Crossing bridges later

As I sat across the table from Péter Kutas in Bridges Food Bar last week, I gave some thought to the creative energy in Budapest that catalyses people and motivates them to make things happen. A paper wholesaler by profession, Kutas is one of a string of people I have met lately who have chosen to reinvent themselves, to do something different. And the transition from paper to food isn’t an obvious one.

A couple of years ago, Kutas had the opportunity to purchase a number of flats in a building on Üllői út in the city’s VIIIth district. The flats, duly converted, now form one of the many apart-hotels/hostels in the neighbourhood. Part of the package included a ground-floor shop, once home to a computer services business that had long since left the building.

A daily visitor to the worksite as the renovation was underway, Kutas noticed that he was hard pressed to find somewhere decent to eat. His needs were simple – tasty, affordable food, served quickly, and with a smile. Not much to ask for.

As the idea of opening his own restaurant took hold, the pendulum swung from sandwich bar to food bar and then back to the middle – the entrées are served either with vegetables or in a sandwich. For someone like me, who’d eat just about anything if it was between two slices of bread, this approach verges on genius.

Bridges opened for business in June. The renovations took six months. As it’s on my walk home, I watched the progress with interest. I like my food. I was curious. So I popped in for lunch one day … me and half the neighbourhood it seemed. The place was jammed with office workers all dealing with the constraints of a lunch hour. If you opt for the daily menu, you order, you pay, and you collect – and the process takes just 5-8 minutes at the busiest time. If you choose from the set menu, it’s delivered to your table. I was impressed. My roasted garlic soup was a meal in itself. My chicken and broccoli looked great and tasted even better. My friend’s Philly cheese steak sandwich gave me a brief moment of envy.

img_6408_easy-resize-comKutas loves his food. He dines out often and knows what he likes and doesn’t like. Chief among his pet peeves is leaving a restaurant smelling of food. He designed Bridges with this in mind. His wife, he says, can never tell if he’s been at the office or in the restaurant. A gallery of black-and-white tones, the only colour to be found is in the coloured-pencil centrepieces sitting atop paper table cloths festooned with pictures you can colour in. Doodler heaven.

img_6407_easy-resize-comWhen I asked about the name, Kutas pointed to the obvious – the bridges of Budapest – but he also explained the idea of bridging the necessity of eating for sustenance with the experience of eating for enjoyment. And he himself has bridged his hobby with a profitable business.

I had a sneak preview of the new menu, which runs the gamut from paella and mackerel to duck leg and ribs. It has hotdogs, hamburgers, and sandwiches, salads, pasta, and desserts. The chef, György Doczi, who honed his skills at the Gerlóczy and SonkaArcok, fuses creativity with taste. The staff themselves are part of the overall bridge, each recommended by or somehow connected to another. And it shows.

With the lunchtime trade mastered, Kutas and restaurant manager, Attila Veégh, founder of the Mangalica festival, are now concentrating on building up the evening clientele. It’s an ideal venue for small parties with separate rooms that can be reserved. Even after one visit, I can see it being a regular fixture on my culinary calendar. It ticks all the boxes. Open Monday to Saturday from 11.30 to 10.00 pm, you can find it at Üllői út 52b. See you there.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 October 2016

 

Just popping next door

Growing up in Ireland, living on the continent had an allure that would eventually prove irresistible. Hearing something described as ‘continental’, be it a look, a style, a food, seemed so exotic. While the islanders of Ireland and the UK spoke English, the Continentals spoke it with an accent that made them seem other-worldly. I was enthralled. It was only a matter of time before I ended up in mainland Europe.

I like having freedom to roam, being able to get on a train or into a car and go. And with Hungary being smack bang in the centre of Europe, I’m living in my version of travel heaven.

