The graveyard school of life

A dead man here. Another one there. This one in his 60s. The other in his 80s. Beloved father, husband, son. An inevitability. Yet to see the markers of 211 dead men, all of whom died within a few years of each other.  Some on the same day, at the same time even, and none older than 36. That’s not inevitable. That’s war.

IMG_1606 (800x600)IMG_1607 (600x800)The British War Cemetery is about 14km outside of Budapest in Solymár. Not all of those buried there were British (128). There are Canadians (6), Australians (13), New Zealanders (6), French (1),  South Africans (20), and  Polish (37). All of them  RAF men shot down in WWII. It’s one of the most inspirational places I’ve seen in a long time.

Just inside the gate, there’s a register of graves, with each man’s name, rank, and family details inscribed. Those who went down in the same plane, on the same day, are buried side by side. It gives it perspective somehow.

IMG_1615 (600x800)Except for one French cross, and the 37 Polish headstones that have a pointed top, all of the markers are the same curved white stone.

The two Jewish graves have the tell-tale pebbles – which surprised me – as one was Canadian and the other South African. It does this occasionally jaundiced heart some good to know that someone, somewhere, still cares enough to pay their respects.

IMG_1627 (600x800)The cemetery itself is beautifully maintained, as  all Commonwealth graveyards are, thanks in no small part to Sir Fabian Ware, who founded the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Too old for active service at the age of 45, he went to France with the British Red Cross in 1914. It wasn’t long before he noticed that there was no system of recording the graves of those who had died in battle. He convinced the War Office that if the dead were properly looked after, it would boost the morale of the living. [I’m still trying to work that one out, but I suppose in an odd way, it makes sense. So much of what we see today still testifies to the need for closure; that need to know where the bodies have been buried.] His motivation? Common remembrance of the dead [of the Great War] is the one thing, sometimes the only thing, that never fails to bring our people together.

Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking of Fabian Ware or his Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as I walked each line of headstones. I was taken by the lessons to be learned from their inscriptions.

IMG_1635 (600x800)How many of us think in terms of a finished life? Of an end date by which we should accomplish all we have set out to achieve? Of a finite point in time when the clock will stop and our time will end? A preoccupation with such thoughts might be debilitating rather than motivating, but a healthy awareness of the inevitability of death might encourage us not to waste what time we have now.

IMG_1634 (800x400)I doubt this is a comment on Bill’s sexual preferences, but I’d like to think that it is. And that we could learn something from this – learn to accept each other for who we are without judging.

IMG_1628 The idea of sacrifice – how alien is that in today’s ego-centric, all-about-me world of likes and friends and followers? I am hard pushed right now to think of one cause that I would willingly die to defend. Oh, I’d like to imagine that I’d be in the thick of the resistance should WWIII break out. I’d like to think that I’d be helping  the persecuted escape, standing up for justice, playing my part. But would I really? I sincerely hope I never get the chance to find out.

IMG_1618 (800x400)Back in the 1940s, choice was a luxury few enjoyed. If your number came up, you got a uniform. Today, young people enlist. Perhaps some are misguided and fall for the marketing hype (I’ve seen one recruitment video for the US military and even I was tempted). More, I hope, firmly believe in their country. Others still might be making calculated career choices rather than playing to their patriotism. But those who may end up on the front line deserve our respect and our prayers, regardless of our politics.

IMG_1631 (600x800)In opting to be cremated, I will be crossing one task off my list – that of thinking of what I’d have etched on my tombstone (yes, I’m organising my own funeral lest someone gets carried away with the pomp and ceremony and God forbid, chooses the wrong music for me to depart to). But this saddened me to the core. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that he is nameless, ageless, stateless, or just plain dead. I’d like to think that when I go, someone will notice me gone.

IMG_1638 (600x800)I smiled at this one, as I do every time I remember playing with the elephants. That trip to South Africa changed me. Not noticeably, except perhaps to me. I smiled because it conjured up swash-buckling images of dapper pilots heading to their planes, silk scarves flying behind them. The notion of pals. Of enduring friendships carved out of circumstances that no one should have to endure. Those friendships we make in times of shared adversity or hardship or grief – they are of a different mettle, a different type of bond. And these pals – they all went down together.

