2018 Grateful 41

Charles (Chuck) Swindoll is a pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher. He’s 83. He used to stutter. I still stammer. He was a member of his school’s marching band. I was a member of mine, too. He has a radio program – Insight for Living – that is broadcast on more than 2,000 stations around the world in 15 languages. I’d like one of those. I dabbled briefly in it one year in with a series of podcasts called Hotline to Heaven. And it’s on my list to do again. Occasionally, I get posts in my inbox that mention him. A few weeks back, I got this one on the Giving Tree.

‘When the boy was young he swung from the tree’s branches, ate her apples, and slept in her shade…But as he grew up he spent less and less time with the tree. “Come on, let’s play,” said the tree. But the young man was only interested in money. “Then take all my apples and sell them,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy. He didn’t return for a long time, but the tree smiled when he passed by one day. “Come on, let’s play!” But the man, older and tired of the world, wanted to get away from it all. “Cut me down. Take my trunk, make a boat, then you can sail away,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy. Many seasons passed – and the tree waited. Finally the man returned, too old to play, or pursue riches, or sail the seas. “I have a pretty good stump left. Sit down here and rest,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy.’

Swindoll likens the tree to the many people who gave of themselves so that ‘he might grow, accomplish his goals, and find wholeness and satisfaction.’ And, indeed, there were times he was a giving tree himself. I was reminded of this earlier this week as I went about my business in Budapest. I had resolved some time ago that if I were approached on the street by someone asking for money, I’d give. Something, anything. My various pockets all have at least a 500 ft note in them, ready for the off. And when it comes to doling out the forints, I try not to discriminate. I read this verse on FB a few years back and it’s stuck in my head. It’s made me want to work on not being judgmental but it’s hard. It’s as if I’m preprogrammed to make snap decisions that catapult me into the role of judge and jury. So to avoid this, I try to give regardless.

But I still judge. And this means that after I’ve walked by an outstretched hand having judged it too well manicured to be in need, or after I’ve stepped over legs shod in designer-brand shoes that I can’t afford myself, I have this internal debate that could last second or minutes. After 12 months solid practice, 8 out of 10 times I’ll double back. But I’m still not there. I’m a work in progress.

Sadly, it seems like the asks are getting more and more plentiful. The number of people of all ages on the streets of Budapest asking for help is heartbreaking. And yes, perhaps for a sizeable number of them it’s a mafia-run day job. But what of the others, those in real need? Am I to be the one to judge? Perhaps, if I were smarter or more streetwise, I could. But I’m not. So I give. I’m aiming for 100%, but I’m not there yet.

I’m grateful for all the trees in my life – you know who you are. With thanks.

A palpable realignment of the soul

There are days when I’d cry at the sight of a cat crossing the road, or an episode of Coronation Street, or a Guinness advert. And there are days when tears are beyond summons, when death and destruction are greeted with a shrug and a whatever. I can’t find a correlation – not mood, not diet, not weather. It’s odd. But these days, for the sake of my sanity, I’m putting everything down to menopause and hormones. And I mean everything. If the bakery has run out of croissants, it’s down to not enough oestrogen in the kitchen. If the price of petrol has jumped overnight, it’s down to too much testosterone in the oil fields. And for everything else that goes wrong in my world, it’s down to not enough progesterone in my system.

Twice in my life, I’ve been moved to tears by a piece of art. Once was in Costa Rica in May last year. I’m not sure what happened. I was on holiday. In great form. Loving life. And then wham!$% … I was bawling my eyes in the Hidden Garden Art Gallery. I’m still not quite sure what happened, but ever conscious of what the universe might be trying to tell me (having learned to my cost that that little voice should be listened to) I bought it. Fast forward a few months and I found myself in an art studio over in Buda where the fab Hungarian artist Karl Meszlényi works his magic. He was pulling out canvases from here and there, trolling through paintings on the web that are on show in galleries in the city and abroad, and giving me a rundown on his art. I spotted something interesting in the corner: a rather large mixed media piece roughly framed in black wood. I asked to see it. He pulled it out and set it on the sofa.

