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 It had been listed originally for 4 million ft  (€12 500 on one site), and then later withdrawn and listed on another for 6.5 million without so much as the grass being cut.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.

 

 

2017 Grateful 24

Twice last week I listened to myself sagely pronounce: ah, well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In both cases, parents were commenting with on something idiotic their kids had done. And they were wondering how their kids could have done or said or written whatever it was. And in both case, it was something I’d known both of them to do when they weren’t much older than their kids are now. I can’t remember the details – just the essence.

It’s a great expression – one that says so much. But literally? Apples and trees? How far is far? The garden is littered with fallen apples. And they’re not dropping vertically. They’re special apples. Gifted apples. They can fly.

The windfalls are not big enough to bother peeling for tarts. And they’re too bruised to be any good for cider. So what do to with hundreds and hundreds of the little buggers and not a pig within smelling distance when you need one?

I did what I usually do when presented with such a massive ‘What now!’ I googled. What to do with windfalls. I could make them into apple chips, had I a vegetable hydrator, but I don’t. And it’s way too hot to even think about getting in the car and shlepping to the nearest big town to go search for one. I could make chutney – but I don’t have all the ingredients I need and, as I said, it’s way too hot ….

One of the things about living in a shopless village is that you learn to make do with what you have. Add a modicum of heat-induced laziness to the mix and it was definitely a case of digging deeper.

Cloudy apple juice. There ya go. Perfect. All I needed were apples (plenty), a strainer, a few clean cotton cloths, and some empty bottles.

I mentioned that it’s hot, yeah? Not an ideal day to be standing over a gas stove boiling up kilos of apples but what conscience I have wouldn’t let me sit and watch them rot. So that’s what I did today – I boiled apples.

It amuses me no end how quickly we fall into the patterns of our parents. Somehow, the outside seems to have become himself’s domain, while the inside is mine to rule. [That said, it could be that himself loves the sun and I don’t.] Anyway, he picked and I cooked. And it’s been hours. I’ve been at this since 11 this morning and there’s still no end in sight. I’ve run out of bottles so I’m multitasking and finishing off last night’s wine as I go, while looking for another with a screw-top lid to lay into.

My cloudy apple juice isn’t nearly as pink as the one in the recipe picture, but then my apples weren’t nearly as red. It’s nice though – a little sweet, but I have it on good authority that it’s a great source of fibre. And I saved some of the pulped apple for use in apple sauce or a sponge mix. Martha Stewart, each your heart out.

Penny per minute, it certainly didn’t pay me to spend the bones of my day making apple juice. The return on my time investment isn’t great. About a litre an hour. Were I to sit down and do the math, I probably spent more on gas to boil the buggers than I would have spent to buy the equivalent in juice. But I know that my juice has no additives (I took out all the worms). And it’s fresh. And it’s mine.

The nature of my day job is such that I rarely get to see a finished product. Sure, I get emails from workshop participants months after the event telling me that they’ve been asked to present somewhere and now have the confidence to do so. Or they tell me how much better their work lives are, now that they’re not petrified of speaking out. One of my TED speakers has had over a million hits on a video of a speech we worked on together. But those concrete, measurable results are rare.

Today though, I can see what five hours of work has yielded. And while the work itself was mindless, it gave me time to switch off and not think. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that is all too rare in my world. And for that I’m truly grateful.

Mystery solved

I mentioned before that our new garden is full of surprises. As the trees, plants, and bushes bloom, we’re gradually getting to know what we’re living with. We’re still undecided whether we have apricots or peaches, but time will tell.

Our new domain, the Kis Balaton, has its own surprises. I’m not great at naming the various crops planted and unless they’re potatoes flowering or are already in bloom (like oil seed rape), I’m wrong more times than I’m right. And that, my friends, is taking some getting used to.

Right outside the village, I’ve watched a field of somethings grow taller and tried though I might, I was unable to put a name to what was growing there. This week, the mystery was solved. And I’m delira and excira to see a field of glorious sunflowers.