IMG_1639 (800x600)There’s something about this place that makes it special. I’m not an advocate of war. I don’t pretend to understand why people choose a life that is in large part dictated to them by others. I cannot fathom how anyone could follow orders that go against their conscience. But that’s neither here nor there. Seeing these men, aged 19 to 36, their markers standing to attention in the shadow of a big white cross, gave me pause for thought.

Kiev isn’t far from Budapest, literally and figuratively. Could what’s happening there, happen here? On a wider scale, are we due another great war? And if we did find ourselves in one, would we be able to cope? So many questions…

 

 

 

 

2014 Grateful 40

Some people celebrate their birthdays in style. Some ignore them completely. Others still, like my mate GB in Malta, visits a cemetery. He’s not fussy about which one; as long as he gets to a cemetery on the day, he’s happy. He’s been doing it for years; he says it’s life-affirming.

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I can relate to that. I have a thing or three for cemeteries, for the perspective they give and the calm they offer. Last week I visited GB’s favourite – Ta’Braxia – in part because I wanted to escape the madness, and in part because my mate Lori’s second anniversary was coming up and I needed to connect.

20140328_133153_resizedI hadn’t realised that back in 1915, Malta was treating the sick and wounded from military campaigns in Gallipoli (billed as one of the Allies’ great disasters of WWI) and the little-known Salonika, when in October 1915

a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (today called Thessalonika) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression. 

From these two campaigns, over 135 000 wounded found their way to Malta. It’s little wonder then, that the island’s cemeteries are full of foreign-sounding names.

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Fast forward to WWII. While it was never invaded, Malta was bombed… and bombed… and bombed. Such was her perseverance in the face of adversity that in April 1942, the island and her people were awarded the George Cross by King George VI.

In Ta’Braxia cemetery, about 2 km outside of Valetta,  lie many of those who fought in both wars. I was struck by some of the inscriptions.

20140328_133603_resized-1 (800x600) (800x600) And another that simply said: Life’s work well done. Now come to rest. That’s something I wouldn’t mind being able to say with a measure of honesty when my time is up.

Some died of fever, others had drowned. More still were the wives and children of serving military from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and France. While the men were remembered for their bravery, the women were remembered for their roles. One headstone in memory of Georgina read: The good and faithful wife of Mr John Sullivan, head-master of H.M. Dockyard school, Malta. She was just 25 when she died.

It was a lovely day; just the right sort of weather to visit a cemetery. And we had the place to ourselves, apart from a gardener or two. There’s a lot to be said for taking the time to stop and pay your respects, particularly to those who gave their lives so that we might live in a better world.

It was a manic week entailing lots of people-time. I’m physically and emotionally wrecked. I miss Lori terribly and wonder how much she can see from where she is. I’m grateful though for whatever it was that planted this appreciation for cemeteries in me and for that need I feel to spend time with the dead. Some might think it morbid, but like my mate GB, I find it life-affirming.

 

 

 

Prostrate with grief

In Milan a couple of weeks ago, I was a little taken aback to see a woman, lying prostrate on a grave, her grief palpable, her sorrow tangible. Coming from a country that would rival Britain in its stoicism at times, such public displays of emotion are not what I’m used to.

IMG_0297 (600x800)IMG_0287 (800x599)IMG_0289 (800x597)I’ve been introduced as a cemetery tourist by a friend in Malta. And yes, my fascination with how we remember our dead and mark their passing is one I’ve readily acknowledged. That said, I’ve managed to get this far in  life without ever laying eyes on a corpse, despite the numerous funerals I’ve been to. And being from a people who wake their dead at home – this is odd in more ways than one. I just can’t bring myself to look upon a corpse. A body emptied of its soul is something beyond my otherwise virile imagination.

The simplest and most moving cemetery I’ve been to is the Bernadinu kapines in Vilnius, Lithuania. The most different perhaps the Alifakovac cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most educational (for me) has to be Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, Ireland. And, up until now, perhaps the most impressive cemetery I’ve been to in terms of sculpture was the Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia. But Mirogoj has relinquished its No. 1 spot to the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano.