I stood, I looked. I thought. And then wham!$% … I was bawling my eyes out once again. And this wasn’t the hysterical, expletive-ridden, just-stubbed-my-toe type of bawling. It was the kind that gathers in your feet and works itself up your body, getting bigger and bigger until it explodes, quietly. It’s accompanied by an overwhelming sense of something going on inside – a palpable realignment of the soul, perhaps. As it was the second time it had happened, I wasn’t nearly as embarrassed. I just stood there and let it all out. And with him being a painter and undoubtedly no stranger to artistic temperament, he took it all in his stride.

The piece is called Moon Two – it’s one of a series he did. Moon Blue is on the Saatchi website which gives a more knowledgeable, arty explanation than anything I could come up with. Roughly paraphrased, it’s painted acrylic, oil, tempera, and ink on canvas using mixed media with wood, stone, straw and bird’s nest. The abstract expression, is ‘all about texture, a stone breaking the monochrome, as daily events consecutively break into people’s monochrome lives.’ The term monochrome lives is used as a metaphor for the unresponsiveness of people to the speed of the world, a scream in a world of social deafness.

 

Mine has the same constituent parts…and some walnuts. That said, when I was busy going with the flow of emotion, moonscapes weren’t even on my periphery. What struck me about it all was the earthiness. The textures. The black and white. And curiously, it has something similar going on as the Costa Rica find. I’m a fan of black and white and the myriad greys in between, a reflection of my state of mind. While I might like my choices to be limited to either/or, my morals to be defined by good/bad, and my conscience to be guided by right/wrong, it’s the bits along the spectrum that I have to live with.

The piece hangs in the hallway. It’s the first thing I see when I come in the door and what I pass each time I enter or leave the kitchen. Were I given to flights of fancy, I’d say it whispers, that it knows my mood. I’d say that it darkens and brightens in sync with my soul. Occasionally, very occasionally, I feel an upsurge of emotion as I pass and when I stop to look at it, I lose myself in the shades and grey and know that I need to slow down, to re-calibrate, to centre myself.

Karl told me he isn’t an artist; he’s a painter. He explained that artists express themselves while painters study the techniques of visual communication. And for all its seeming randomness, this piece is a study of technique with each piece of straw, each nutshell, each twig placed with a higher purpose, be that Karl’s or the universe’s. There’s an order to it all that somehow makes sense.

 

Thanks again to Liz Frommer for the introduction. If you’re in the market for some statement pieces or simply want to see a painter in their home environs, contact her at lizfrommer@gmail.com

Walking in Circles

Who on earth am I?

Occasionally, very occasionally, I consciously do a bad thing. I’m sure I do lots of bad things without thinking. I’m human. But to actually do something sacrilegious in full consciousness, wide awake, knowing that I’m defacing someone else’s property, that’s a rarity. But it happens. The last time it happened was on a flight to Malta from Munich. I was leafing through the in-flight magazine – which, admittedly, is one of the better ones I’ve seen. And I came across a piece on a project with a working title Walking in Circles. Billed as ‘an artistic and literary project supported by the Arts Council Malta’, it’s an ‘illustrated poetic journey’ that started in 2017 and will be launched in book form in November 2018. I’ve combed the Arts Council’s website and can’t find any more details, so I hope this wasn’t just a flash in a pan. That said, if it was, I’m glad I happened across it when I did.

It seems that it will deal with the concept of Malta moving ‘from an emigrating nation to an immigrant hostess’. When I tore out the pages (I know, I know, how bad of me!) I missed one. I could have taken the whole magazine; it would have been easier. But that would have been just one more thing to carry. And I didn’t want it all, just a piece of it. A little like eating a muffin top and leaving the rest. Am I just one step away from tearing a page out of a book? But enough of my mental angst.

What caught my eye was a poem by Giulia Privitelli with an accompanying illustration by  Steven Bonello

Who on earth am I
or what I’ve done
that love I should deserve?
Is it a right that I could claim
or simply given and I’ve no say?
Like the moment of every birth
suddenly, a life’s just there.
So what would that make me
should I withhold
this ‘right’ to many, twice as many?
A thief perhaps
of riches I’ve already got.

But what is this need to show the other
that within is what really matters
the core, the soul, that captivating pulse
pulsing far beyond the limits of our sight
or the reasoning of our mind?
Isn’t this what I’d rather trust?
Feel here, my aching heart,
it pulls and pushes as my guide
and repeats what we’ve been told
through ancient wisdom, centuries old:
‘To love is to know,
forget your fear, don’t shift the blame,
you are blessed and without shame,
you are loved, and called by name.’