Many years ago, on one of my first forays out of Budapest, I saw fields and fields of these yellow beauties in all their glory. No matter how bad my mood, they’re guaranteed to make me smile. With temperatures soaring, and storms turning the power feed into a staccato-like chorus of on-again, off-again, bad humor is not infrequent, but not nearly as long-lasting as it might be in the city. I think I may becoming a nicer person. #lovinglifeinthevillage 🙂

I went in search of  a poem by William Blake that I vaguely remembered, and it says it all for me…

Ah! Sunflower

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

Like Blake, I, too, am a little tired of the if onlys, and wish that more people (of all ages) would seize life by the petals and feel it, and live it, and be it. Sunflowers are planted, striving to reach a place they’ll never get to. Humans are not. We can move. We can follow the sun. We can turn our faces sunward and be positive. If we are fortunate enough to have a choice and not live under regimes who make our choices for us, we can choose where we go, what we do, and how we want to spend the short time we have on this Earth. By all means sunflower it – look at the sun and aspire to where and what you might want to be. But for Blake’s sake – move!

 

2017 Grateful 26

Philadelphia. 7 June. 1753. Benjamin Franklin sat down to write a letter to George Whitefield, an English clergyman who was taking America by storm. Billed as the ‘Grand Itinerant’, he called no church home, preferring to travel around the colonies preaching to the masses. For more than 30 years, he held his audiences in the palm of his hand, leading them to penitence and reigniting their souls with a passion for God in what was known as the Great Awakening.

I came across an excerpt from this letter recently and went in search of the  full text.  The more I read, the more I realised that BJ could have been writing today. June 2017.  And I wondered how much better the world might be, were we to heed his words. I read it through a number of times and the same line kept jumping out at me.

I wish [faith] were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it; I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers filled with flatteries and compliments…

How relevant this is. My mind began to draw all sorts of connections between dots that weren’t there back in the 1700s. We have so many friends today. Thanks to social media, many of us have friends we’ve never met, people with whom we might interact on a daily basis through a litany of likes and hashtags but couldn’t pick out of a crowd. Have we reduced active support to sharing posts and reacting to photos? Are we drowning in a sea of good intentions, blaming our shortcomings as friends and neighbours on a lack of time? Are our leaders more intent on replaying their soundbites than actually getting anything done, building foundations for the future on shaky rhetoric?

In sharp contrast to city life, in the village if you need something done, you simply ask. We needed to borrow scaffolding from friends in the village. 1 km door to door. It was too heavy to hand carry and too heavy for a roofrack. But a neighbour two doors up, to whom we’ve spoken to maybe three times, has a trailer and his wife has a car with a trailer hitch. We asked, he delivered.

My néni-next-door popped her head through the trees to say hi. She was curious to know what laundry detergent I was using, as the sheets I had air drying outside smelled wonderful. I had doubts at first that I was understanding her correctly but yes, I was. She disappeared and came back with money, asking me to bring some for her from Budapest next time I was down. She asked, I’ll deliver.

There’s hardly a day that goes buy without some ask being delivered on, in some form, shape, or fashion. Perhaps it’s still a few decades behind the times. Perhaps its the absence of distractions. Perhaps its simply a community at work. It feels good though. And is nice to be part of it. I’m grateful.

BJ captured it nicely in his letter to Whitefield…

For I do not think that thanks and compliments, though repeated weekly, can discharge our real obligations to each other …

We ask, they do, and we do in return. Practical living at its best.

Doing St Patrick proud

What started off in March 2006 as a bunch of people with a shared affinity for Ireland and being Irish getting together for dinner has morphed into a three-day event. St Patrick’s Day this year falls conveniently on a Friday. Those living in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat will enjoy a long weekend, as the day itself is marked by a public holiday in those three countries. Here in Budapest, we’ll have to work a casual Friday. Last year MUPA went green for the day; this year I’d like it be a bridge. That’d be magic.

On the business front, the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is teaming up with growth consultants M27 Absolvo to organise an Irish-Hungarian event focused on investment and innovation. Neither country is short of brain matter and talent so this promises to be an interesting mix. From what I understand, it’s a little like a dating service – those with ideas who need money to realise them pitch to those with money to invest in promising start-ups and small business enterprises. The invite-only event is taking place in the Marriott Hotel from 2pm on Friday, 17th March. St Patrick himself wasn’t beyond a little innovation. He was the one who added the Sun to the cross to create what’s known today as the Celtic Cross and the one to use the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the heathen masses of Ireland all those years ago. I reckon he’d be well impressed with this initiative.

And while the business gig is underway, students from schools around Hungary will be competing in 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 this year, there’ll be a special prize for the best Irish entry. This is one I’m looking forward to.

