ago, a Roma family in the village of Sáp heard a knock on the door. Officials came and removed their 8 youngest kids and 2 grandkids to places unknown, saying that the house wasn’t fit for kids to live in (the family had just moved in). For three days, the parents didn’t know where the children had been taken. The dad’s boss posted a request for help on his Facebook page, a request that was brought to Szilvia’s attention. Thanks to local volunteers and community donations, within 6 days the house had a new fitted kitchen and new floors. It was fully furnished and carpeted. The cupboards were stocked with food, the wardrobes filled with clothes. The kids are expected home soon.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

The hot chocolate went down a treat. It did this jaded heart good to see so many smiling, laughing faces, despite the odds. Because the odds ain’t good. And despite there being people willing to give of themselves and their time for no other reason than to help others, naysayers, politics, and egos can thwart the best of intentions. What’s needed is action. What’s needed are more people like the Tarnabod crew – people who do more than sit around a table and discuss the whys and wherefores of possibilities; people who recognise a need and act on it.

Yes, there will be those who show up for the photo opp. And perhaps the gloved volunteers who went to draw with kids in a refugee camp did more harm than good.  But as long as the Katas in this world make things happen, there is hope.  And today, more than ever, we need to work together, to give of ourselves, to do what we can to redress the imbalance and mitigate the fear being fomented by those in charge of our world.

PS: The villagers badly need gloves – all sizes. The collection point is Jurányi Produkciós Ház, II. District, Jurányi u.1. Give what you can. Make a difference.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2017

The proof is in the passion

For me, wine falls in to the same category as music and art:  I know what I like and what I don’t like. I have friends who delight in wine, who have made it their business to educate themselves about the various grapes and vintages. They speak knowingly about bouquets and noses using words and phrases that turn their English into a language I neither recognise nor understand. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I think them quite pretentious. But that says far more about me than it does about them; I’m well versed in my own limitations.

That said, I like my wine. I like discovering new wineries. And I like to know what its story is, what makes it special. But I’d given up on wine tastings. I don’t like being patronised or preached to and when pretentiousness comes with a price and little or no time to really savour the wine, I’m not impressed. I don’t need to know the technicalities and I have no great desire to learn the language. I just want a few good stories accompanied by some interesting wines in comfortable surroundings.

A few weeks ago, in search of a new Siller (that Hungarian lovely that is darker than a rosé but not dark enough to be a red), I ambled into VinoPiano Bor & Tapas Bár, part of the Élesztőház offer at Tűzoltó utca 22 in Budapest’s IXth district. Their sommelier, the very unassuming Kiss Ferenc, had told me that he was expecting some new bottles and I went to sample. Having introduced me to three new wineries, two new Siller, and a very interesting Olaszreisling that I’ve been wowing friends with since, I decided that he was a man I could listen to.

We were expecting family for the New Year, most of whom had never been to Hungary before, so I booked a wine tasting for 3pm on the 29th of December. There would be 11 of us. I was promised six wines, tapas, and some good stories. Kiss delivered in spades.

VinoPiano is noted for only stocking natural wines. I was a little disconcerted to hear that 90-95% of wines contain a variety of the 3000 or so legal chemicals used in modern-day viniculture. I’m an avid label reader but apparently these legal chemical don’t have to be disclosed. Mmmmm….

With the general introduction to winemaking in Hungary over, Kiss took us on a tour of the country. He’d taken my request to heart and produced only what I would call ‘interesting’ wines. He peppered his educational talk with anecdotes and trivia from the country’s wine history, going with the flow and taking his cue from the volume of talk around the table.

The first wine on the card was a 2008 white from Lenkey Pincészet in Mád. That year, they managed to produce 3216 bottles instead of around 15 000 because of a very aggressive mildew. This white, aptly named Túlélő (survivor) was one of them; a dry Furmint-Hárslevelű-Muskotály blend that we liked.

