Sunset at Balatonmáriafürdő

Bracing the cold in Balatonmáriafürdő

We had it all planned. We left in plenty of time to get to the garden centre in Balatonkeresztúr before it shut at 5 pm. Time enough to pick out some fruit trees (quince for me, plum and peach for himself), have a quick look at the Christmas offer, if it had been tabled, and then drop me at the station in Zalakomár to catch the train to Budapest. The timing was planned with a precision peculiar to anal Irish women and the military.  We departed on schedule. We arrived on schedule. But winter hours kicked in last month and the place now closes at 4 pm. We arrived at 4.01.

With the guts of an hour and a half before I had to catch my train, we had time on our hands and nothing to do with it. We decided to check out the lake at Balatonmáriafürdő. Bracing ourselves for the biting cold, we walked the pier at the ferry port and watched the remains of the sunset leak out over the water. Named after Bernáth Aurél, the Hungarian painter born in nearby Marcali, the promenade juts out into the Balaton, no doubt lined with fishermen in the summer. At 4.30 pm on a Tuesday evening in late November, with temperatures hovering around zero, there was no one but us and the ducks. Bernáth seems to have been quite the ticket. He maintained that there are five reasons people are generally interested in paintings (translation by Google):

1. ha szabadban készül, 2. ha öröklik, 3. ha egy kiállításon felháborodásból beszakítják, 4. ha ellopják, 5. ha pornografikus

1. if they are outdoors, 2. if they inherit, 3. if they are being outraged at an exhibition, 4. if they are stolen, 5. if they are pornographic.

He took a six-month honeymoon around Europe in the 1920s and after it painted the piece Riveria – my art covet for this week.

Balatonmáriafürdő: Bernáth Aurél Promenade

 

Boats at Balatonmáriafürdő

Boats at Balatonmáriafürdő

There’s something magical about the Balaton in winter. when the only colours breaking the grey-blue palate are the gold of the rushes and the reds and oranges of the setting sun. Judging by the number of restaurants, cafés, pensions, and hotels, the town must heave in the summer. And given that most signs we saw on the jetty were in both Hungarian and German, a large portion of visitors must be from Németország. With one government-run beach and seven free ones, the town seems to have plenty to offer. As it turns out, the one we stopped at was a free one, at the boat harbour, Hajóállomási strand, where the ferry runs across the lake to Szigliget. But from a little research, the one I’d like to revisit in late spring/early summer is Őrház utcai strand – I need to see if the town’s publicity photo does it justice.

I’d also like to catch the Balaton Old Boys in action. Playing locally since 2010, these old boys are hell-bent on reviving 1960s guitar sounds. What began as a three-man band has grown into a cultural association. From the smallest acorn comes a big Oak tree. There’s also a small museum chronicling the journey the town made from a vineyard to a bathing centre. It’s open from May to September, so plenty to come back for in early May before the hordes descend.

Sunset at Balatonberény

Sunset at Balatonberény

Back in the car, we thawed out just enough to make the thoughts of another walk appealing. And again, in Balatonberény, we had the place to ourselves. Across the lake, we could see the lights of Keszthely flickering in the distance. Still blustery and bitingly cold, it was magical. This Balaton town is probably most famous for its naturist camping site. On the go since the late 1980s, it’s Hungary’s oldest naturist site and in addition to pitches, it has a motel, mobile homes, and holiday cottages. If I’m reading the website right, it seems to be pretty much self-contained with everything from coffee shops to bars and buffets restaurants, a grocery store, and a laundry facility, You can play volleyball or table tennis or even chess down on the beach. And all in the nip, but from the photos, clothes appear to be optional…mmmm.

We took the Old Route 7 back to Zalakomár with talk of travelling on that road the whole way to Budapest next year, just to see what gems the motorway has us missing. What started out as muttered curses for getting the opening times wrong turned out to be a lovely couple of healthy hours discovering something new. Village life, I tell you. It just keeps on giving.

 

 

 

Day trips from Budapest

Occasionally, when friends or friends of friends are planning to come to Budapest for more than the usual weekend break, I’m asked for recommendations on where they should go, once they’ve ‘seen the city’. This amuses me; after 10 or more years, I’m still finding places in the city that I’ve not seen. But anyway, they’re usually interested in places that are easy to get to from the city and have something ‘worth seeing’. Worth seeing…mmm. That very much depends on what you’re interested in, but rather than get involved in a litany of likes and dislikes, I’ve chosen three of my top picks, accessible by the HÉV (commuter rail) from Budapest.