But tradition that resists all change
is a harmful poison, a barren land
and like stagnant water pushed down my throat
it burns with the taste of bitter and cold
and my faith is shaken, it trembles
and shivers in its hold.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched a video of János Lázár (the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff) set against the backdrop of a neighbourhood in Vienna, Austria. As migrants from all sorts of countries go about their business in the background, Lázár warns Hungarians that this, too, could happen in Budapest, if the opposition parties get their way and let the migrants in: spiralling crime, dirty streets, and good Christian locals being forced to leave their neighbourhoods in the face of the deluge of foreign migrants seeking refuge from abroad. The piece caught the attention of global media. The video was posted on Facebook, who took it down soon after saying it contravened user policy. But then, it had a think and put it back up because it was newsworthy. mmmmm…..

As the election day in Hungary approaches, I wonder which will prevail: fear or love.

Illustration by Steven Bonello

A little bit of me died tonight

I like experiential presents. They don’t take up shelf space or add to the the clutter of twenty-first-century living. They can be enjoyed over and over again, moments relived, memories recalled. I like jazz, too. So a Christmas present of two tickets to see jazz legend Dianne Reeves play in Budapest was a good choice. Thanks MI.

I’d be hard-pushed to describe what Reeves does on stage, lacking as I do the jazz vocabulary to do her justice. So I’ll borrow from her website: it’s a ‘melding of R&B, Latin and pop elements within the framework of 21st Century jazz.’ Yep – I caught that meld. And l marvelled at her scat singing – ‘vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, and nonsense syllables’ that I’d seen Ella Fitzgerald nail with Mel Torme on video once, a video that I managed to find.

Years and years and years ago, a cousin of mine went through a phase of singing everything. And I mean everything. Ask her what had happened in school or what she wanted for dinner or what she was going to wear that day and you’d get verse after verse after verse delivered in a sing-song voice that was cute at first…but quickly became annoying. While I can’t imagine Reeves ever being annoying, I can imagine her singing all the time.  She sang her hello, she sang through the usual ‘great to be back’ bits, and she sang through her band intro. She sang it all. And she improvised. And although Reeves ain’t quite Ella,  she’s a mean scat singer. With her quartet of super-talented musicians [Romero Lubambo on guitar, Peter Martin on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, and Terreno Gully on drums], she says they treat the stage not as a stage but as a playground. Every jazz musician gives what she calls a ‘jazz sensibility’ to the songs they were raised on. She mentioned Chicago, and Stevie Wonder, and Fleetwood Mac. And while I was wondering what she meant by jazz sensibility, she showed us with her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams. [The cover we heard tonight was a lot jazzier than this, from 2015.]

She came back onstage for an encore – and then she got serious. Her short commentary on the state of the world ended with her asking us to stay lifted, to hold on to our consciousness, to our humanity. She asked us to be a light in the world. She finished with a cover of Mali Music’s Beautiful, and when the chorus came [I put my lighter in the air for you], there wasn’t one cigarette lighter to be seen; it was all mobile phone flashlights. So not cool, people. So not cool.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I officially belong to another generation. I’m at the ‘back in my day’ stage where I have legitimate reflections of a life that my teenage nephews would see as fodder for history books. And as Reeves sang her heart out, a little piece of mine broke off. I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia that rode in on the back of a series of flashbacks to gigs I’d been to in my early 20s, where cigarette lighters were de rigueur and having a Zippo lighter meant not having burned grooves on your thumb. But no more, I thought, no more. That life is done. Reeves’ final words – one note, one voice, one people, one world, one love – though poignant, were lost on me. This one will take some time to process.

Fast-forward 35 years

I missed my 30-year school reunion. I was in Israel at the time. It was so successful that there was another one a year or so later. I got to that one and caught up with people I hadn’t seen in years. I remember a collective wondering at where the time had gone. American TV school reunions fascinate me, as do the High School yearbooks, where people are voted most likely to succeed, most likely to become millionaires, most likely to grow bunions. They’re the go-to resource when it comes to solving murders in TV whodunnits. Ireland is way more casual  – we didn’t get any further than the simple autograph book. And as we collected witty (and not-so-witty) rhymes from our soon-to-be-former classmates, I don’t think any of us stopped to wonder who among us would be famous – some day, even if one of our own, Murray Boland [now BAFTA-Award-winning executive producer in the UK] had made an appearance on the Late Late Toy Show while we were still in school – and that was like, Wow! Totes amaze.

