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

 

AN UPDATE:

Doing St Patrick proud

What started off in March 2006 as a bunch of people with a shared affinity for Ireland and being Irish getting together for dinner has morphed into a three-day event. St Patrick’s Day this year falls conveniently on a Friday. Those living in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat will enjoy a long weekend, as the day itself is marked by a public holiday in those three countries. Here in Budapest, we’ll have to work a casual Friday. Last year MUPA went green for the day; this year I’d like it be a bridge. That’d be magic.

On the business front, the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is teaming up with growth consultants M27 Absolvo to organise an Irish-Hungarian event focused on investment and innovation. Neither country is short of brain matter and talent so this promises to be an interesting mix. From what I understand, it’s a little like a dating service – those with ideas who need money to realise them pitch to those with money to invest in promising start-ups and small business enterprises. The invite-only event is taking place in the Marriott Hotel from 2pm on Friday, 17th March. St Patrick himself wasn’t beyond a little innovation. He was the one who added the Sun to the cross to create what’s known today as the Celtic Cross and the one to use the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the heathen masses of Ireland all those years ago. I reckon he’d be well impressed with this initiative.

And while the business gig is underway, students from schools around Hungary will be competing in the annual St Patrick’s Festival competition organised by the Vörösmarty Mihály Gimnázium. Secondary schools will be sending their best to compete in five categories: Folk song | Pop-rock song, solo | Pop-rock song, group | Poem or prose | Short scene. And this year, there’ll be a special prize for the best Irish entry. This is one I’m looking forward to.

On Saturday, 18th March, dancers from all over the world will be competing at the WIDA Open Feis over at Folyondár Sports Hall (Folyondár utca 15) from 8 am. This international Irish dance competition is a growing attraction on the international Irish dance scene with competitions for all age groups.  For more details, check their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/budapestfeis

And while the dancers are finishing up at 6pm, moves of a different kind will be made on the pitch at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. One of the biggest days in Irish rugby also falls on Paddy’s weekend. This year, Ireland and England will play the final match in the 2017 Six Nations. The event will be shown live, on a big screen, at the Marriott Hotel from 6pm, a move calculated to avoid any no-shows at the 11th annual St Patrick’s Gala Dinner. And, I must admit, there’s something about watching a rugby game when dolled up to the nines that adds spirit to the scrums. Nothing like a roomful of screaming black ties and tuxedos to set the mood. (If you’re not going to the dinner, you can get your fill of it all at Jack Doyle’s Irish pub and restaurant over on Pilvax utca.)

More than 250 guests are expected to sit down to the three-course lamb dinner at the Marriott on Saturday night for an evening of ceoil agus craic (music and fun). John Murphy and his traditional repertoire will accompany the dinner with Budapest-based Hungarian Irish Folk band Green Spirit charged with bringing guests to their feet after their Irish coffees. And, whether you prefer the Hungarian tombola (which actually originated in Italy) or the Irish raffle, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to spread the luck and the love around with a number of charities standing to benefit from the proceeds. DJ Andrew J will be on hand till the wee hours of the morning for all those who can keep pace. If you haven’t already booked your place, you might still be in luck. Check the website for details: www.ihbc.hu

Sunday sees the seventh annual gathering of painted faces and leprechaun hats walking beneath banners and behind Irish wolfhounds to the beat of the Irish Prison Service Pipe Band. Back in 2011, 546 people showed up for the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. I’m sure of the number because I was the official counter. Last year, it was over 4000. The crowd starts amassing around 1.30 pm at Szabadság tér for face-painting and the like with the parade itself starting at 3 pm. It’ll wind its way through the streets of Budapest, ending up at Instant VIII, on Akácfa utca 49-51, where the craic will continue. Bring along a musical instrument and join in one of the many sessions going on throughout the venue. Billed as one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day parades in Central Europe, it’s not one to be missed.

And, if you feel like getting a head start on the shenanigans, that crazy Irish band Firkin are playing Akvárium on Thursday night. Just what you need to get the green going.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh go léir. (Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.)

First published in the Budapest Times March 2017

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 [email protected]

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