Last week, we popped next door, into Slovakia. Although a long-time fan of Bratislava, I’ve only recently discovered the delights of Košice (Kassa). This was our second visit and this time, we were simply passing through on our way to the High Tatras.

img_7183_easy-resize-comOne of the many lovely birthday presents I received this year was a four-day train pass to the mountains. It covered the return trip from Budapest to Štrba and then the use of the local Tatranská elektrická železnica (TEŽ), the electric railway, and the Ozubnicová železnica (OŽ), the cogwheel railway. With six different routes to choose from, you can get on or off at any one of the many villages and towns en route. Both run like clockwork. To the minute. And neither goes exceptionally fast.

img_7143_easy-resize-comWe spent the first night in the lovely town of Poprad-Tatry, a haven of penzións and hotels, seventeenth-century burgher houses, and the stunning altars of the Church of St George. It’s close to Tatranská Lomnica, home to a series of cable cars, chairlifts, and a funicular by which you can ascend the highest peak, Lomnický štít, if you don’t fancy climbing it on foot.

img_7075_easy-resize-comThe second night we stayed between the two villages of Sibír and Nový Smokovec, the latter of which is home to the massive Royal Palace, built in 1925 as a sanatorium and sadly now looking remarkably empty. It still features on hotel booking sites so perhaps it simply hasn’t yet opened for the season. Both villages are quite typical of the region – lots of accommodation, a few restaurants, and a couple of churches take a back seat to the myriad hiking trails, walking paths, and cycle routes, all of which are helpfully signposted with the length of time it should take to get from A to B.

Photo by Steve Jacobs

Photo by Steve Jacobs

My favourite spot was Štrbské Pleso. Its mountain lake is frozen for 155 days of the year. Just over one-kilometre-long and about 600 metres wide, it’s nearly 1400 metres above sea level. It’s a major spot on the competitive winter sports circuit (I’d like to see a snow polo game as I’m having a hard time imagining horses on ice) and attracts thousands to its slopes.

In summer and autumn, the area is a haven for Nordic walkers. Young and old alike are kitted out in the brightest and the best of gear. The popular trails are easily identified by the legion of cars parked along roads in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The place oozes good health. Bars and cafés with their outdoor seating, chairs lined with sheepskin rugs, provide a nice reprieve.

We spent the last night in Košice, as options for trains back to Budapest are few and we had an early start. There are only two direct trains – one leaves at 6am, a second at 6pm. All others go via Bratislava and take more than 10 hours so be careful.

We’re already planning another trip next door for the Tatry Ice Master in Hrebienok in January, when the High Tatras will be at their best. If you want to escape the city madness, get yourself a pass and head to the mountains.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 October 2016

Better leaders, better world

I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a primary school teacher. I gave little thought to my second and third choices on my college application form. So when I got the letter from the Teacher Training College saying that I hadn’t gotten a place, I was devastated. I’d just turned 17. The future had morphed overnight from a well-thought-out career/life path into a complete unknown.

Career guidance, as it was known then, consisted of government-issued leaflets on all sorts of jobs. Such was the guidance offered in my school that long-distance-trucking was once an option on my future board. I had no one to turn to. Life coaching wouldn’t come into fashion until years later. And self-help books didn’t quite cover last-minute decisions on career choices.

I ended up studying Accounting and Finance. A bad choice. I lasted just one year before bailing in favour of a paid, pensionable position that had the advantage of ready money but the disadvantage of a lifetime of drudgery.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in higher education, taking certificates, diplomas, and degrees in various disciplines from counselling and communications to safety management. I wasn’t studying with any great plan in mind – I was studying to stay engaged.

One of the most difficult things about living in a country where my ability to speak the language falls short is that I miss out on classes and courses offered only in Hungarian. Flower arranging, paper making, ballroom dancing – all toyed with and discarded. And while I might well be able to muddle my way through the instruction, when it comes to coaching (another subject of interest), fully understanding the language is a must.

beakepzesbemutatsavagottI came across Business Coach Kft recently and its 60-hour intensive SPARKLE coaching course (offered in English) certified by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). There’s quite the demand for an English-language coaching course apparently, as many international companies based in Hungary have non-Hungarian-speakers in their employ.