Next, we visited Somló, the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, comprising just 560 hectares. We went to Sághegy, to sample the notable 2011 Sághegyi Olaszrizling from Dénes Tibor whose 2.5-hectare vineyard uses minimum technology to deliver the ultimate in craft wine-making. For a reason I can’t quite remember, we all came away calling this wine ‘rock juice’. And we loved it. So much so that I bought some to take with us. A little gem.

From the volcanic hills, we moved to the Mátra, to Gyöngyöspata and the Kékhegy Pince, another small vineyard producing some 600 bottles annually that walks the minimal-interference walk by making the most of opportunities provided by nature.  I’m a Siller fan and had made a special request to include one in the tasting. The 2015 Piroska is now a firm fixture on my list of recommendations. And even though the company I was in might have preferred the reds, they were suitably impressed with their formal introduction to Siller.

And so to the reds, where I generally lose interest. I had a bad accident with a bottle of port back in my Alaska days, the memory of which is still very vivid. So vivid that even sitting within sniffing distance of an open packet of wine gums is enough to bring them flooding back. My challenge to Kiss was to introduce me to a red that I could drink.

His first choice, a 2014 Turán from Nyolcas és Fia in Eger, didn’t do anything for me, but I was alone in my lack of appreciation. The others were drooling over the dark purple, late-harvest offering.

Determined to convert me, Kiss opened a 2013 Kadarka from Szekszárd’s Halmosi Pincészet. Hungary’s most popular grape in the nineteenth century, the kadarka is enjoying a revival of late. The thin skin means less colour and less tannin, both of which suited me fine, thank you very much. I was suitably impressed – as was everyone else. Kiss took his well-deserved bow; his job was done. And again, Halmosi József, like the other viticulturalists featured, believes in working with nature. Tradition for him is not a trend to be followed, but a core belief that influences everything he does. Another to take home.

Staying in Szekszárd, our final wine of the afternoon was a 2009 Kékfrankos from former electrical-engineer-turned-award-winning viticulturalist, Dániel Zsolt from Dániel Pince. The others raved. I went back to my Siller.

It was a convivial, relaxed, afternoon in a very unpretentious setting. The tapas – breads, cheeses, olives, meats – were plentiful. The wines were excellent. But more remarkable was the man himself, Kiss Ferenc. Young, enthusiastic, and passionate about his profession, Kiss left us with an appreciation for natural wines and a taste for small vineyards devoted to their craft. If, as US founding father Benjamin Franklin* supposedly said, wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy, Kiss made believers of us all.

First published in the Budapest Times January 2017

*Post updated to reflect that Ben Franklin was a founding father and not a US President as originally stated. My bad.

The gift of music

I’m easily confused. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers or anyone who knows me. But in my defence, I try hard to replace that confusion with a modicum of certainty, if possible. If not, I simple give up and relax into the confusion. Life is short.

My latest effort to make sense of things involves orchestras. Chamber, philharmonic, symphony, festival, all words that go in the same descriptive phrase, but is there a difference, and if so, what is it?

Apparently, and I’m open to correction here, orchestras are ensembles of musicians that feature stringed instruments. Chamber orchestras are smaller, with fewer than 50 musicians, all of which may or may not be strings. They tend, as the name suggests, to play chamber music. Think Vivaldi, perhaps, and Mozart.  Symphony orchestras can have up to 100 musicians so they’re like the big sister. If there’s enough musicians and instruments to play a symphony (think brass, percussion, strings, and woodwind), you have a symphony orchestra. Beethoven immediately comes to mind.

Philharmonic orchestras are pretty much the same as symphony orchestras, both in their make-up and in what they play. From what I gather, the term is used to distinguish multiple orchestras in cities that are culturally big enough to support two major ensembles.  [Mind you, I see that London has five major orchestras and Tokyo seven!]

Here in Budapest, we have many orchestras. The two major ones are the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As I understand, a festival orchestra is a symphony orchestra by another name. And it was to the BFO that I was drawn last weekend.