IMG_0301 (800x600)IMG_0293 (800x598) (2)Up to 1861, Milan had many small cemeteries scattered around the city. After Italian independence, a decision was made to consolidate them into two: one for the upper echelons of society and another for those whom fame and fortune had bypassed: Cimitero Monumentale and Cimitero Maggiore, respectively. What started as an 18 hectare expanse, taking three years to lay out, Cimitero Monumentale now occupies 25 hectares of this Italian city.

IMG_0295 (800x597)Wandering its paths is like walking through a virtual who’s who of Italian creative aristocracy featuring such luminaries as poet Salvatore Quasimodo, composer Giuseppe Verdi, and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Names like Pirelli and Campari all ring bells of vague recollection, testifying to the longevity of Italian business empires.

IMG_0314 (800x591)To my mind, cemeteries are some of the best museums out there and don’t get the recognition they deserve. Anyone with a love for Italian art won’t be disappointed. The works of Giannino Castiglioni, Giacomo Manzù, Medardo Rosso, Leonardo Bistolfi, Ernesto Bazzaro, Odoardo Tabacchi, Adolfo Wildt and Argentine artist Lucio Fontana are all represented. Don’t make the mistake we made: come early and plan on staying for a few hours. There is so much to see and marvel at that you won’t feel the time passing before the siren marking 30 minutes to closing sounds and the man on his bike does his rounds to make sure that all living souls leave before the gates close.
IMG_0331 (800x600)IMG_0300 (800x599)While there are many beautiful monuments to be seen, what struck me was how the grieving woman was depicted, time and time again. It’s something I’ve not noticed in other cemeteries – at least not to the same extent. And their numbers made the absence of grieving men even more remarkable. There’s a thesis to be written on that. If you’re in Milan and have time, it’s worth dropping by. No. Scratch that. If you’re in Milan and don’t have time, it’s worth making time for. IMG_0291 (800x599)

2014 Grateful 49

Those of you who grew up in Ireland might remember the nuns telling you to eat all your lunch because there were millions of black babies in Africa who were starving. Personally, I never got the connection. Why would they care whether or not I ate all my lunch. Hunger in another world so far removed from my own didn’t concern the inner workings of this six-year-old’s mind. Yes, I dutifully went without sweets during Lent and collected money that went to Trócaire, who in turn were supposed to alleviate the hunger in Africa. I don’t get that connection either. [I have vague memories of TV personality Bunny Carr doing a runner with some money donated to Górta (Irish aid organisation). Late last year, Irish charity, the CRC, made the headlines when it confirmed that money donated by the public was being used to top up salaries of well-paid staff. It’s hard to know where your charity dime is going these days.]

But back to hunger. Between 1845 and 1852 a million people died from hunger in Ireland and a million more emigrated to escape a similar fate. We call it an gorta mór (the great hunger). I came across a number of memorials to the famine earlier this year – the old famine road in Mayo was one. Another is the memorial near the foot of Croagh Patrick in Murrisk, Co. Mayo.

IMG_9518 (800x599)IMG_9515 (800x597)This depiction by Irish sculptor John Behan is a graphic illustration of the coffin ships that sailed from Ireland, weighed down with the hopes of those seeking a better future. I hadn’t realised that the first coffin ships sailed for Quebec, Canada, where at one stage 40 vessels containing 14,000 Irish immigrants waited in a line extending two miles down the St. Lawrence.

IMG_9861 (600x800)In Mullingar, I spotted a sign for a famine graveyard and had to double back to check it out. I’m not sure what I was expecting. A field, perhaps, with lots of simple crosses? A mass grave with a huge monument? I was half-right… on both counts. I’ve tried searching the Internet for more information but to no avail. What little I know about it was gleaned from the rather innocuous memorial stone that was erected at the entrance.

IMG_9863 (800x589)IMG_9867 (584x800)It was a little surreal to stand in a field with one large tree and one small, plain, wooden cross knowing that the remains of hundreds, if not thousands, lay beneath the sod. Country hedges separated the mass grave from nearby houses and in a flight of fancy, I found myself wondering what it would be like to wake up every morning, open my curtains and look out onto this field. For many of us, the famine has become some abstract event that we are not allowed to forget. Memorials exist in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, all places that felt the effect of an gorta mór.