I was in Edinburgh visiting one of my many cousins a quare few years ago, when I saw an episode of MacIntyre Investigates and realised that said same Donal MacIntyre had been in my class at school. Mad! I was a little in awe, reading his Wikipedia page. Who’d have thunk it. I never would have figured him for the type to get beaten up in bars and have to go on the lam when the thugs and gurriers he was investigating came looking for their ounce of flesh.

I was suitably impressed by Mick O’Toole’s photography and his ad campaigns. One of his most impressive photos is that of a man washing his face in the sea. Stunning. And staying with the sea, his short film on wave energy for Maynooth University has some jawdropping imagery. There’s a lotta talent lurking there, and I don’t ever remember him with a camera.

More recently though, another classmate came to light. Katrina Costello (although I could have sworn she went by Caitriona … she probably changed it to make it easier for the international brigade) is now a cinematographer/director whose documentary The Silver Branch was up for an award at the IFTA this year. And while I wouldn’t have the bladder control needed to live Donal’s life, reading about what Caitriona has been up to had me green with envy.

I contracted on mostly six months on, six months off periods — working in some of the major stock exchanges and banking capitals of the world,” she explains. “That allowed me the opportunity to do what I love; to go alone photographing and living in the far-off reaches of the world — from the mountains of Asia to the basin of the Amazon.

My ability with a camera wouldn’t even touch the shadow of the foot of a tripod in comparison to Mike or Caitriona, I have zero interest in being in or on TV like Murray. But a six-month on/six-month off schedule? And the wherewithal to travel? That I could do.

When I got over the envy and watched the trailer for her documentary, I was gobsmacked. It’s beautiful. Simply beautiful. I’ve been quoting it since. And it’s featured in the Fléadh in Galway later this year (Friday, 14th July) but I’ll be wedding it up that night somewhere in Portugal. I need to figure out another way to see the full thing.

The Silver Branch is a philosophical vision-poem on the life of farmer/poet Patrick McCormack, descendant of the generations of farmers who have lived off the wild landscape of the Burren in County Clare. Patrick and his rural community are drawn into a divisive battle with the Government, leading him and a small group of friends to the Supreme Court to decide on the fate of this iconic wilderness. Through Patrick’s eyes, and in his words, this beautifully shot film immerses us in the exquisite texture of the natural world, bringing us a rare glimpse of a disappearing way of life with all its richness and roguery, and leading to a deep connection with the Earth and our ancestral wild spirit. And though it is centred around [sic] one man’s life and a bitter-sweet end-of-era evocation, it explores much deeper themes: the relationship between man and landscape, between tradition and spirit, between body and soul. The Silver Branch is a story of hope – hope that we as individuals can make a difference to our universe.

My favourite line from the trailer is that everyone needs time and space and have a favourite place to come and see and visit and listen and be at peace. I have that. I’m lucky.

I’m sure many of the 70 or so who were in the Class of 1983 have done wild and wonderful things with their lives. That their fame has escaped me has probably lots to do with my paltry presence and engagement with social media, and little to do with the ineffectiveness of the village grapevine. I’m simply not in the know. It is nice, though, to see what 35 years can do to a life, and to take a tangential pride in the success of those you once sat beside in school. Note to self: Search for that autograph book. Some of those signatures could be worth money 🙂

 

With a nod to all things Irish

When 1 March dawned this year, Ireland was covered in a blanket of white. Fast-forward a couple of weeks later, all thoughts are turning to greening the country. And not only Ireland, but cities like Buenos Aires in Argentina and Tokyo in Japan, who have embraced the celebration of the nation’s patron saint, St Patrick.

The tiny Caribbean volcanic island of Montserrat is the only other country in the world in which 17 March is a public holiday. But it’s a coincidence. There, Montserratians commemorate an eighteenth-century revolt by slaves against their European white colonizers, the majority of whom were Irish. Their week-long celebration is about independence.

This year, St Patrick’s Day conveniently falls on a Saturday, and carries on the long weekend that starts with the Hungarian holiday of 15 March which celebrates democracy and freedom, two words very much in vogue in recent times, and commemorates the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. It was declared a holiday back in 1990. On this day, most Hungarians will sport a cockade of the national colors – red (strength), white (loyalty), and green (hope). There’s an alternative interpretation, too, apparently: red for the blood spilled by Hungarian patriots, white for freedom, and green for the land of Hungary.

