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

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