IMG_9864 (570x800)Have I ever been hungry? Yes. Have I ever known hunger? No. And when I see the chronic amount of food wasted each and every day, I am reminded of the millions who die daily because they have to do without. Will my eating all my dinner save a life in Africa? I doubt it. But I don’t have to go to Africa to find hungry people. There are plenty of them in Budapest. The Hare Krishnas alone feed over a 1000 every day in the city. I read somewhere recently about an initiative in Ireland that links restaurants and supermarkets with homeless shelters. All soon to be expired food and food left at the end of the day that won’t be sold the next are donated free of charge to feed the hungry. That’s an idea worth replicating.

This week, as I feel fuller than usual thanks to Italian hospitality, I’m grateful that I’ve never experienced hunger or known what it is to want for food. And I’m even more grateful for an abiding awareness of how fortunate that makes me.

The words of Buzz Aldrin come to mind… If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger. And with them, the words of St Augustine: Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.

 

 

 

Moses: whereabouts unknown

Nabi Mosa mosque is said to be a sacred place for Muslims because it is here that the prophet Moses is supposedly buried – mind you, that, like much else in the region, is subject to debate.

IMG_8226 (800x595)IMG_8215 (600x800)The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well travelled by Mediterranean Arabs on their way to Mecca. Nabi Mosa is situation at what would have been the end of the first day’s walk. Nearby Mount Nebo is where Moses was thought to be buried back then – his ‘move’ to to Mosque is thought to be a matter of invention. The current building was completed in the late 1400s and restored by the Ottoman Turks in 1820. It’s now home to a treatment centre for addicts.

IMG_8227 (800x600)To give the local Muslims something to celebrate while their Christian counterparts were celebrating Easter, the Ottomans instituted a seven-day religious festival called Nabi Mosa. Thousands of Muslims would gather in Jerusalem and make the trip to the mosque where they’d celebrate for  days before returning home. When Jordan took over the administration of the West Bank after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the festival was more or less cancelled.

IMG_8237 (800x592)IMG_8236 (800x594)In the shadows outside the mosque lies an old cemetery. The ground is rock solid and I can’t begin to imagine how anyone would dig a grave. This probably accounts for the raised grave sites. The inscriptions meant nothing to me and I can’t find any account of it anywhere so it’s difficult to tell how old it is. Graves seemed to be scattered around rather than laid out in any particular order reflecting the chaos that seems to be so innate to life in Palestine.  and in the heat of the sun, miles from anywhere, the place had a serene and saintly feel to it. We were the only ones at the monastery and I was the only one in the cemetery. For the first time in days, I felt like I was communing with something other than commercialism. And I actually took the time to pray.

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A day of remembrance

All Saints’ Day is one of my favourite days on the Budapest calendar. To see policemen on traffic duty inside the grounds of the city’s major cemeteries makes me smile. To see generations of people making their way to the gravesites of those who have gone before them, armed with candles, flowers, and oftentimes food, warms the cockles of my sometimes cynical heart. To see families getting together to pray for deceased relatives and friends gives me faith that religion might still have a place in society, that it might still have a cohesive role to play.

All Saints’ Day is a relatively old feast day than can be traced back to 393 when St Ephrem apparently mentioned it in a sermon. It has its origins in the Christian tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of saints on the anniversary of their death. When, during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, martyrs became more common than not, the Church (namely Pope Gregory III (731-741)), instituted a common feast day on 1 November as a catch-all, to make sure that each and every one of them received their due.

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Although a practising Catholic, my visit to a Catholic cemetery on 1 November lasts barely long enough to buy some flowers (cemeteries seem to be the only places open in Budapest on that day).  Instead I visit the Old Jewish Cemetery, specifically the grave of author/journalist Bródy Sandór (1863-1924). I bring my flowers, say my prayers, and wonder whether Sandór is lying below, furiously kicking up the soil in an effort to dislodge my bouquet. I mean, All Saints’ Day is very much a Catholic holiday, not a Jewish one.