Competition for managerial and supervisory positions is such that being trained to support the development of others ranks high in the plus column when it comes to promotion. And indeed feedback from those who have completed the course confirms as much. They say they know themselves better (an oft-overlooked but extremely important facet of being a good manager). They have become more effective leaders by using the coaching methods and tools they were taught. Some start coaching within their own companies, a reflection of the modern ethos that a coaching-style leadership is effective as it promotes better communication and collaboration. Managers focus more on developing their people rather than simply telling them what to do. This style of leadership helps build trust and brings out the creativity in people.

Others see the certification as a stepping stone out of the corporate grind and choose to work independently as a coach, a particularly attractive option for anyone who wants a better work/life balance that can come with freelance work and being able to fit work around a hectic home schedule.

When it comes to training to be a coach, though, choose carefully. Be sure to get an internationally recognised certification. According to Laura Komócsin, owner of Business Coach Kft, 90% of coaches in China are expats who choose to stay in country when their corporate tenure finishes. [I once had a very successful coaching experience via Skype from Germany.] It’s definitely doable.

Coaching isn’t about offering solutions, but rather supporting others to find their own answers. Trainees learn to identify new alternatives, find resources, and trust that their client has all the required skills and resources to find their own solution.  Thankfully, in Hungary, learning these types of skills is no longer language-dependent. And as the Business Coach Kft’s tag line says: better leaders, better world.

First published in the Budapest Times 30 September 2016

The wait is nearly over

Art confuses me. I know what I like and what I don’t like, but when it comes to what period came when and which artist belonged to what movement, my ignorance is embarrassing. I couldn’t tell a Manet from a Monet were my life to depend on it.

In everyday speech, I use contemporary as a synonym for modern and only recently discovered that when it comes to Art (with a capital A), the two terms are a lifetime apart. Modern Art spans the period from the 1860s to the 1970s and would appear to be an umbrella term for more than forty different movements ranging from Impressionism to Art Nouveau to Cubism to Bauhaus to Surrealism – the mind boggles.

Post-modernism, as it implies, comes after Modernism. Being a sixties child living among contemporaries, I then naturally thought that post-modernism was synonymous with contemporary. But strictly speaking, it isn’t.  ‘It refers to a fixed period (say 50 years in length) beginning about 1970’. But wouldn’t that make it contemporary, I wondered? Yes and no. ‘Contemporary art refers to the moving 50-year period immediately before the present.’ So today, in 2016, they’re one and the same. But in a few years’ time, say in 2050 ‘post-modern art (1970–2020) will have been superceded by another era, while contemporary art will now cover the period 2000–2050. So the two will have diverged.’ It’s amazing where Google can take you.

But why am I obsessing?

The 25th Café Budapest Contemporary Arts Festival (formerly the Autumn Arts Festival) opens its curtains next month and I was curious what they meant by Contemporary Art. Now I know. The programme is chock full of theatre, concerts (classical and popular), dance performances, visual art exhibitions, and even a circus. Hungarian stars feature, of course, but alongside them are world class international performers, with a particular focus this year on Polish art and artists. Events are lined up for venues all over town from A38 and Akvárium to Müpa and Millenáris.

Maestro Ferenc Sapszon with the Cantate Chorus. Photo by Dahlan Foah

Maestro Ferenc Sapszon with the Cantate Chorus. Photo by Dahlan Foah

For me, the pick of the programme is the World Premiere of The Birth of Color, A Marriage of Darkness and Light™, a Frequency Opera™ based on ancient and new scientific ideas and images about the Creation of the universe. The Budapest Cantate Choir will be singing with Dr Sapszon Ferenc conducting. The hour-long performance features a male and female chorus, singing bowls and percussion, with light and projection.

The Creation is told as a love story, where the original oneness engenders longing and appreciation as it begins to split into all of the parts of the manifest world. The work is a reminder of the sheer beauty and wonder of creation and how the more we understand, the more mysterious and beautiful it becomes.