6xx4525-270x270I’d heard tell of Iván Fischer, founder and conductor of the BFO. I’d read about the altercations over funding during the summer. And I’d been pretty impressed with stories of the BFO being the people’s orchestra. Classical musical is often perceived as the purview of the rich and cultured, those a rung or three higher up the social ladder. But Fischer and his orchestra are doing their damnedest to make sure that everyone gets to enjoy the music.

They regularly give free concerts around the country, playing in nursing homes, churches, abandoned synagogues, and child-care institutions. In addition to their autism-friendly Cocoa Concerts for younger kids and their Choose Your Instrument programme for primary-school children, their Midnight Music series is attracting lots of teens and young adults. The BFO doesn’t wait for people to come see them, they take their music to the people.

The orchestra has come a long way since it gave its first concert on 26 December 1983. In a matter of 33 short years, it made the list of Top 10 orchestras in the world with a multi-awarded international reputation. I simply had to see it for myself.

bfpThe programme meant nothing to me. To my uneducated eye, it was simply a musical sandwich of Schubert and Bartók. Anyway, I was more interested in seeing Fischer in action and getting a peek at the renovated Liszt Ferenc Music Academy. But what a treat it was.

We had two surprises. Before the official programme began, the orchestra played Bartók’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3. But search though I might, I couldn’t see anyone playing the piano. It turned out that this was a piece dedicated to the late Zoltan Kocsis, co-founder of the BFO. And the piano we heard was a recording of him playing. He was there in spirit. Just as we thought the programme was finished, the orchestra swapped their instruments for song sheets and treated us to their rendition of Schubert’s Sound of Angels.

Christmas is coming. If you want to give someone a gift that will last a lifetime, a memory that can be replayed again and again, what about tickets to a 2017 BFO concert? And yes, if you’re asking, that’s what I’d like.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 December 2016

Taste among the tat

Walking through the city in late October, I spotted my first Christmas tree. I tried to block it out, to pretend it wasn’t there. But the minute November arrived, there were too many to ignore. Even the city’s Christmas Markets seem to be ahead of schedule this year – didn’t they usually open the first weekend of Advent or am I losing my mind completely? Whatever happened to saving Christmas till December? Why are we in such a rush to make it all happen?

It’s getting increasingly difficult to field the effects of global consumerism. While Americans might save Christmas until they’ve dealt with Thanksgiving, their retail habits have made it across the pond. This year we had Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two traditional mammoth shopping days that I’ve always associated with America. Perhaps I missed something, but it seems that this is the first year I’ve seen such sales in Hungary. I could be mistaken though. Anyway, I shouldn’t as upset as I am at the tide of consumerism that is sweeping my corner of the world. But it saddens me.

And if fast-forwarding the Christmas spend and adopting US retail sale practices weren’t bad enough, we’re also drowning in a sea of cheap oriental tat. Try finding a decoration or a piece of garland that hasn’t been made in China – there’s a challenge. Consumerism has married sameness and the couple are thriving.

In search for something a little different this Christmas, I revisited Arioso at Király utca 9. What began as a flower shop back in 2002 has expanded to include a café and a gift and home décor range that embodies good taste.

b5Swiss couple Katja Schläfli and Martin Aeschlimann came to Budapest back in 2000 to visit some friends. They noticed the plethora of florists in the city and rightly understood how much Hungarians love their flowers. Back then, Swiss knowledge of the region stopped short at Vienna so Budapest wasn’t on anyone’s radar. They liked what they saw and decided to open a Swiss-style florist on Király utca. They chucked in their jobs and moved east, knowing just four people and nothing of the language or what was in store.

b4Even with both having a background in the business, it took time to find the right suppliers, to build up relationships with them, to develop a client list, and to gain people’s trust. They quietly went about the business of producing floral works of art and slowly word-of-mouth endorsements began to pay off. Today, with more than 25 trained staff on board, they’re responsible for the floral creations in places like the Four Seasons and the Kempinksi, where they’ve just opened a small gift shop.