IMG_0227 (800x600)And yet, as all those devout Christians mill around the Catholic cemeteries, the emptiness and relatively neglected state of the neighbouring Jewish burial ground is a stark reminder of how quickly we forget. Just walking through it, seeing the fallen tombstones, the cracked paving, the overgrown graves, gives me pause for thought. Seeing memorials to those whose bodies never returned from the camps sobers me. Seeing benches that have broken under the weight of a collective memory gives me goose bumps. And I am reminded, yet again, of the transience of life and the importance of acknowledging the living lest we forget them when they die.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 November 2013

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Educational epitaphs

I thought I was a little odd visiting Bródy Sándor’s grave each November and leaving flowers, but I have nothing on this 40-something French girl who comes to Ireland five or six times a year to visit Michael Collins’s grave and also sends flowers for Valentine’s Day and his birthday. Amazing what Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the great man can ignite.

IMG_7245 (600x800)Mind you, I inherited a photo from my aunt of a man in uniform, sure that it was of my grandfather. A friend visiting from Ireland said he was surprised that I’d have a photo of Michael Collins on my wall. I’m not sure who got the bigger shock.

Michael Collins ranks up there as one of Ireland’s great historical figures. And Glasnevin cemetery is full of them. Parnell, Larkin, O’Donovan Rossa  – they’ve all secured a place in history and a plot in this cemetery. Used as I am to rather banal epitaphs, it was quite a shock to see cause of death etched in stone. Walking through Glasnevin was like leafing through a history book.

IMG_7241 (589x800)IMG_7223 (594x800)I felt stirrings of that elusive thing called patriotism as I was reminded, yet again, that the freedom I enjoy today is courtesy of so many who gave up their lives to secure it for me. There were two sides in the Civil War and to this day, there are two camps alive and well in Ireland. I wrote a while back about the American Civil War and the South’s reluctance to move on and let go, so it was with more than a little chagrin that I listened to our guide tell of visitors who would refuse to stop at de Valera’s grave or walk by Michael Collins without as much as a nod. And I wondered, not for the first time, about history and how, how it is passed on  shapes our view of the world.

IMG_7235 (600x800)I’m a great fan of WB Yeats and have noted a couple of instances where he refers to a chap by the name of O’Leary. In September 1913, he writes: Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone; it’s with O’Leary in the grave. And again, in the poem Beautiful Lofty Things: Beautiful lofty things: O’Leary’s noble head. I’d always wondered who this chap was and now I know. Buried next to James Stephens, for whom he was best man, O’Leary was a Fenian, believing in Irish independence and the separation of Church and state, and, apparently, a friend of Whistler. Now there’s a connection that would make for an interesting ‘six degrees of separation’.

IMG_7211 (800x600) (2)The prize for the best attended funeral goes to Charles Stewart Parnell – more than a quarter of a million people turned out to see him buried – a sizable number of whom wanted to make sure he was dead. Parnell was buried in the cholera pit, where more than 13 000 others met their end in a mass grave. It was thought that here, he’d be safe from the grave robbers and those who might want a piece of him.

In many countries, grave robbing has fallen off the statutory law wagon. Back in the day, when medical universities needed bodies to dissect, corpses were traded by the imperial inch. Just one body was worth two months’ wages in Ireland and in the UK, the same body would be worth six. In Austria right now, police are looking for a grave robber who has broken in the graves of composers Brahms and Strauss and stolen their teeth! Apparently he plans to open a museum. Oh, the workings of the human mind – what a mystery.

Touching coffins

There are more people buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin that are currently alive in the city. I heard that on Saturday and it still hasn’t sunk in: 1.5 million dead vs 1.3 million alive.  A tour of the cemetery has been on my list of things to do for years and finally, thanks to the ever-on-the-ball MN, I got to cross it off my list and may well have changed my life in the process.

IMG_7267 (600x800)Dominated by a large round tower – the tallest in the country – it’s home to many a famous Irish man and woman. The round tower, in fact, is the headstone on Daniel O’Connell’s grave and for those of you who are not familiar with the man Dan, there are those who believe that he discovered Ireland.

IMG_7183 (800x600)We share the same birthday – 6 August – but he was born into aristocracy in 1775 on the opposite side of Ireland, in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Despite having money, the family’s belief in Catholicism stood against them and denied them the status and influence their bank  balance would normally provide.  After stints in college, Daniel went to Lincoln’s Inn, London, and then to King’s Inn,  Dublin, where he studied for the bar. Qualifying in 1798, he was at this stage   fully committed to religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, democracy and the separation of Church and State.