I first wrote about The Birth of Color nearly a year ago, after a chance meeting with Honora Foah, the creative mind behind the project (Budapest Times, 16 October 2015). She explained the concept of a frequency opera to me and I wrote: As far back as 10 000 years ago, the Vedas spoke of the world being made of vibration, so this isn’t new. But add the scientific discoveries of quantum physics to this ancient wisdom, and you have the makings of a frequency opera. Foah spoke then of her hopes to premiere the opera in Budapest at the Kiscelli and she’s made it happen.

The wires are buzzing. The curious are waiting. The planets are aligning for the world’s first Frequency Opera. So much so that art and music critics are coming to Budapest solely for the premiere. The composer Lucio Ivaldi will also be here as will Pulitzer-nominated poet David Brendan Hopes, lyricist for The Birth of Color.

Be it post-modernist or contemporary, this artistic performance promises something different. Come and bear witness.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 September 2016

 

After many delays, tickets for the Premiere of this amazing multi-media Frequency Opera are now available. Performances at the Kiscelli Museum, Budapest on 79 October: Unmissable! http://www.cafebudapestfest.hu/event?id=82509 and http://www.cafebudapestfest.hu/program?id=82509

Making it happen

Back in 2007, someone told me that there were 23 000 flats in Budapest owned by absentee Irish landlords. I had no idea how realistic that number was, whether it even came close to reality or whether it was so far removed from it that it was laughable. Then the crash came and the number, whichever number, was decimated as people started offloading flats here to bail themselves out of trouble at home. It wasn’t pretty.

Last week, I overheard two Italians talking to their Hungarian real estate agent. They’d just signed on their fourth flat. The week before, I overheard a German talking about signing on his third. This week a Hungarian friend told me of how they were offered HUF 40 million for a flat they’d paid 18 million for a few years ago. Things are on the up. People are coming to town looking for places to buy and then rent.

This creates a demand for people like Lena Lehoczky, the creative talent behind Lenoushka, an interior design studio in the city specialising in handmade soft furnishings.

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Photo by Kovács Tamás

Lena inherited her passion for beautiful, creative fabrics from her mother and her grandmother, both of whom were born in St Petersburg, Russia. As a child, the three of them would visit fabric shops. They taught her to knit and to sew. All three would design their own clothes and knit their own sweaters. Her childhood reading was more Burda than Bunty [a girl’s comic I grew up with that had cut-out clothes for paper dolls on the back cover].

At the age of 5, Lena designed her first collection: dresses for her dolls. When she got married, her mum gave her the ultimate wedding gift:  a wedding dress she had made for her based on Lena’s own design.

img_0173

Photo by Kovács Tamás

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Photo by Zoltán Fábián

Smart enough to realise that having a creative talent often isn’t enough, Lena studied economics and business management. Reality meant that she needed to make money before she could realise her dream. She earned her keep as a brand manager at several multinational consumer-goods companies in Hungary. As a hobby she’d decorate apartments, designing her own cushions, curtains, and bed linen. And life was good.

photo2

Photo by Zoltán Fábián

Married, a mother to three beautiful children, Lena had a job that paid a decent wage, and a hobby that kept the creative side of her alive. And then the day came when her ever-patient and heretofore supportive husband finally had enough.

His loud No! to her latest attempt to redecorate their apartment still resonates, she says. She had to choose, to admit that design really was her calling. So she enrolled in an interior design course and finished a UK-based professional home textile decorating course. Smart enough also to know that in the interior design business, currency is everything and that trends dictate, she regularly attends design workshops and is currently studying with a New-York-based design school.