When they opened on Király in 2002, the majority of their clients were foreigners. Today, 80 per cent are Hungarian, testament indeed to how much of an inroad they’ve made in the market. Their workshops are in demand and their interior design advice much sought-after.

b2Back in 2011, they opened a café (and in summer, a lovely courtyard), giving people extra time to enjoy the atmosphere that is exclusively Arioso. They serve their coffee accompanied by a flower. A lovely touch, an attention to detail that you quickly come to expect from the pair whose philosophy is very much entwined with beauty and quality. They don’t simply sell flowers and home accessories from Holland, Sweden, Iceland, and Germany – they sell feelings. And if I had to choose one word to describe their offer, it would be elegant.

A second shop followed in MOM Park to cater for clients on the Buda side and, with a web shop offering the convenience of online shopping, Arioso definitely caters to consumer needs while eschewing the sameness too often found elsewhere. Their Christmas range is just in and worth checking out. www.arioso.hu

First published in the Budapest Times 2 December 2016

 

 

The good gig and the Good Book

I love a good sing song. Be it on the back of a bus or in the bowels of a bar after hours, there’s something about trotting out the ballads that speaks of home. And I can’t even sing. Mind you, I can’t remember the words to all the verses of any song, but I’m bloody brilliant with the ould choruses.

No wonder then that when I came across Tara O’Grady and her Black Velvet Band, the chorus of the Dubliner’s 1967 classic of the same name started streaming through my head. I went in search of more. And man, what a voice.

taraThe Wall Street Journal calls her ‘imposing’. IrishCentral calls her an ‘Irish American Jazz Powerhouse!’ And the New York Music Daily says she ‘leads one of the most badass old-time swing bands you’ll ever hear’. That the name Tara O’Grady has been mentioned in the same breath as Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, is probably more telling than the numerous awards and hits the lady has to her credit.

But go see for yourself – Tara O’Grady and her Black Velvet Band will be playing at a reception hosted by the Irish Hungarian Business Circle at Beckett’s Irish Pub on Liszt Ferenc Tér, Saturday, 3rd December at 8pm.

So. Tara O’Grady. Ireland. Hungary. What’s the connection?

Believe it, or believe it not, this Irish-American jazz singer who lives in New York, is coming to Budapest with her signed copy of the Houdini family bible, which she will deposit in the House of Houdini in the Castle District (Disz tér 11), returning the book and its spirit to Houdini’s native city. How she came to own it is a story in itself. Stick with me.

houdiniTara’s mum, Mary, was friendly with her New York neighbour, Marguerite, a retired nurse who worked for Dr Leopold Weiss. Dr Weiss had a brother Ehrich, who would later be better known as Harry Houdini. The good doctor was quite fond of Marguerite and regularly gave her gifts, much to the chagrin of her husband, Robert. One of these gifts was a bible, signed by his father and his soon-to-be-famous brother, in March 1893 (when Harry was 21). [The Weiss’s were Jewish and the Doctor probably figured that Marguerite, being a Catholic herself, might appreciate the gesture.]

Visiting her friend sometime in the late 1970s, Mary noticed a large book in the basement. When she expressed an interest in what turned out to be the Weiss family bible, her friend happily gave it to her. Her husband certainly didn’t want any reminders of the good doctor and his misguided affections.

houdini-bibleThe book sat on her parents’ bookshelf for most of Tara’s childhood. And, except for Tara, no one showed much interest in it. She came across it again this past summer, took a photo of the signature and posted it on Facebook. The book’s rarity became known. Harry Houdini’s family bible had come into play.