The Irish holiday on 17 March dates back to 1903 and has more religious overtones, marking as it does the advent of Christianity to Ireland, brought to the shores by St Patrick way back when. The first official government-sponsored parade didn’t take place in Dublin until 1931. Slow as it might have been to catch on, St Patrick’s Day is now a day to be reckoned with in many cities around the world, Budapest included.

Eight years ago, in 2011, 546 people took part in the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. Each year has seen a few more marching, with turnout figures on track to reach the 10 000 mark on the 10th anniversary.

This year, the parade will take place on Sunday, 18th March from Szabadság tér.  The crowds will start convening at 1.30pm to a backdrop of music, face-painting, and a taste of the Ireland that comes in a glass – whiskey and stout. In a nod to sobriety and sanctity, the Irish Free State government banned the selling of alcohol on St Patrick’s Day back in 1927. Our neighbours up North weren’t as drastic and until the ban was repealed in 1961, I’d imagine there was quite a bit of border hopping going on. The parade will step out at 3pm and wend its way through the streets of Budapest over to Akácfa utca 49-51, to Instant VIII, where the party will start in earnest.

The massive venue will morph into a mini Ireland for the day, evening, and night with musicians and dancers doing their bit on all stages. The trinity of Irish revelry – ceoil, caint, agus craic (music, chat, and fun) – will preside over the occasion, one not to be missed.

Some, though, might be feeling a little worse for wear, a little tired perhaps from the previous night’s celebrations. The Annual St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner is set to take place in the Marriott Hotel on the night itself, Saturday, 17th March. This annual event started back in 2006 and has become quite a feature on the Budapest social calendar. With more than 250 people expected to show up in their best bib and tucker, this elegant evening is an opportunity to get a feel for what Irish hospitality is all about. This year, the fab Hungarian dance troupe Coincidance (European Irish Dance champions) will be giving their take on the traditional Irish dance, with Budapest-based Hungarian Irish Folk band Green Spirit supplying the music. It gives this patriotic soul goosebumps to see how Hungary has embraced the art of Irish music and dance and done us proud. A limited number of tickets are still available, so reserve yours now.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the celebrations continue into the following week when on Monday, 19th March, students from schools around Hungary gather for 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 for the second year running, there’ll be a special prize for the best Irish entry.

On Saturday, 24th March, at Folyondár Sports Hall (1037 Budapest, Folyondár utca 15), local, national, and international Irish dancers, will compete in the Budapest Open Feis 2018. Anyone who has watched, gobsmacked, as Michael Flatly and Riverdance took the world by storm, might be interested in seeing these dancers in step. The whole scene has come a long way since I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to dance classes, hating every minute of the ringlets (the de rigueur hairstyle for anyone with hair long enough to take the rags, long before the invention of curling tongs). Years later, on reflection, I wish I’d found a way to get over the fact that I don’t have a musical bone in my body and have a hard time telling a reel from a jig. But such is life.

The international Go Green campaign continues. In Singapore, for example, the Singapore River will run green while the Gateway of India in Mumbai will also go green for St. Patrick’s Day. In Budapest, at time of writing, confirmation is in that MUPA and the Tüskecsarnok will go green and hope is still alive that the Chain Bridge and the Budapest Eye will follow suit. Don’t you just love it when it all comes together.

Kudos to the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle, the Irish Embassy in Budapest, and all their supporters for making this all happen.

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

 

First published in the Budapest Times, 9 March 2018

Holy Mary

I made my First Communion in Waterford back in 1972. I have only vague recollections of the day, and those that I have, have been aided and abetted by photographic reminders. I do remember my white drawstring bag, though, and a Communion Prayer Book with a mother of pearl cover that I probably got from an aunt. Of the day itself, I draw a blank. No matter how hard I try, I can’t recall any specifics. But the sense of the occasion is still strong.

If I’m in Dublin for any length of time, I make sure to check what production Viking Theatre has going on in Connolly’s – The Sheds, in Clontarf. It was there I caught the sublime one-man-show by Philip Doherty – The Pilgrim, in which Rex Ryan gave us his all. Last night, having been housebound by the snow for three days, we walked down to check out Aoife Spillane-Hinks’s interpretation of Eoin Colfer’s Holy Mary. Colfer’s pre-writer experience of being a primary school teacher shows through as he nails the conversation and the wonderings of the two seven-year-old stars, Mary and Majella.