Ráckeve

The train journey from Budapest to Ráckeve takes about 75 minutes on the H6 HÉV from Közvágóhíd (the last stop on the No. 2 tram heading out of Budapest). Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days and so are good times to go. The market runs along the side of the Danube and sells everything from ducklings to rosary beads. It’s a walkable town, with lots to see and do. My favourites are the cemetery and the church. Odd choices perhaps, but there’s a story. One of the first books I read when coming to Hungary was Petőfi Sándor‘s János Vitéz (John the Valiant)…written in poem form, all 370 verses make for a fast-paced story of love and intrigue. He based this character on a real person, one Hórvath János (1774-1848), who is buried in the cemetery in Ráckeve. Each year, in June, on János Viték Napok, the locals come together and act out the poem. Both the book and the grave are worth a visit.

Back in 1994, when artist Patay László (1932-2002) was preparing to paint a fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist in Ráckeve, he used 170 kg of tehén túró cheese when mixing his paints. The results are spectacular. About 600 square meters of walls space is now home to a glorious feast of colour, blending beautifully with the baroque paintings and the glitter and gold that are features of Catholic church decor worldwide. This rivals the best of what Budapest has to offer. Try to refrain from licking the walls just to see if you can taste the cheese.

To wet your whistle while you’re wandering around, stop off at the Old Buttons Museum and English Tea Room on Szent István tér, 12. Say hello to the lovely Sylvia Llewelyn, author of Old Buttons and Hungary’s resident expert on all things button-related. Her collection of retro Hungarian folk art is worth checking out and she makes a mean pancake.

Gödöllő

Getting to Gödöllő is easy – take a regional bus from Puskás Ferenc Stadion (M2 line) or take the H8 HÉV from Örs vezér tere (end of the M2 metro line).  The town’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Royal Palace, once a favourite of Sisi, the inimitable Elisabeth of Bavaria and wife of Franz Joseph I. The Baroque palace was built between 1694 and 1771 and its theatre, in particular, is something to behold. Check the programme when you’re visiting and you might be lucky enough to catch a performance. The Palace is open 10 to 6 at weekends and 9 to 5 on weekdays. The Castle Church is open to the public on Sundays for a church ceremony, a great opportunity to the see the fabulous Rococo altar.

The local town council really has its act together when it comes to making things easy for visitors. Its website maps out four walks you can do from the town centre to take in the 70+ sights that have been identified as worth seeing, ranging from the  Castle Park with its Tree of Life to the statue of a boy scout marking the 4th World Scout Jamboree that took place here in 1933. More than 25 000 scouts from 46 countries camped out on Sisi’s lawn. The town also hosts the world second-largest collection of agricultural machinery and the only one of the five World Peace Gongs (a present from Indonesia)  to reside in Europe.

If you want to get away from it all, take a restorative walk through the Royal Forest. And if you’re in need of sustenance, and have become a Sisi fan, try Erzsébet Királyné Étterem és Kávézó on Dózsa György út 2.

Szentendre

Catch the H5 HÉV from Batthyány tér or  Margit híd, Budai hídfő to Szentendre, which is perhaps the most popular destination as a day trip from Budapest. The journey takes about 40 minutes, compared to the boat trip departing from Vigadó tér which can eat up 90 minutes on the way down and an hour or so on the way back. Once there, wander the cobblestone streets and spent time browsing the art galleries, museums, and craft shops. Pay a visit to the eighteenth-century Greek Orthodox church with its ornate interior. If you’re into cars and know your Warburg from your Zhighuli, or fancy a look at some motorbikes from the old Eastern bloc, pop into the Retro Design Center on Rev utca 4. While some of you might have little problem remembering the 1970s, your kids might get a kick out of seeing LPs and tape recorders.

Szentendre, though, is probably best known for its skanzen (open-air museum). The first of its kind, and the one which lent its name to all subsequent museums, opened in 1891 in Skansen, near Stockholm.  The one in Szentendre is on Sztaravodai ut. This historic village setting is home to many original buildings from various parts of Hungary, transplanted along with other interesting stuff representative of architecture and culture from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s. It’s quite the trip back in time

And if you fancy eating some of that history, check out the Szamos Museum Confectioners on Dumtsa Jeno utca 12.