In her search for an appreciative home for the artifact, Tara came across the newly opened House of Houdini in Budapest. Following conversations with the museum’s founder David Merlini, himself an escape artist, she decided to bring it back to the city in which she herself had studied in her university days. The book will be handed over at a invite-only press conference in the museum on Saturday, 3rd December at 11am. Merlini, Prime Ministerial Cultural Commissioner Géza Szőcs, and Irish Ambassador to Hungary Pat Kelly will be on hand to welcome Tara and the bible to back to Budapest.

Later that evening, she’ll be in Beckett’s, as I said, performing her original songs and arrangements of what she calls Celtic Jazz with some of Budapest’s best jazz musicians, including trombonist Attila Korb. Whatever else you’ve planned for that evening, escape. This is a gig not to be missed. Seats limited. Book yours by emailing info@ihbc.hu

First published in the Budapest Times 25 November 2016

If only we hadn’t missed that turn

Back in 2008 at a conference in Budapest, I discovered Thinkers50, a biannual global ranking of management thinkers billed as ‘the essential guide to which thinkers and which ideas matter now.’ When the list launched in 2001, Charles Handy held the No. 2 spot. He was in Budapest to mark the publication of two of his books in Hungarian. I had the pleasure of introducing one of them – The Empty Raincoat (Üres esőkabát) – at the launch. We discovered, in conversation, that he was born less than a mile from me at home, in the vicarage on the other side of the crossroads. How small the world.

Even though that was eight years and what seems like a couple of lifetimes ago, I still remember the ease with which Handy interwove management practices and philosophical theory. He’s a born storyteller, blessed with the innate ability to distill complex thinking into simple speak without losing any of the message’s inherent power. By introducing me to the concept of a portfolio career, he gave me the gift of a ready explanation for what I do, something that had been heretofore impossible to explain to those who wanted a phrasal answer to the question: So, Mary, what do you do for a living?

book-jacket-a-masodik-gorbe-borito-300-dpi1_easy-resize-comHandy was back in Budapest again last week, this time to launch the Hungarian translation of The Second Curve (A második görbe). He began his introduction with a story.

In Ireland, driving through the Dublin mountains, on his way to Avoca in Co. Wicklow, he got lost. He stopped to ask a local farmer for directions. The man pointed down the valley and up over the top of the next hill, telling him that when he reached the top and looked down, he’d see a red building in the distance – Davy’s Bar. But 1 km before that, he was to turn right for Avoca. He got to the top of the hill and saw the bar in the distance. On he drove. But there was no right turn. Then he realised what the man had meant: he was to take a right turn 1 km before he got to the top of the hill. The idea of the second curve was born.

(c) Elizabeth Handy

(c) Elizabeth Handy

As we set out in life, we have what Handy calls an education, investment, and preparation stage, the drive down into the valley. As we come up the other side, our lives progress, our careers blossom, we start making money. When we get to the top of our game, we inevitably start on the downward slope to Davy’s bar, home of the ‘if onlys’. What we need to do is to take the turn before we get to the top of the hill. We need to start setting up that second phase before the first one reaches its peak, so that when one curve starts its descent, the second curve begins its ascent. That 1 km represents about two years.

Each of us, he says, has three primary roles in life – to make money to live, to fulfil our duty to others, and to follow our passion. Once we have identified our passion, we can start setting up that second curve. And the third curve. And the fourth, depending on how long we live.  But too many of us miss the turn, so busy are we making money and doing our thing. Inside each of us, he believes, is a golden seed, a skill or talent that others might recognise before we do. The trick is to listen for it, to pay attention to it, to nurture it and set up that second curve, so that we’re don’t end up in Davy’s bar wallowing in ‘if onlys’. And the second curve applies not only to individuals, but to organisations and governments, too. World leaders, take note.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 November 2016

Having fun while doing good

I grew up in Kildare, an Irish county known for its thoroughbreds. With its stud farms and racecourses, it’s a mecca for anyone interested in National Hunt or flat racing. The local schools close for the three-day Punchestown Festival. Ladies Day at the Derby in the Curragh is up there as one of the fashion highlights of the year. And while racing here in Budapest in Kincsem Park isn’t quite of the same calibre, it’s still a great day out. Unless it’s heading in to winter and too cold to hold a pen to mark your race card. Which is why Race Nights were invented.