Played by Mary Murray (Love Hate, Adam & Paul, Magdalene Sisters) and multi-award-winning actor Maeve Fitzgerald, we meet the two girls on the day of their First Confession in the run-up to their First Communion. It says something about their acting skills when I had no trouble in believing that these girls were just 7. Murray and Fitzgerald between them also cover the rest of the roles: Mrs Leary (Mary’s mother), Mrs Barnes (Majella’s mother), Miss Murphy (the teacher) and Fr Ibar (the priest).

The play is laugh-out-loud funny. The girls’ take on religion is reminiscent of the kids in Give up yer aul sins and the teacher Miss Murphy, capable of going ‘full-on Provo’ when she’s in a bad mood, is also from the North. I’m still laughing at Majella’s explanation of Moses needing some ‘me time’ away from the Israelites.

The kindly priest, Fr Ibar, is from the Wesht of Ireland, the place where all the ‘unfortunates’ live. Conjuring up notions of Frank O’Connor’s First Confession, through his relationship with the girls, the good Father embodies a church I miss – one that is empathetic, patient, understanding, and in tune with the needs of its parishioners. In an attempt to broker peace between the two enemies, Fr Ibar (played by both Murray and Fitzgerald) encourages the pair to consider that they might be more alike than might appear.

For all its comedic lines and clever turns of phrase, the play offers a serious exploration of bullying and how cruel kids can be. It shows us that while our perception is very much our reality, other people have their perceptions of our reality, too. And rarely will these match.

Set in 1986 Dublin, the expressions took me back to my own childhood. I knew a few ‘right rips’ and had an aunt who was always ‘on her last nerve’. I was transported back to a time when coming from the country, I was slagged for being a culchie. I split my sides laughing at the three reasons Mary gives for culchies being allowed to come to Dublin – if they’re priests, if they’re nurses looking for husbands, or if they’re going to the All Ireland. Classic.

Billed as a ‘hilarious and heartbreaking tale of Communion, confusion, and consternation’ the original production back in 2011 lasted 55 minutes. We had a play in two parts, each lasting about 45 minutes. It played to a full house on Saturday, and I’m sure that when word gets out, tickets will be thin on the ground. If you’re in Dublin between now and 17 March, treat yourself. You’d be hard pushed to find a  better way to spend 15 quid.

 

 

 

 

Cheers!

In a previous life, while working with a think-tank in London, a report came across my desk that shocked me. It coined the term Ghost Town Britain. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of banks and post offices – they’re both big businesses; the streamlining of services is part and parcel of their operations. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of corner shops; I could see for myself how the behemoths like Tesco and Waitrose were bagging up the competition. What really got to me was the reported demise of the local pub. A colleague of the Muslim faith didn’t understand why I was upset. Fewer pubs meant fewer people drinking, and that had to be good, he said. But, I argued, pubs are much more than shorts and pints; they’re often the backbone of community life.

This, perhaps, is particularly true when you’re living in another country, away from what’s familiar, in the process of making a new life. I’ve looked back at the various cities in which I’ve lived and realise that many of the friends I made (and am still in touch with), were friends I met in a pub.

Starting over can be daunting. And the older you get, the more difficult it is to break into well-established social circles. Having a local pub helps, a concept embodied by the long-running TV show, Cheers!, and its theme tune with the refrain “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Expat pubs are like nation-states, serving up a fare that appeals to the displaced. In Budapest, for example, Jack Doyle’s and Becketts both fly the Irish flag and attract a community of expats from all over. The Caledonia gives a nod to the Scottish presence in the city. And strangely, it was from the Cale that a local Hungarian pub was born, one that is rapidly becoming a contender in the home-from-home market for many English-speaking expats in the city.

Back in 2009, Budapest-born Zoltán Farkas started working at The Caledonia as a bartender. He soon endeared himself to the clientele. Over the next eight years, Zoli got to know his punters by name and nationality. Although he’s never been to Scotland (or Ireland, England, or Wales for that matter), then co-owner Patrick McMenamin (himself a Scot) introduced him to the concept of banter, that back and forth between punter and publican that is such an inherent part of the ultimate pub experience. A quick study, Zoli soon realised that it’s not enough to offer good beer, fine wines, and decent food – the pub needs to have a personality, too.