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Photo by Zoltán Fábián

Today, Lena works out of a small studio in Buda from where she’s involved in several residential interior design projects, creating bespoke curtains and cushions for private and commercial clients. She has redefined her career and is fulfilling a childhood dream. In her family, she’s known as Lenoushka. So her company of the same name is more than the fulfillment of her childhood dream: it’s also a tribute to those who helped make her the woman she is today. Check her out at
www.Lenoushka.com

It’s stories like Lena’s and that of Terry V, of whom I wrote last week, that keep me believing in Budapest. Both born outside the country, both now living here. Both have found the energy, the space, and the opportunity to make it happen in this city. And while many, for their own reasons, are choosing to leave Hungary, it’s nice to hear of those who are choosing to stay.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 September 2016

Tuesday Night Rodeo

Is it my imagination or are more and more people talking about emigrating or going home? Earlier this summer, a local web portal ran an article by a Norwegian chap who’d been living here since 2008. He was returning to Oslo and had written up his reasons for leaving. Others chimed in with theirs. Apparently, the list of reasons to leave ran longer than the list of reasons to stay.

I’m not an optimist. I could never be accused of suffering from too much positivity.  But I firmly believe that how we react to a situation is our choice. Being open to opportunity and seizing the moment when it presents itself, that’s the secret.

Out and about last week, I ran into Terry V. This is his story.

tnrSitting in the Scottish Caledonia pub one Tuesday night with some musician mates, someone suggested that they start a band – do something different, something a little off kilter for Hungary. They decided on Country Rock. It was accessible, they thought: traditional instruments with a rock and roll format and pop melody lines – a winning formula. They’d jammed together before; they’d had fun; they knew they’d work. So, unlike many great ideas borne out of a bottle of whisky and destined to come to nothing, this one survived the vapours and was christened Tuesday Night Rodeo.

You might recognise some of the faces. Joey and Sam from Paddy and the Rats and Zsolti from the Hooligans. Steven who found fame with a Budapest-based Guns and Roses tribute band. Add Terry (ex-London) to this Hungarian mix and you get the band.

Their single, Stranger (in a Strange Town), was picked up by Radio Rock (95.8 FM). And then a German station, Country 108, got in on the act. Next thing you know, the lads have a record deal with an album due to be completed in October and released before the end of the year

Stranger was picked up and given daily rotation on Radio Rock. Tilos Radio was listening in and the following day, they picked it up and added an early morning interview with Joey for good measure.

So what, you say? This sort of stuff is commonplace. No biggie. Well, I think it is. These lads ain’t in their teens or their twenties or their thirties. In the music world, they’re positively ancient.

When he was 10, Terry saw Marc Bolan from T-Rex on TV. He immediately asked his dad for a guitar – glam rock was his future.  Back in the mid-1980s, he did get a record deal in Japan and then in the UK. He was doing well. He ran a club in London’s Covent Garden for a few years. When he moved into the admin side and they downsized, he had the chance to work from anywhere. He chose Budapest. He’d first been here about 14 years ago on a boys’ weekend; he loved it so much he kept coming back. Last year he was working on a website to help musicians find their lost/stolen instruments. He still played music but thought, at 55, that he was a bit long in the tooth to get any airplay.

And therein lies the beauty of it all.

Hungary, and Budapest in particular, has an energy about it that fosters opportunity. With a musical legacy that holds its own on the world stage, there’s a lot more going on here music-wise than in London. Yes, a lot of the smaller clubs are seriously underfunded, but there’s talent and there’s space and there’s an audience hungry for something new. And there’s guys like Tuesday Night Rodeo who dream the dreams down the pub on a Tuesday night but then do something to make those dreams happen. And when the opportunity knocks, they’re ready. This is Budapest. This is Hungary. This is a reason to stay.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 September 2016

Getting it done

I’m a little more conscious of my mortality than usual these days. Life is way too short to keep putting off till tomorrow what could be done today. I might not have another nine years in the city to dither about doing all the things I said I’d do but have never got around to actually doing. So I decided to take things in hand this summer and address the Top 2 on my list.

The Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum (Sziklakórház Atombunker Múzeum) at Lovas út 4/c in District I opened over in Buda in 2008. Every year since, I’ve promised myself that I’d go see it. It scores a 4.5 on TripAdvisor (2421 reviews) and a 4.7 on Google Reviews (173 reviews). On the Murphy scale it gets a 4.8 for interest but loses points for value in that it’s overpriced and herd-like. It’s 4000 ft for adults for the one-hour tour (about €13/$15). No wandering around on your own. No taking photos. No dithering.