For those not familiar with the format, it goes like this. You get a bunch of people together in pub. You show videos of 8 real horse races, with the names changed, of course. People bet on them, as if they were at a real race course. Races are sponsored, just as they are in real life. There’s a bookie to take your money and pay out your winnings. There’s a bartender to take your drinks order. But best of all, the proceeds go to charity.

So, who goes to all this bother, eh? The Club.

Back in the day, the British Embassy ran the Britannia Club, a regular meeting place for expats in Budapest. Since its demise, The Club has dedicated itself to continuing the camaraderie and ambiance it fostered amongst visitors and locals in Budapest. This private members’ club is also open to guests and friends and meets from 18:30 each Friday in The Clubhouse, at the rear of Champs Sport Pub, Dohany u. 20. [You can also enter from Sip utca 4, direct into The Clubroom – but just on Fridays.]

The Clubhouse is a home from home for travelling souls and kindred spirits from all over the world who enjoy meeting new people, catching up with old friends, and generally having a good time. Special monthly events vary in theme and regular charity events get members and guests involved in the community, having fun while doing good. The annual race night is just one example.

racenightThis year will mark the fifth annual Charity Horse Race Night, which has gone from strength to strength, raising 40 000 ft in 2012 to 100 000 ft last year, and all for charity. This year’s focus is to raise money to help support the Children of Zsámbék through the work of the Norbertine Sisters, who provide a daily routine, food, schooling, and vocational training in usable skills like carpentry, tailoring, IT, metal-working, and restaurant and hospitality, for disadvantaged kids in the area.

I’ve been in town for a couple of them and once dragged along some visiting Irish friends – under duress, I might add. They hadn’t come the whole way to Budapest to spend the night in a British pub at a race night! But it’s infectious. Perhaps it’s the betting blood that courses through us, but it was amazing how excited we got about winning 500 ft. Madness.

My mother always told me that a bookie’s money is only ever on loan; what you win today, you’ll lose tomorrow. But with this event, no matter what you lose, the Children of Zsámbék will come out winning.

The first race will be under starters orders after the event introduction at around 19.30; the Clubhouse will open as usual around 18.30. Chili con carne will be served between races 4 and 5 to help bolster the inner gambler and calm the nerves ahead of final four races. Suggested donation at the door is 2000 ft for guests and 1500 ft for members. Every little helps.

If you’re in town on Friday night, 11 November, in want of something to do, go along. Have some fun. It’s all in a good cause.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 November 2016

Little John Nee, storyteller supreme

Sitting in a pub in London one evening after work a lifetime or three ago, an English colleague told me that I was typically Irish. He’d asked me a question and after half an hour he still hadn’t received an answer. And I’d been talking the whole time. Being Irish, in his mind, meant never taking the direct route. It meant, at best, answering a question by asking another, and at worst, prefacing the answer with a story, or series of stories, that took ages to get to where they were going. Patience wasn’t one of his virtues.

As a people, we’re renowned for our ability to tell stories. The kernels of truth they might contain vary according to the audience and perhaps the time of night they’re being told. It’s not a conscious thing – it’s almost automatic. If there’s a more colourful way to illustrate a point, we’ll find it. Plain, hard, facts are the purview of others. We like to embellish. We like a little nuance with our nouns.

But a good story must have rhythm. The words must sing. They must lift off the page and transport the listener to the point whereby they’ve often forgotten what their original question was, so enthralled are they with our tale. And this is something we share with Hungarians.