Enjoy your stay.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 July 2018

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

The stories behind the cakes

On a recon of Zala county a couple of years back, when I was exploring thoughts of life in a Hungarian village, the instigators of this grand plan took me to visit Florridora’s Pantry, an English Tea Room run by Mancunian Ken Jones and Brighton-born Neil Stevens over in Zalaszántó. Fast forward a couple of years and the boys have moved to my village, Balatonmagyaród. The grand opening is scheduled for early March but I got a sneak preview of the new gaff last week. And it didn’t disappoint.

The lads had prepared a sampler tray of old stalwarts. It being a Friday in Lent though, all I could do was sit and listen to the stories while himself tasted them to make sure they were all up to scratch.

Going clockwise from 9pm, first up was Rocky Road. This is a favourite of mine (it was my ice-cream of choice during my  B&J wars with the inimitable Sam Fowler while living in Longview, Washington). The recipe is about 150 years old and originates from the gold mines of Australia. It would take weeks for supplies to reach the camp and most arrived in pieces. But the broken bits were bunged together and aptly name Rocky Road, as a nod to the road hard travelled.

Next, were two versions of the famous Hungarian Kossuth cake. Some say that the Florridora menu is one of the few menus (if not the only one) on which this features in Hungary today. After the 1848 Hungarian uprising, Kossuth Lajos was invited to to America. He made the trip in 1851, primarily to tell the folks over there about what was going on in Hungary and to raise some money for another attempt at a revolt. And while the locals didn’t quite stump up (he raised a paltry $25, equivalent to about $740 in today’s money), he got a name for himself as a champion of freedom. An enterprising fan, a baker in Baltimore, decided to honour him in cake, filling a sponge cupcake with sweet whipped cream and topping it off with a strawberry or a chocolate sauce. Bring it back, I say. Bring it back.

At about 1pm in my photo, there’s the Brighton sandwich, a nod to Stevens’s home town. The origins of shortbread are a focal point of discussion for some – Mary Queen of Scots is mentioned, as is Elizabeth I. And, something I didn’t know – shortbread comes in tails, rounds, and fingers. This sandwich is filled with an apricot-and-almond jam.

It’s followed by a Bread-and-Butter-Pudding cake, a granny cake, so-called because grannies were quite clever when it came to using up stale bread. Jones’s great-grandmother was in service in Gainsborough Hall  and this particular recipe has survived the generations. It has the texture of a tea-loaf with a chocolate and orange flavour.

The Grasmere Gingerbread dates back to 1854, when Sarah Nelson started making it in her Lake-District home.  Nelson sold it to the villagers from a table-top on a tree stump in her garden. A local resident, a chap by the name of William Wordsworth, him with a thing for daffodils, endorsed the cake and word quickly spread. Centuries later, it’s still going strong. Nelson’s story is a fascinating one and a visit to the Lake District is now on my bucket list. [When I asked him to rate the cakes, himself voted this his favourite.]

Centre-plate is the Manchester Tart. This coconut-topped biscuit cake filled with raspberry jam originates from a time when coconut cakes were only found in large port cities like Manchester and London. The delicacy didn’t survive inland road trips. The recipe dates to Mrs Beaton and the 1850s. The pasty case is medieval, and would have originally been filled with meats rather than jams. The tart was Jones’s dad’s signature dish when he was in the Navy in WWII. Some go all out and add sliced bananas, but the lads opted for a filling of cherry-and-clove jam.

The traditional cream tea fare of scones with jam, butter, and cream, wasn’t on the menu that day. Had it been, I might have stretched my Lenten fast and had it was one of my collations.

Florridora’s Pantry will open at weekends and on Public Holidays from March, with extended opening in the summer tourist season. I imagine the village will be getting a lot busier. Cyclists doing the Kis-Balaton circle from Zalakaros will now have somewhere to wet their whistles. So book ahead. Just to be sure.

Petőfi utca 237
8753 Balatonmagyaród, Zala, Hungary

And if you fancy some Kossuth cake on 15 March, here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

100g butter
200g sugar
2 eggs
225g pastry flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
100ml milk
½ tsp vanilla

Cream butter and sugar well. Add beaten eggs. Fold in flour, baking powder, and salt (sifted together), alternately with the milk. Add the vanilla. Bake at 180° in muffin pans for 16-18 minutes. When done, cool, cut almost in half, fill with sweetened whipped cream and ice top of cakes.

Chocolate Icing

50g chocolate squares
50g butter
225g powdered sugar
2 egg yolks
Salt
Vanilla

Melt chocolate and butter, add sugar and a little hot water until just soft enough to spread. Beat in egg yolks. Add a pinch of salt and a little vanilla. Makes a soft icing to spread on top of the cakes.