The complex is part of a 10-km stretch of caves in the bowels of Buda Castle Hill. First used as an air raid shelter during WWII, it was then fashioned into a state-of-the-art surgical hospital for 60 patients. For three years after the war it was a vaccine-producing institution. Brought back into service in 1956 during the Revolution, it packed in the wounded to the point that body heat alone raised the average temperature from 15°C to 33°C. During the Cold War it was reconstructed to make a top secret nuclear bunker and from 1962 to 2007 variously served as a stand-by hospital, a nuclear bunker and civil defence forces store. Up until 2004, one family maintained it in secrecy.  Mr Mohácsi was responsible for airing the place on daily basis and looking after the electrical and mechanical systems. Every other week, Mrs Mohácsi would clean, sterilize, and change the bed linen. Today, over 200 wax models tell its story.  And they’re so lifelike that when I opened a door to find one sitting on the loo, I apologised and blushed, before blushing again when I realised my mistake. A fascinating place.

Next on my list was the Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum) at Ludovika tér 2-6 in District VIII. It scores 4 on TripAdvisor (45 reviews) and 4.5 on Google Reviews (75 reviews). On the Murphy scale it gets a 5 for interest and loses no points for anything. Admission is a lot more reasonable at about half the price of the Hospital in the Rock if you go to everything and you can stay till they ask you to leave. Photos are possible with a photo ticket. It’s free on the first Sunday of each month for visitors under 26, and for two adults accompanying a family member under 18. And it’s free to everyone on national holidays (note for your diary: next one is 23 October).

di1di3You can visit the dinosaur garden, with its life-sized models of those magnificent beasts. There’s a temporary exhibition on anthropological forensics, explaining how much our bones can tell us about where we come from. I had a great time trying to match my nose and lips with an ancestry. I also got to watch a video on cranial reconstruction. Mind boggling. And there’s not a nerdy scientific bone in my body. Upstairs, there’s a magnificent collection of crystals that would take a couple of hours to do justice to. And everywhere else, there’s stuff – animals, birds, insects – interspersed with interactive puzzles, games, and quizzes. You could spend all day there, quite happily. But careful, unlike most other museums in the city, it’s open on Mondays and closed on Tuesdays. Well worth visiting.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 September 2016

 

Putting the kettle on

Back in the early 1900s, a Swiss baker and confectioner by the name of Frederick Belmont emigrated to England. He opened his first tea rooms in Harrogate, Yorkshire, in 1919. He called it Betty’s. No one knows who Betty was but today, the name Betty’s Tea Rooms is synonymous with craft baking and the quintessential English Afternoon Tea. It’s famous all over the world, with a mail order business that has customers as far away as Tokyo.

Afternoon tea was the furthest thing on my mind on a sunny August Balaton Sunday, and when my friends suggested we go visit their local tea rooms, I was a tad sceptical. The last thing I’d expect to find in the bucolic Hungarian village of Zalaszántó, or indeed anywhere in the Hungarian countryside, is an English tea room. While the topography might have a few Yorkshire nuances, I simply couldn’t imagine sipping Earl Grey from a china cup while eating homemade scones topped with strawberry jam and fresh cream. But an hour later, that’s exactly what I was doing.

12469444_788232327971164_7704246895881058254_oBack in 2007, Mancunian Ken Jones and Brighton-born Neil Stevens crossed the Austrian border to teach English in the Hungarian town of Mosonmagyaróvár. Stevens had worked as a speech therapist and Jones as a printer. But they reinvented themselves and went in search of an alternative life.

In 2011, they ventured deeper into the country and ended up in Zalaszántó, determined to live a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle, growing their own vegetables, raising their various animals, and living off the land. This mastered, they looked for a new challenge.