At home, he was seen as a bit of  radical and despite his involvement in the United Irishmen, they themselves inspired by the French Revolution, O’Connell believed that the Irish were not sufficiently enlightened to hear the sun of freedom [An aside: when I read this, I remembered a Hungarian friend telling me in before the last elections that Hungary wasn’t ready for democracy – the parallels continue]. He was all for change, but advocated change within and through the system.

Fast forward to 1815 when O’Connell was probably the most successful barrister in the country and leader of the Catholic Emancipation movement. In 1823, he along with a couple of others, started the Catholic Association and had the brainwave to swell its ranks by offering annual membership for just a shilling. Their aim: to have the Act of Union repealed, to bring an end to Irish tithe system, to bring about universal suffrage, and to see a secret ballot for parliamentary elections. Despite being elected to government, O’Connell couldn’t take his seat in London in Parliament because he was Catholic. But he was a crowd-puller. It is thought that three-quarters of a million people gathered on the hill of Tara to hear the man they called the Liberator.

In 1841 he became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin and continued to fight to have the Act of Union repealed, yet he would die in Genoa in March of 1847 without doing so. On his last trip to Rome, he visited Paris where he was touted as the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe.  He never made it to Rome and on his deathbed is reported to have said My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, and my soul to Heaven. Whether or not he meant this literally is a mystery but those who heard him decided to grant his wish. His heart was removed and sent to Rome to the Irish College while the rest of him was shipped back to Glasnevin cemetery, the country’s first non-denominational cemetery which he had started back in 1832. Apparently, his heart went missing about 110 years ago…

IMG_7186 (800x583)IMG_7194 (800x600)O’Connell’s coffin sits in a crypt beneath the round tower. Holes in the marble casing allow you to reach in and touch the coffin, which is supposed to bring good luck. (Yet again, I’m fascinated by our ability as a people to conjure good luck out of anything from the combination of a black cat and an ambulance to repeated numbers on a digital clock.) Touch it I did, and more than once. In fact, had the opportunity presented itself and were good luck guaranteed, I’d have gotten into the coffin beside him.

IMG_7188 (800x600)His family and their first born are also entitled to a space in the crypt… in a side room, stacked on top of each other in lead-lined caskets. Lead creates a seal, a vacuum of sorts, that preserves bodies and as hair continues to grow long after we die, one can only imagine the state the family would be in now.  In what might seem as an effort on behalf of history to rewrite itself, O’Connell’s coffin is 9 feet long – while the man himself was reportedly much, much, much shorter.

IMG_7210 (800x600)Even in death, O’Connell still presides over the cemetery where 800 000 bodies lie in unmarked graves. Vast expanses of innocent-looking lawns cover mass graves where bodies were buried regardless of religious or political beliefs. One can imagine the conversations …

The grass on the other side

One of the first things that struck me about Oslo was the amount of green in the city. There are parks everywhere. And those parks are full of people. Reading, chatting, strolling, running, walking dogs, playing ball. It took me back ever so briefly to my first glimpse of the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.

IMG_6587 (800x600)Yet perhaps what is most striking about these parks is how many of them are cemeteries. The gravestones have a sense of orderly chaos about them. There are no straight lines, no landscape designs, no uniformity. And yet each one is pristine and well-tended oozing a sense of serenity that doesn’t just come from chirping birds and manicured lawns.

IMG_6590 (800x588)Trees grow from graves. Small bushes abound. Flowers are planted rather than vased or bottled. All are real.

We think of cemeteries in the abstract, as final resting places, yet for those of us who believe in an afterlife, in a chance to come back and have another stab at living a human life, that resting place is simply for our bones. The rest of us has travelled further.

I sat through the first series of New Tricks last week, glued to my laptop, fascinated by one character who sits and talks to his wife Mary who, it would appear, is buried his back yard, her simple marker surrounded by lights that set off the garden seat on which he sits, each night, with his whiskey, talking over his day. She died in a hit and run. He doesn’t know who was responsible. And dead though she might be, he still needs her to make sense of what’s going on in his head. He rants and raves at her, imploring her to help him out, to give him a sign that she’s listening.