Strawberry Icing

10 ripe strawberries
½ tsp lemon juice
225g powdered sugar

Mash berries with a fork, add lemon juice. Gradually add sugar until stiff enough to spread, yet soft enough to run over top of cream-filled cakes. Ready to serve.

 

 

Is it funny if I’m not laughing?

Hungary has been in the international news lately. The New York Times ran a piece with the headline: As West fears the rise of Autocrats, Hungary shows what’s possible. In it, Patrick Kingsley talks about the eight years of Orbán’s rule:

Through legislative fiat and force of will, Mr. Orban has transformed the country into a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture. He has done this even as Hungary remains a member of the European Union and receives billions of dollars in funding from the bloc. European Union officials did little as Mr. Orban transformed Hungary into what he calls an “illiberal democracy.”

It’s a long and detailed article and well worth a read. I knew things were bad, but I hadn’t realised how bad, embarrassingly bad. There’s no shame at all it would appear.

“A company belonging to the prime minister’s son-in-law was already meeting with mayors about a future public procurement before an E.U. grant was even announced — and then he ended up as the main contractor.”

Across the pond, The Guardian was having similar thoughts. It ran a piece headlined Orbán allies could use EU as cash register, says MEP. Jennifer Rankin talks of how Hungary isn’t the only one getting rich off the back of poor EU control and almost non-existent accountability. But, as is pointed out, none of this is technically illegal.

“Getting public contracts now in Hungary is a matter of friendship and not a matter of merit,” Engel said. While “not technically materially illegal, where else in the European Union would you have a system where public contracts of significant size go to family members of the head of government?”he said. “I don’t think that happens anywhere else.”

Is Hungary going to become an example for other countries in the region?

Strangely though, these dire accounts of what’s going on here didn’t bother me nearly as much as reports last week of the mayor in the village of Gödre advertising the local töpörtyű és forralt bor fesztivál as being migránsmentes (migrant free). I read it on an English-language site and immediately thought: Fake News! Has to be.  I asked some Hungarian friends to do my due diligence for me and scan the Hungarian-language press to make sure it wasn’t some sort of early April Fool’s joke. But no. It was real alright. Shamefully real. And the justification?

“Firstly, let’s make it clear: the term has only come up regarding our pork greaves [crackling] event, not any other events. I don’t think I need to explain why we can call it – jokingly – migrant-free. And guess what, we have achieved our goal! Hopefully, we have managed to pique the interest of many, that was exactly the point of promoting the event. Please don’t see politics or provocation into this, because the event is not about that! It is, however, about building a community, keeping gastronomical traditions alive, as well as fostering personal relationships!”

I’m all for building communities and keeping traditions alive. I’d even go as far as giving the nod to fostering personal relationships – but to exclude migrants? I’m a migrant – an economic refugee from a country I can’t afford to live in. I know plenty of others like me. Does the migrant-free banner include me?

I asked around – just to see – and guess what? Apparently I’m okay. I might be a migrant, but I’m not a Muslim. There but for the grace of God, eh?

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just me. I know I was cursed with a hair too much consideration for others to the point I’m borderline obsessive about making sure that, for instance, the neighbour lady living below me isn’t kept awake because I fancy doing dishes after 10pm (her bedroom is beneath my kitchen) or letting the chap  behind me in the checkout queue with only five items can go ahead of me because I have a trolleyload and he shouldn’t have to pay for my extravagance with his time or offering my seat on the bus to anyone who looks 10 years older than me. But maybe I’m just supersensitive. Maybe when they tell me that I’m okay because I’m not Muslim, they’re joking. Maybe they don’t really mean it. Maybe they’re only saying it to get a rise out of me. Like the Mayor of Gödre, this migrant-free thing might be one massive joke that no one takes seriously. Except me. Have I lost my sense of humour?

Yet I remember my boss in Alaska and his near constant refrain when it came to such matters: If no one is laughin’, then maybe it ain’t that funny.

 

 

2018 Grateful 47

Ah, no! Seriously, Tibor? Monday? Say it isn’t so! That was me on Thursday morning. We’d arrived down to the village the previous evening to find the house freezing. It was 5 degrees in the kitchen and there wasn’t a gux out of the boiler. Thinking we might have missed a simple reset button or perhaps needed to do something embarrassingly obvious to everyone but us, we called our go-to guy and then the boiler lad. Neither could help.