Last year, Zoli got the opportunity to go out on his own, to see if he could replicate the down-home experience and create a pub where everyone would be welcome, where everyone would want to go, where people would be known by name. A regular Hungarian customer had spotted his talent, listened to his dream, and decided to back him. A family man with a beautiful wife, Szandra, and two lovely daughters, Zoli’s decision was influenced by the need to take a step forward in his career. And so, Kisrabló Pub was born.

Well, not so much born as re-imagined. The Kisrabló name (trans. Little Robber) has hung over the door of Zenta Utca 3 since 1925. In the 1990s, it was one of the most popular upmarket restaurants in the city, with a very good reputation. It closed for a time from 2015 to 2017, having suffered from a steady decline in service, something Zoli and his crew are serious about rebuilding.

Unlike Jack Doyle’s, Beckett’s, and The Caledonia, Kisrabó is on the Buda side of the city, in a part of town that has plenty by way of cafés and restaurants, but not so much in the line of proper pubs. But it’s accessible from just about anywhere by the M4 metro, trams 4, 6, 19, 41, 47, 48, 49, 56, and buses 133e and 7.

The only light shining on Zenta utca, the two-storey pub has capacity for about 170 people. The main floor alone has seats for 110, with six TVs screens, and a sound system. It’s a haven for sports enthusiasts who can watch pretty much any sport that’s being screened. Zoli has made this a priority, focusing on the English Premier League and rugby. As host to OLSCH, the Official Liverpool Supporters Club in Hungary, every Liverpool game in the season gets airtime. [And if you’re not into watching TV, the pool table and the dart board are free to use, while the csocsó (table football) works with a 100ft coin.]

The lower-floor event room can host 60 customers with a separate bar and its own staff. Wired with a standalone sound system and TV, it’s calling out to tasting events, parties, family events, company nights out, and live music gigs. On 2 March, the Irish Hungarian Business Circle will host its monthly First Friday event there, with special guests from the Italian Chamber and music by the fab Green Spirit. This is the first of many such events Zoli plans for Kisrabló, events that embody the essence of what the pub is about – inclusiveness.

And while the whole pub experience is about far more than simply drinking, the drinks offer is quite extensive, including 10 draft beers with English ales and Irish stouts, Hungarian handcrafted beers, and Czech lager, too. It also boasts more than 30 different bottled beers and about 10 different ciders. And, I hear, the plan is also to focus on quality spirits, building the offer week by week.

I’ve been a few times when I’m in town and there’s a rugby match on. Zoli and Szandra always have a welcome and a word for me. But last week, Beni, one of the bartenders, called me by name. And something clicked. I felt at home. Cheers, lads! Here’s to many good years ahead.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 February 2018

Sushi ain’t no sandwich

I must be getting old. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to go with the flow. To have no plan. To simply get with the programme. Change was something to be embraced rather than eschewed. It added a certain spice to life, relieving it of its monotony. But apparently, somewhere along the way, unbeknownst to me, I changed. Me!*?

We’ve been following the renovation of a new sushi bar in Corvin Negyed. It seems to have taken an eternity to get the place remodelled, but it finally opened last month. SushiRoll is small, bright, and airy, with just a topful of tables that don’t encourage punters to hang around. It’s more of a fast-food-type place, big on take-away.

Himself came home with a tray the other night and I had a taste. It was good. So good that I went back to see for myself what was on offer.

 

They had prepped trays with a selection of various rolls complete with ginger and wasabi. And then they had whole rolls. I made my choice and asked if they would slice them for me.

No, they said. We can’t.
mmmm…. but you have a knife – you’ve obviously cut the others.
Yes, they said. We have.
And you have the box to put them in.
Yes, they said. We do.
But you can’t slice them for me?
No, they said. We can’t.

It didn’t take much effort to look incredulous. WTF!!!

Then I thought it might be a recycling thing. The paper bag the whole rolls came in is much friendlier than the typical plastic-lidded sushi box. But no. The wasabi and the ginger came in a plastic tub. As did the nigiri and the inari. At a loss for words, I made my selection and moved to pay. But I couldn’t let it go.

Why won’t you slice the rolls for me?