Neil’s grandmother, Dora, was a housekeeper. When she passed away, he inherited her collection of recipes. Ken’s grandmother, Florrie, used to work at Betty’s Tearooms in Harrogate. He, too, inherited her recipes. Both like to bake, make their own jams, and mix their own teas. Both like to chat, to meet new people, to live a stress free life. So, they thought, why not open an English Tea Room and call it Florridora’s Pantry.

They poured their first cuppa in December 2015. A write-up in the popular Hungarian magazine Meglepetés got the word out and now they open 11am-5pm five days a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) in summer and every weekend, year-round, with a largely Hungarian clientele.

13329477_872897272838002_6886031588714323125_oTheir little tea museum is educational. The old-fashioned English games set up in the garden, like hoops and hopscotch, give the kids something to do. And the 16-seat tea room with its backdrop of  Gatsby-era music is delightful. They’re reluctant to expand, although the demand is there; the small numbers make for a convivial atmosphere and gives them time to enjoy chatting with their guests. They really have this alternative lifestyle thing nailed.

The tea menu is extensive and includes such gems as hőlgyek teája (ladies tea), a cup of which will sooth those hot flushes; emésztést segítő keveréke (digestive blend) which will sort your indigestion; and csípõs fájdalomcsillapító (spicy pain relief) which will cure those aches and pains.  The cake selection changes regularly (I can highly recommend the Rocky Road). Everything is made fresh on the day from their own produce and it’s all very reasonably priced.

This year, the lads are moving into the Christmas market with aplomb. If you’re quick, you can order their homemade Christmas cakes (from one-portion cakes to 22 cm family numbers) and Christmas puddings. They’re slow-cooked over a wood stove and so need weeks of preparation. I’m sure if you ask nicely, they might even mail it to you. But then you’d miss out on the experience. Better to go pick it up yourself and sample the delights of this unlikely, but lovely, feature of the Hungarian countryside.

First published in the Budapest Times 26 August 2016

Facing down the terror

Were I still in school, today would mark my last day of term. Were I in a full-time, paid, pensionable position, today would mark my last day of work before my holiday began. But as writing for the Budapest Times and going to mass on Sunday are the two most regular fixtures in my life right now (and admittedly, I’m a tad more religious about my Times deadlines that I am about mass), this last column in July is what marks my summer break.

This time last year, I wrote about the fun trips I had taken and was planning to take. I was full of the joys of life, grateful for the opportunity to see so much of the world both at home and abroad. My column ran with the title ‘Making Memories’ and ended with the lines ‘Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.’

In the intervening 12 months, the world has gone mad. This week alone saw a knife attack claim the lives of 19 people and injure 26 more in a facility for disabled people in Japan. In France, an octogenarian priest, Father Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in church while saying mass. The headlines noted that he was the 236th victim of jihadists in France since 2015. That struck me as odd. Not in that the number was so high, but that there was a number at all.

Also this week, Irish print and broadcast journalist, Vincent Browne wrote his own headline, claiming that ‘terrorism works only with the complicity of the media and its sensational reporting.’ I’ve been bothered for some time about the role the media plays in what we think today, in how we feel. It’s as if it is doing our thinking for us. Were we better off when news took time to travel? When we didn’t have news feeds clogged with videos of atrocities? When stories of terrorism were curtailed? I wonder.

A few paragraphs into his piece, Browne completes his heading: ‘Terrorism works only with the complicity of the media and its sensational reporting, for without the sensational reporting of such incidents, the intended terror would not materialise.’ He makes his case with statistics showing how the small proportion that deaths by terrorism represent are lost in the annual homicide figures for countries like France, Germany, and the USA. He notes that around the world, more than 1.2 million people die in road accidents [something we could rectify] and concludes with the observation that ‘the usual hysterics and attention-seekers don’t bother with these banalities.’