Tibor came to check it out on Thursday and said it was beyond resuscitation. A new one was called for. And it wouldn’t arrive till Monday. So four more days of being damn cold, with the lovelies due to visit on Friday for the weekend and no heat, no hot water.

Himself was called back to Budapest and I could have gone, too. But it says a lot about village life when I’d rather be here, freezing my ass off and nipping over to the neighbours for a hot shower, than in the flat in Budapest with every modern convenience at my fingertips. I spent Thursday evening on the couch with a hot water bottle and a blanket watching Season 2 of Doc Martin. Szilvi, she who gives a great home massage, arrived on Friday lunchtime as arranged and we managed to have a brief conversation. A bojler elromlott. Nincs melegünk. Nincs meleg víz. At least my Hungarian vocabulary is expanding; the silver lining in this particular cloud.

Undeterred, the lovelies came anyway on Friday evening after work, armed with heaters and thermals and the makings of some whiskey cocktails for that inner warmth. The kitchen got up as high as 13.4 degrees at one stage. We’d borrowed a noisy industrial heater and had the oven going full blast. For a brief moment, I was warm. Friday night, wrapped in winter woollies, as we sat around the kitchen table making the best of it, I gave silent thanks for the friends I’ve been blessed with. No complaints. No moans. Not one.

The next day, we headed over to Dobrovnik in Slovenia, for a walk in the healing forest. We had the place practically to ourselves. There was snow on the ground and a bite in the air. It was beautiful. I spent time at my four stations and came away feeling tired but content.

Healing forest Dobrovik Slovenia

A stop-off at Vadászcsárda (Hunters’ Inn) in Zalacsány on the way home topped off a lovely day and got me ready for Season 3 of Doc Martin.

Tomorrow, the heating will be fixed. My creature comforts will be restored. And another glorious week will begin. This day last week I was heading to the airport to catch a flight to Malta. Seven days later, I’m back from mass, hatted and scarfed and wrapped in a blanket, waiting for a chap to come quote for a télikert, a winter garden (the Hungarian term for a conservatory). If there’s any money left over after buying the new boiler, it might just be my next project.

 

 

A letter to the President

I’ve never been one for protesting, for signing petitions, for writing letters of complaint. Yes, I can bitch and moan with the best of them, but I have this irrational fear of having my name on a list of watchables. I say irrational, because in all likelihood it’s due to nothing more than an overindulgence in Cold War books and movies and a rather fertile imagination. I have no problem writing about stuff that bothers me, or speaking up about things I think unfair, but in my mind, large crowds are at the mercy of the state police and petitions are a matter of public record. Both bring out the heebie jeebies in me. Irrational, I know.

Seven years ago, back in 2010, I first wrote about Dr Ágnes Geréb. Dr Geréb had been

…recently arrested and [was] facing charges for reckless endangerment committed during the line of duty, […] An experienced doctor and midwife, she has attended more than 2000 home births (i.e. not in a hospital). […] Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth as the patient had some sort of blood clotting disorder. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.

Two years later, in 2012, I wrote again. This time, adding my voice to the international call for clemency for Dr Geréb.

On February 10th, 2012, the Budapest Appeal Court announced the verdict in the case of Dr. Ágnés Geréb (an OB/Gyn as well as a midwife) and four other Hungarian midwives. The terms of Ágnes Geréb’s sentence of two-year imprisonment were tightened, a ban on practising doubled to ten years.

The ruling was put on hold while the clemency petition ran its course. In 2015, I shared an appeal for funds from her Campaign. With an update.

Arrested and imprisoned without trial five years ago for practising midwifery, Dr Geréb was later released to house arrest in December 2010 where she remained until February last year. Imagine not being able to leave the confines of your house for years. I go stir-crazy if I can’t leave for three days! In 2014, the conditions of her house arrest were relaxed a little so while she can travel in and around Budapest, she can’t venture much further afield. A prison as beautiful as Budapest is still a prison if you can’t leave.

The appeal process continued and hope that Dr Geréb would soon be free of all this was mounting. And then came the news this week. Yesterday, 9 January, a Budapest court ruled that an original lower court verdict of February 2012 against Dr Geréb would stand: 2 years in prison and a 10-year suspension from doing what she does best – helping mothers in their choice to give birth at home. No more appeals are possible. The sentence will come into effect within weeks. In the coming days, Dr Geréb will have to decide whether to go down the clemency route again – for a second time – or go to jail. These are her only options. Enough, already, I say.