IMG_6600 (800x693)I was reminded of the cemeteries I visited in Oslo. They, too, have their garden seats but unlike the Jewish cemetery here in Budapest, the plots are well tended. Every single one of them. Without exception. People haven’t forgotten. Perhaps it’s a municipal effort. Perhaps it’s not left to the families of those who have passed. Perhaps it’s a community effort. I don’t know. My Norwegian is worse than my Hungarian.

IMG_6589 (800x600)For me, how people treat their children, their aged, and their dead speaks volumes about their humanity. Oslo has impressed me on so many levels that perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am. But this degree of year-round care, from wherever it comes from, was like a breath of fresh air.

The ABC of ABQ

IMG_5962 (800x600) (2)Back when I was working in a peroxide plant in Longview, Washington, I decided to move. It wasn’t the smell from the paper mill across the road or the fact that everyone in town knew me as ‘the Irish girl from Willow Grove’ and knew my business to boot. It was that a sense of needing to be somewhere else. It was a toss-up between Alaska and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Alaska won. But for years I’ve been curious about what I missed.

Albuquerque (known locally as ABQ) is one of the oldest inland cities in the USA. And at a height of 5314 feet (higher than then highest mountain (and yes, I use that term advisedly) in Ireland, it’s the highest city on the US mainland. Amongst its many credits is that it hosts the largest hot air balloon competition in the world each year, festivities that draw more than 1.5 million spectators (and something that has now made it onto my lengthening bucket list). I’m glad I didn’t move there because the sun shines 310 days a year on average (who’s counting?) and I don’t do well in the heat.

IMG_5935 (800x600) (2)One of the most important questions you’ll be asked as a tourist is ‘red or green’ and if you haven’t done your homework you might not know that this refers to your choice of red or green chiles. Budapest might have its wine festivals and the new wine bar that’s opened just around the corner from me boasts a choice of vino és wonka (wine or chocolate), but ABQ hosts New Mexico’s wine and chile festival on Memorial weekend. Now that’s a combination that isn’t at all tempting.

Its old town square isn’t quite as overrun with budding artisans as that of Santa Fe, but it’s a lovely spot nonetheless. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that a battle of preferences rages, one quite similar to the one between Budapest and Vienna, with these two New Mexico cities creating division between their admirers. Some said that, given the choice between the two, ABQ won hands down over Santa Fe. Others said the opposite. No one stayed silent. I’m still undecided. The heat does that to me. It addles my brain to the point that decisions are difficult to make.

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IMG_5950 (800x600)ABQ is the oldest farming community in the USA, home to the Pueblo Indians. It’s also the geographical centre of New Mexico. And it’s charming. Despite the tourists and the heat and the hawkers, there’s something still pure about it, something untouched, something that has escaped the commercialisation of Santa Fe. Its history can be read on the murals on the walls of the restaurants lining the old town square. Its church, an adobe building with walls that are five feet thick, still functions as a reminder of the Spanish colonial tradition of anchoring a central square with a place of worship.

IMG_5954 (600x800)Again, it was refreshing to see local artisans selling their wares from blankets in the shaded archways of the main square. It was good, also, to see small cafés and food joints in the back streets, making what had to be a relatively meagre living from the not-so-passing trade but smiling nonetheless. Maybe it’s the laid-back Spanish influence, that little bit of Mediterranean attitude in the desert. Or it could have simply been heat-induced lethargy. No matter. It was all so very relaxed.

But even more enthralling than the white towers of the old church building that rise like beacons into the skies was a little church we passed on the way into town, one that opens for mass once a week, on Saturday, at 4pm. Some miles outside the city limits, it sits alone on a hill by the side of the road, a living testimony to the missionary work done in the states back in the 1700s. It’s beautiful. We had to climb a locked gate to get in (a sad indictment of the state of society) and while there, I was enthralled by the local custom of surround graves with what, for all the world, looks like a bed frame. I thought it peculiar to this little cemetery, but noticed it again as we drove further into New Mexico.

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IMG_5924 (800x600) (2)Apparently this had something to do with the widespread poverty in New Mexico that led to the rather innovative use of everyday items as grave-markers. I came across this fascinating account of famous and unusual grave-sites in New Mexico’s history. Worth a read if, like me, you have a thing about burial sites.

ABQ – I’m glad I didn’t move there. But then again, I’d be happy to return. When it’s cooler and there are thousands of balloons in the sky.

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