As I get ready for what is usually a quiet month for me work-wise, as I get set to close out the first half-century of my life and celebrate a big birthday, I do so with a heavy heart. I spent a lot of time with kids last week and I wonder what the future has in store for them. We adults are making a right mess of things. The world’s leadership landscape has rarely looked so bleak. Our elected, or soon-to-be elected leaders, offer little by way of hope. Our media seems hell-bent on fomenting the hatred sown by fanatics. And we’re all being sucked into a vacuum of despair.

focusing on goodWe need to stop focusing on our differences and start focusing on what we have in common – life. And we need to live that life, the only one we get, with a conscious thought for the children who will inherit our world. We need to take responsibility for what we say, for what we post, for what we share. And we could start by facing down the terror, by spending just one day focusing ONLY on the good stuff. It might just catch on.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 July 2016

It’s all happening in vibrant Veszprém

One of the best things about Hungary is the festivals. On any given weekend you can find something going on somewhere. Sometimes you get lucky and find two festivals going on in the same place, the same weekend.

IMG_6813 (800x579)We headed to Veszprém last weekend for VeszprémFest, the annual five-day music extravaganza that turned teenager this year. I was really looking forward to the outdoor gig in front of the Archbishop’s Palace in the Veszprém Castle district. I’m quite partial to a little Baroque with my bopping. We’d booked into the charming Éllő Panzió because it’s within walking distance, so we were set. But fate took a hand.

IMG_6777 (800x600)IMG_6792 (800x600)On Friday night, we were to see Mancunian Lisa Stansfield but such was the demand that they had to move the gig to the outskirts of the city to the Aréna. I’m used to the strictures of Budapest venues where you can’t take a photo without being publicly reprimanded and have to check your coat in the cloakroom and dare not stand up in your seat unless everyone else is standing, too.  But within three songs, she had the crowd out of their seats and swarming the stage. People were recording tracks on their phones, taking videos, and snapping happy. It seems like anything goes.

On Saturday night, it was Jamie Cullum. He was rained out though, and moved inside to a curtained section of the Aréna. Not as popular at the box office but an amazing gig. If Stansfield was good, Cullum was awesome. The festival is quite something.

A few years ago, they started a complementary Rosé, Riesling, and Jazz festival to run the same week. Lots of vineyards participate offering some excellent wine choices, good food, and three jazz gigs centre stage each evening in Óváros Tér . Thanks to the lovelies Szandra and Irma from Győr, who generously shared their taxi and got us back into town on Friday night in time for the last session, we had a blast. And we figured we could make it back for the second half of Fábián Juli & Zoohacker the next night, too, but the weather gods intervened.

The city is a year-round hive of festivity. My picks for the rest of the year are the Street Music festival (22-25 July), the Fairy Tale festival (18-20 September), and the Veszprém Games, an international art competition and festival that runs 7-12 October. And if those don’t grab you, there’s plenty more.
IMG_6849 (600x800)IMG_6846 (600x800)IMG_6842 (800x600)The city has a lot to offer by way of things to see (even when it’s raining non-stop and the temperature has dropped 15 degrees overnight). There are a couple of excellent exhibitions currently going on. In St Emeric Piarist and Garrison Church, there’s a gorgeous display of photos of frescos from a church in Romania (now on my bucket list) and across from St Michael’s Basilica (where we saw three weddings, on the hour at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm!!!) there’s a fascinating exhibition – Test és lélek a Nagy Háborúban (Body and Soul in the Great War) – that looks at preaching in the field, military hospitals, and medical practice in WWI. Powerful stuff.

The city can hold its own foodwise, too. Fejesvölgy Étterem – a traditional Hungarian restaurant – did everything right, from the service and the food to the drinks and the price. They were turning people away.  The more contemporary Elefánt Étterem was just as good in its own right. Apparently, a third one to watch (recommended by the lovelies) is Chianti but we had to leave that till next time.

And there will be a next time. The locals are friendly, quick to help, and very tolerant of mangled Hungarian pronunciation. Just over 90 minutes from Budapest by train, Veszprém is a gem of a city that is worth considering next time you want a change of scenery.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 July 2016