Freedom for Birth and other mothers’ rights activists are in shock today, as the news spreads throughout the global community of Dr Geréb’s supporters. Calls have been made to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and write to President János Áder, asking him to step up to the plate as the head of a European State, and put an end to this.

I’m not a mother. I have no clue what it’s like to have kids.  But I’m a great fan of choice. Last time, more than 6000 people from all over the world  signed a petition for clemency, recalling that it is the ability to choose that makes us human. This time, even more signatures are needed. More voices need to be heard. I’ve penned my letter to the President voicing my outrage and asking him to do his bit to end this debacle. I’ve received notification from his office that it is being processed. I’ll live with my irrational fear that I’m now on a watchlist as it’s an infinitesimal price to pay to add my voice to the outrage.

Ágnes Geréb does not belong in jail. She should be out assisting those women who have chosen to give birth at home. She should be out facilitating a Hungarian woman’s right to choose.

 

Hitting the spot

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years.

Some time ago, a colleague decided to take two weeks’ holiday. He told the boss that he’d be unavailable. He was going somewhere to switch off: no laptop, no smartphone, no connection to anyone other than those he was with. He wanted a break. The boss was a little piqued. Surely he could find time in the day to check his emails? And if it took an hour to answer them, was that too much to ask? My colleague needed to get with the programme. To come in line with twenty-first-century living. He needed to live up to expectations. But my colleague was adamant. He got his two weeks.

Not being part of the structured work system, some might argue that I’m on a permanent holiday. I can work from wherever I have an Internet connection. The downside is that I’m always working and rarely, if ever, am I completely offline for more than a couple of days. My choice. My lot. My decision. But summer has a way of being summer. In Ireland at the start of the season, I was basking in a cool 14 degrees when friends in Budapest were melting in 40. At breakfast one morning I noticed how everyone was in their summer gear – sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, sandals – even though it was cold and wet outside. No matter the weather, summer is summer.

I know I’m in summer mode when I start to plan everything I want to do over the three months or so from June to August. I make a list of places I want to visit, seasonal restaurants I want to try and other summer-dependent spots I want to take in. The plan being that once tried and tested, I can then take my summer visitors to enjoy them, too.

But invariably, there are some gems I discover too late, just as they’re about to close, their money made, their season over.

A friend of mine recently spent 11 days walking around the Balaton – some 244 km. She’s a natural researcher and had done her homework before turfing up to some village or other. She wanted to discover the best of what’s out there so that she could then share her finds. Two in particular are worth noting. For next year.

The lakeside village of Vonyarvashegy is on the north shore of the Balaton and is home to about 2000 people. The strand is well-tended, a lovely open spot offering access to the lake for people with disabilities. Popular with German tourists, it has a bigger-than-usual restaurant offer, perhaps the smallest of which is The Spot Grill & Bar. In its third year of operation, this little gem opens from 21 May to 10 September, offering trout, chicken, salads, and the requisite Balaton burgers. Probably tired of people dithering between ordering a burger or a langós (both summer favourites), the chef decided to join the two and instead of a burger bun, has encased the patty in a langós. Genius. The desserts, both of them, are seconds material. The tiramisu (the Italian pick-me=up) could have come from Treviso, Italy, and the cheesecake, served in a glass, is delicious. The cocktail list is decidedly upmarket with the Cosmopolitan made from cranberries – something hard to find in Hungary. Added to the excellent food, the simple décor, and the fresh feel of it all is the excellent service. Robert has it nailed – always available, never intrusive, and very helpful. The Spot could hold its own just about anywhere. Class all the way.

The much smaller village of Káptalantóti swells in size for the Sunday market, Liliomkert. Hundreds of visiting tourists and summer residents (mainly German) descend on the place, turning the village into an obstacle course and the local fields into parking lots. With everything from a jar of honey to a kitchen dresser on offer, the place is a mecca for those looking for a piece of Hungary to take home. Nestled in the heart of the Badacsony wine region, the village has several vineyards of note, my current favourite being the Sabar Borház.