The explanation left me wondering at where the world is going. A well-rehearsed duo, the two explained that they’re trying to set a new trend whereby people opt for sushi rolls instead of sandwiches. They want to make it a fast food. And anyway, they said with a finality that brooked no further argument, that’s the way it’s done in Australia.

Completely dumbfounded, I wondered whether won’t might have been the word to use instead of can’t. I took my rolls home, sliced them, and ate them, as I usually do. I like the ritual of sushi, drawing it out and savouring each bite. Somehow eating a roll like a sausage seemed strange. They are really good, though, and I will go back.

Sometimes, it’s best to leave well enough alone. But I couldn’t. The next day, I had fab summer rolls from Hanoi Xu’a up near Nagyvarad tér at Ernő u. 30-34. Fresh, fat, and long, loaded with veg and shrimp, I dunked each one in the peanut sauce and loved it. I’d never dream of slicing them. So what gives? Why am I so reluctant to dunk my sushi rolls? Is it me resisting change? Or am I simply taking a recalcitrant stance against being prescribed to? Or maybe I have an innate aversion to trends? WTFK!

 

 

 

Doorstep discoveries

I had an appointment to have an MRI during the week. I opted for a clinic I’d been to before, as I knew how to get there. It was relatively close to home but in my mind would entail public transport. But himself pointed out that I’d be quicker walking. One minute quicker, to be exact. So, off I took, wending my way through the back streets of the VIIIth district.

My first surprise was a fabulous Art Nouveau (am open to correction here, but I think that’s what it is) apartment building in need of repair opposite a school on Szűz utca (I wonder how Virgin Street got its name?). I stopped twice to look – once on the way there, and again on the way back.

On to Tavaszmező utca, where two majestic buildings sit opposite the Óbudai Egyetem (Óbuda University). From what I can find out, one is (or was) Magyar Királyi Állami Főgimnázium (Hungarian Royal State High School). Across from it, sits the equally splendid A. M. Kir. állami mechanikai és órás ipari szakiskola (State Industrial Mechanics and Clock School) – what it is now, I’ve no idea. The area has been pedestrianised and is a gorgeous spot, boasting a specialty coffee shop that I plan on revisiting. Műterem Kávézó has a newish old-looking coffee machine that I am now coveting.

Magyar Királyi Állami Főgimnázium

 

A. M. Kir. állami mechanikai és órás ipari szakiskola

Onward then to Mátyás tér, where I found where I want to live next. I have a thing for winter gardens. I’d been there years ago, before the area had a facelift, and had enjoyed an afternoon/evening of music and craic at a street party.Where have the years gone?

In the square, there’s a statue of Bauer Sándor, a young man I didn’t recognise but whose story I think worth repeating.

Born in Budapest in 1952, he lived for a while on my street, on Üllői út (not sure where, but I’ll be checking). Young Bauer realised quickly that in a Communist system, talent doesn’t count for much. It was all about who you knew, not what you knew. He read a lot, and was especially interested in history. In the cellar of his apartment building, he ran a youth club, attempting to get his contemporaries to see the evils of dictatorship and take the road of armed resistance. Tyranny and oppression were the enemy. In the afternoon of 20 January 1969, at the age of 17, he took himself off to garden of the National Museum at Kalvin tér, doused himself in petrol. and set himself alight. A few hundred people bore witness. 

A few days earlier, on 16 January in Prague, 21-year-old Jan Palach had done the same. He died on 19 January, the day before Bauer lit his match.  Bauer, apparently took his lead from him, telling onlookers that a cseh testvér is megtette (the Czech brother also did this).

Bauer wrote a will and farewell letters to his friends and family. With second- and third-degree burns covering 15% of his body, he was taken to hospital in critical condition. On 22 January, still in his hospital bed, Bauer was arrested. He died the next day. He was buried on 28 January in a closed funeral with details of his death and what he had done not made public until 5 February. His grave, apparently, was under watch for many years. A nearby street bears his name, though I’m not at all sure what the connection is with the area. I’m left wondering what purpose his death served. His mother, apparently, lived to see a new century. I wonder what she thought, too. 

I didn’t find all this out until later though, so unhampered by what I’ve only recently learned, I walked up Bauer Sándor utca on to Teleki László tér where I found a market hall, complete with stalls of fresh produce, great meat, and a few knickknacks to boot. And all within a 20-minute walk of my front door. How spoilt am I?

I really must get out more often.