On those rare occasions when Irish storytellers come to Budapest, they deserve an airing. And next week, on Thursday, at 8 pm, one of Ireland’s finest will pull up a stool in Beckett’s Irish Pub on Liszt Ferenc tér to regale the masses. John Nee is passing through with his Small Halls and Potholes tour, en route for Croatia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria.  And he’s not to be missed.

john-neeTechnically, John is Scottish. Born in Glasgow of Irish parents, the family returned to the ould sod when he was 12. He grew up in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal and now lives in Galway, probably two of the country’s most beautiful counties. He goes by the stage name of Little John Nee, a nod to his father’s fascination with Little Richard. Back in the 1970s, he fronted Joe Petrol and the Petrol Bombers, a punk band that was famous enough in its day – if you believe the stories.

When working on the building sites in London, he got involved with the Dalston Junction Alternative Cabaret and later, took a turn doing Charlie Chaplin on the streets of Dublin. A much-commissioned playwright and an intrepid musician (he outed his affair with a ukulele on national radio), Nee is no stranger to TV, stage, and screen. He has worked with the likes of Neil Jordan and is perhaps a little bit famous for playing the part of Postie in an Irish-language TV silent comedy Fear an Phoist (The Postman). Silent comedy, I hear you wonder. And I’m bigging him up as a storyteller?

The versatility of his talent – a storyteller who uses the medium of theatre and music to weave his magic –  is evidenced by the sheer variety of names mentioned when trying to describe just how good he is. A quick traipse through reviews of his shows sees mention of writer John McGahern (a personal favourite of mine), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tom Waits, Shakespeare, and Patrick Kavanagh. Now, imagine these greats, and more still, wrapped up in one body and you might come close to imagining John Nee.

But you don’t have to imagine. Because he’ll be here, in Budapest, for one night only. Mark your diaries. If you’ve any interest at all in the art of storytelling, in the magic of words, in the power of performance, then get ye down to Beckett’s on Thursday for 8pm to see the man himself in action.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 November 2016

Scaring the bejeezus out of me

I’ve had a few scares in my time. Near misses that could have been nasty car accidents. A snow machine incident that could have had far more disastrous consequences. Air turbulence that resulted in freewheeling trollies and broken limbs.

I’ve had heart-stopping moments that are etched on some deep stratum of my subconscious. Like when I first went abseiling and had to make that 90-degree flip over the end of the cliff. Or my first trip to Disneyland. Or my first earthquake in Alaska.

Feeling scared, though, is a completely foreign feeling for me. An old friend of mine, long since dead, told me once that he reckoned I had guardian angels working around the clock. Just observing my life and the potential trouble I could have gotten into over the years, this was the only explanation he could come up with for my living a life relatively unscathed.

But here I am, in the prime of my life, and I’m scared. Very scared. I have a nasty, pervasive feeling in the pit of my stomach that is slowly seeping into every core of my being. And try as I might to think good thoughts and imagine good things, it just won’t go away. If anything, it’s getting worse.

I won’t get into the politics of it all. Far too much (albeit hardly anything about policy) has been said by both sides of the Great American Debate to warrant my adding my tuppence ha’penny. Be it Clinton or Trump, whoever wins next month, wins. What scares me silly is the immediate aftermath.

bbbbI was in California during the Rodney King riots and should Clinton win, I fear that those riots will be replicated on streets across America in a couple of weeks. Trump is just a penny shy of prepping his more radical supporters to ready themselves. Should Clinton win, I fear that her rather invasive tendencies could see the world caught up in even more war. Should Trump win, I can’t see Clinton supporters being anything other than resigned to their loss, but I fear the far-reaching consequences of having his brand of rhetoric behind a global microphone.

It’s not about policy. Or mandates. Or visions of the future. My fear has to do with legitimising hate speech. Fomenting a distrust of all things foreign. Replacing tolerance with insularity. It’s about example, or the lack thereof.