The enterprising local tourist board has organised a hop-on, hop-off wine bus that leaves the village 7 times daily every two hours to visit local vineyards.  A daily ticket will set you back 1500 ft. A must for next year. This year, I settled for a stop-off at Istvándy Winery. The restaurant was booked solid, which is no wonder, considering that everything on the menu is locally sourced – even the beef, which come from the herd of grey cattle looking over the fence. The panoramic vista of the Balaton and the vineyards is stunning. And, testament to the attention this family-run business pays to its customers, those of us sprawled on picnic blankets (supplied) on the hill below the restaurant didn’t feel the slightest bit cheated. As we ate our toasted sambos (mangalica pork and trout were the two on offer that day), sipped our grape-juice fröccs (so tasty I could actually fool myself into thinking I was drinking wine), and enjoyed the view, it struck me that life couldn’t get much better.

The summer is nearly over. The cool evenings are setting in. And as the autumn raises its head over the parapet, I can enjoy my favourite time of year knowing I have a head start on what I’ll do in summer 2018.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 September 2017

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2017 Grateful 21

This day, 12 months ago, on 31 July, life took an unexpected turn. We’d gotten a phone call to say that another house had come on the market in the village. The one I’d set my heart on didn’t want me. It had been listed originally for 4 million ft  (€12 500 on one site), and then later withdrawn and listed on another for 6.5 million without so much as the grass being cut. It had masses of potential. Lots of outbuildings. I asked an architect friend to suggest how we could make it into something really fabulous and he duly obliged. The man is gifted .

I had visions of separate guest quarters, a BBQ pit and a summer kitchen, a long, windowed hallway opening out onto sweeping lawns. The barn at the end of the garden would make a fabulous working studio with floor to ceiling windows. Or equally could be more self-contained guest accommodation. There was room for a pool and a pony or three. The car could have a garage. We could have a gazebo. All we needed was the mullah. And the owner to accept the offer.

She laughed me out of it when I offered half a mill more than it was originally posted for and she wouldn’t budge. So much for the village gossip that she was desperate to sell. And I simply didn’t have the money to do it justice. And I don’t have the patience to get in the builders and then wait for weeks till the carpenter was ready and wait again for the plumber and the painter and the electrician. And wait 12 months before we could stay for a weekend.

A lot of workers in this part of the world cross the border to work in Austria or go further afield to Germany. They go where the work takes them. It pays better outside Hungary. If they get a better offer, they go. And who can blame them. To get one crew to come in and do it all would have upped the bill considerably. And, as I said, I didn’t have the money. And even if I did have the money, I have a thing about paying more than something is worth.

Although four houses have sold in the village in the last year, many more are still standing unsold. The one across the road is supposedly on the market for 1 million huf (about €3000) while another has dropped from 16 million to 10 million and yet another outside the village is going for a mere 435 million. Something for everyone. The closer you get to the Balaton, the higher the prices get. And just being in sight of the lake is guaranteed to up the price even more.

Anyway, with the dream house a non-runner, I had shelved any ideas I might have had about life in a village. There are plenty of other villages around, with many more houses, but it was important for me to know someone in situ, as I travel a lot. And it helps having the benefit of wisdom and experience, not to mention contacts with local tradesmen. I don’t think I’d have had the mental fortitude needed to rock up to some random village and start renovating.

But late July last year, the phone call came. Another house had come on the market. It needed aesthetic work but nothing major immediately. It’ll eventually need a new roof and it did need an exterior paint job and new windows, but the gas and electric and the plumbing were all serviceable. We could pick up the keys and move in.

It’s not nearly as grand as the original pick. The garden is much narrower and the outbuildings just one. I wasn’t all that enthused as there was a new (2007) extension that didn’t quite fit with my idea of a period home. And having seen the Kánya Ház and having seen the potential in my first choice, I didn’t think I’d like it. But we came down, anyway. Just to see. Just in case.

It took all of 20 minutes. The renovation itself wasn’t impressive. The tiles … ugh. The proliferation of varnished pine did nothing for me. Afterwards, over a coffee beside the croquet lawn (pitch? square?), I decided to make an offer. Ten minutes was all it took. And to think that sometimes I have trouble deciding what to wear. Hilarious really.

I had imagined a weekend spot, and someplace to come for a month in the summer. It’s a 2-hour drive from the city (assuming traffic is moving) so not as local as Gödöllő where there’s a fabulous forest and a house I have first dibs on, were IZ ever to sell. But get-away places close to the city are more expensive, naturally, and as I’m allergic to debt, it had to fit the bank balance.

It’s become far more than a getaway place, a weekend cottage in the country. I’m increasingly drawn to it spending as much time as I can here. I have  reclusive side. The me that likes to check out and hole up. Perhaps 10 years of city living and extensive travel have taken their toll. The last time I did the village thing was the 5 years I spent in Valdez, Alaska. And compared to Balatonmagyaród, Valdez is a bustling metropolis. But energy levels ebb and flow. The key to being happy is to recognise what your body and your mind needs – and right now, at this stage in my life, I need quiet. I need peace. I need to recharge. It might last one year, or two, or ten … it doesn’t matter. I’m grateful that today, the universe has conspired, through the good auspices of the R-W’s, and financial circumstance, to bring me here.

 

 

Village living

Walking down the village yesterday evening, lost in my own little world, I spied a vision ahead that had me wondering if the nip of házi vad körte pálinka (homemade wild pear brandy) I’d just had was doing something to my eyes. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing on main street Balatonmaygaród. Come to think of it, there are only two streets – Petőfi Sándor  and Dózsa György – and they intersect at a T-junction just by the church. That it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis is just one of the many charming things about it. Anyway, Petőfi  is the main street – the main road – the one that goes straight through the village. I was headed over to the neighbours for a game of croquet and smoked salmon sarnies. I know. It’s some life. But hey, someone has to live it. And it’d been a long day. And it was Friday.

The builders had arrived as usual, about 7.36 am. Eight of them. And by 7.50 am they were all at work. I’ll say one thing for the tradesmen who have worked or are working on the house – they know how to work. None of this breastfeeding shovel stuff or lolling around discussing what they might eventually get around to doing. Each man has his job and is busy doing it.  They even take lunch breaks in split shifts, choreographing their work so that not a minute is wasted. And all in good humour, too.

The eight were there to start for a couple of hours of blitz-like doing. Then they whittled down to four, only one of whom was a regular; the other three were new. And just when I’d gotten the hang of who took how many sugars in what, too.

They hung a plastic tarp to block the archway, more to keep the dust in than to keep me out (I hope) so I couldn’t really see what they were up to. I snuck a peek at one stage and saw the two plasterers waltzing around on their ladders, stepping to it, one in full voice, belting out rockabilly folk songs – in Hungarian. And what a voice. By mid-afternoon, he was starting in on his light opera repertoire. Carnegie Hall doesn’t know what it’s been missing. I was vaguely tempted to capture it on video but I thought better of it. Maybe his wife doesn’t know he sings and he’s been dodging the church choir for years. I couldn’t take the risk.

Friday, being Friday, we cracked open a few beers when they’d wrapped up for the day and were hanging around waiting on their lift. The gaffer arrived and doled out the pay packets and then produced the offending bottle of pálinka. I’d had a run-in with said beverage some time ago at a pig killing down in Békéscsaba and we’re only recently back on drinking terms. Some of this homemade stuff is at rotgut level, but this was lovely. Really smooth. As I’ve learned to my cost, it’s rude to refuse it, if offered. Just about the only acceptable excuse is that you’re driving or that you’re a teetotaler. But as I so obviously wasn’t either, with my grapefruit beer in hand (don’t I live the high life), I had to be polite. Propriety is my middle name.

So, having had a sip or two of the deadly pear, I took off down the street to keep my appointment at the Kánya Ház. It would be my croquet debut. After we’d had a nagyfröccs (2 dl white wine + 1 dl soda water) or two, to go with the Irish smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches (neat little crustless triangular works of culinary art that just begged to eaten  with one’s little finger cocked), we set up to play. I can’t say I got the style down. I was holding the mallet like I would a putter and eyeing up the ball (is it called a ball in croquet?) like I was on the 18th green playing for glory. I got the hang of the roquets and the croquets and I won. Both games. Not that I’m bragging. But I think I’ve found my calling.

But anyway, that’s not what I started to say. Back to my vision. The neighbour lady (I think she’s German) from a few doors up was out mowing her grass – the patch between the path and the road outside the house that each of us is responsible for. Now, remember those cheeky postcards from Brighton and Blackpool from the 1940s? She could have modelled for them. And there she was in all her glory, mowing the grass in her swimsuit and her floppy hat and not a bother on her.

You gotta love it. Especially when I think of how the old néni next door was berating me for letting myself go. I used to make an effort when I first arrived apparently – and now look at me. My wardrobe has shrunk to two pairs of shorts, a pair of crops, and seven t-shirts (two styles, different colours). Village life certainly has a way of stripping it all back to what matters. The basics.

And for those of you following the renovation , all is going to plan. András is here today finishing off the insulation and sheetrock. The place is looking bright and airy. And the open archway is making a massive difference to how it all looks.