I was brought up well. I was taught that one should never raise oneself up by bringing another person down. If this election campaign is taken as an example of twenty-first-century politicking, then I fear that politicians here in Hungary, and in the rest of the world, will see it as a behavioural blueprint and follow suit. And what then?

Young people the world over are seeing a level of nastiness that seems to know no boundaries. Tshirts worn by Trump supporters emblazoned with foul-mouthed epitaphs are shown on TV. Derogatory comments aired, and aired again, travel the world like virulent viruses. And the behaviour of potential world leaders, behaviour that would have been decried with disbelief when I was still young and impressionable, is in danger of becoming the norm.

Earlier this month I read that those employed by the Russian government who have children studying abroad were told to cut short their schooling and bring them home to be enrolled in Russian schools. If this is about protection the minds of the young, I wonder if Putin is on to something.

We’re already seeing the rise of parochialism. Small-mindedness and pettiness are on the rampage. Shortsightedness is blinding us to the damage being done by seemingly throwaway comments that are taking root in our collective psyche and altering our moral code. Bigotry and bias are being bandied around at will. It’s scary. I’m scared. And I wonder how much worse can it get and when we will feel the full brunt of it in Hungary.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 October 2016

Home on the range

One of the many joys of living in Budapest is the huge amount of activity in the city. There’s always something going on. Places to visit. Exhibitions to see. Concerts to attend. So much so that there is a danger that life in Hungary revolves around the capital and we don’t take or make the time to venture further afield.

The Hungarian countryside is just as active. Quirkiness reigns. The road to the Balaton is well travelled, with the lakeside villages and towns offering plenty by way of distraction. But off the M7 between here and there are other delights just waiting to be discovered, ones that you stumble across when you take a wrong turn or are travelling between one place and the next.

I’d passed the sign for a buffalo reservation on my way to Balatonmaygaród a number of times but only recently took the time to stop and explore. When I think of Hungary, I think of grey cattle and mangalica pigs. I think of birds of prey and wild boar. Buffalo don’t usually come to mind.

And when I think of buffalo, I think of the bison of North America. The wood bison, the largest animal on the continent, can weigh up to 900 kg. It differs from the plains bison (seen in Alaska) in that its tallest point is in front of its front legs, giving it that distinctive leaning-forward look. It’s woollier, too.  I also think of the African buffalo, with its fabulous curly horns. But the buffalo in Hungary look more like shortlegged, humpbacked cows. So much so that when we saw them, we had to look not twice, but three or four times to be sure they were buffalo.

bt-2016-42These relations of the Asian water buffalo roam the reserve at Kápolnapuszta, part of the Balaton-felvidéki National Park. Not quite as big as their North American counterparts, they can weigh up to 700 kg and have more angular faces and straighter horns. The 1.5 km interactive walking trail is very educational, teaching everything about their eating habits and how they breed as well as how they behave in general.

They’re very fond of water and given the choice between working and playing in the water, there’s no contest. They can amuse themselves for hours wallowing in the mud, so much so that you’d wonder what is going on in their heads.

A small museum has an exhibition of the flora and fauna in the area. It also includes the history of the buffalo in Hungary. Picnic tables abound and there are telescopes and a lookout tower from which to view the animals if they’re not cooperating and hanging out close the trails.

I had no idea that buffalos were once popular domestic animals in this country, raised for their meat, their milk, and their might. Many were put to work pulling carts. And while I’m quite fond of a good piece of buffalo mozzarella, I had thought it got its name from its shape rather than from its origins. But yes, it’s made from the milk of the buffalo cow.

Domestic buffalo in Hungary almost disappeared in the 1950s but they were saved from extinction and today, some 300 animals roam freely on the reserve in Zala county. We had the good fortune to see them on the march, one following the other as they made their way across the plain.  The old John Denver song came to mind:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

And that just about sums up what I’ve learned of Zala county.

The reserve is open daily in October from 9:00 to 17:00 and from 1 November to 31 March it closes at 16:00. All are welcome.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 October 2016