On Saturday, 18th March, dancers from all over the world will be competing at the WIDA Open Feis over at Folyondár Sports Hall (Folyondár utca 15) from 8 am. This international Irish dance competition is a growing attraction on the international Irish dance scene with competitions for all age groups.  For more details, check their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/budapestfeis

And while the dancers are finishing up at 6pm, moves of a different kind will be made on the pitch at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. One of the biggest days in Irish rugby also falls on Paddy’s weekend. This year, Ireland and England will play the final match in the 2017 Six Nations. The event will be shown live, on a big screen, at the Marriott Hotel from 6pm, a move calculated to avoid any no-shows at the 11th annual St Patrick’s Gala Dinner. And, I must admit, there’s something about watching a rugby game when dolled up to the nines that adds spirit to the scrums. Nothing like a roomful of screaming black ties and tuxedos to set the mood. (If you’re not going to the dinner, you can get your fill of it all at Jack Doyle’s Irish pub and restaurant over on Pilvax utca.)

More than 250 guests are expected to sit down to the three-course lamb dinner at the Marriott on Saturday night for an evening of ceoil agus craic (music and fun). John Murphy and his traditional repertoire will accompany the dinner with Budapest-based Hungarian Irish Folk band Green Spirit charged with bringing guests to their feet after their Irish coffees. And, whether you prefer the Hungarian tombola (which actually originated in Italy) or the Irish raffle, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to spread the luck and the love around with a number of charities standing to benefit from the proceeds. DJ Andrew J will be on hand till the wee hours of the morning for all those who can keep pace. If you haven’t already booked your place, you might still be in luck. Check the website for details: www.ihbc.hu

Sunday sees the seventh annual gathering of painted faces and leprechaun hats walking beneath banners and behind Irish wolfhounds to the beat of the Irish Prison Service Pipe Band. Back in 2011, 546 people showed up for the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. I’m sure of the number because I was the official counter. Last year, it was over 4000. The crowd starts amassing around 1.30 pm at Szabadság tér for face-painting and the like with the parade itself starting at 3 pm. It’ll wind its way through the streets of Budapest, ending up at Instant VIII, on Akácfa utca 49-51, where the craic will continue. Bring along a musical instrument and join in one of the many sessions going on throughout the venue. Billed as one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day parades in Central Europe, it’s not one to be missed.

And, if you feel like getting a head start on the shenanigans, that crazy Irish band Firkin are playing Akvárium on Thursday night. Just what you need to get the green going.

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

First published in the Budapest Times March 2017

1%

Paying tax is a duty, an obligation. Taxes pay for our medical care, our education, our roads, the infrastructure on which society is built. Even so, few of us pay them with a smile, confident that our money will be put to good use. But taxes, like death, are supposed to be unavoidable.

So, having accepted that I have to pay my taxes, it is nice to be able to divert even the minutest portion from the government’s coffers and into a cause that is far needier. Hungary allows us to donate 1% of our taxes to a church and 1% to a charity. My church 1% goes to the Hare Krishnas because of the tremendous work they do feeding 1500 homeless and in-home poor in the city almost every single day of the year. Rain, hail, or snow, the lads from the Food for Life programme are out there, dishing up hot foot.

The other 1% needed more research.

I only discovered this second 1% last year and then I gave to an art gallery working with those with psychiatric disorders and mental illness. But as I buy from them fairly regularly, I needed to choose another recipient.

I’d heard tell of Menedék Alapítvány (the Shelter Foundation) and their work with the homeless but I hadn’t heard of their work with victims of abuse – mothers and kids in particular. Abuse, in all its guises, is something no one should have to live with. I’ve been there. It’s not nice.

Through the good auspices of a friend, I went to visit the Menedék Mamásotthon, their mums’ home in Budapest. I’m being deliberately vague about the location as many of the women there are seeking refuge from their abusers.

Space is limited and the waiting list is long. Right now, there are 11 mums and 29 kids in the home. Last year, they had 300 registered applications with 34 families passing through. They are unique among shelters and homes of their kind in that each family gets its own room with a private bathroom and a bed for everyone. The two largest families (one with seven children) occupy self-contained apartments on the premises. The others share a communal kitchen and living area with a communal laundry facility.

When accepting applicants, those in physical danger get priority. Then mothers with children who are facing life on the street with no other option. Hungarian law says that no child should be homeless or living in an unsafe environment. Children are often removed from their parents and remanded to the care of the system. At the Menedék Mamásotthon, mums and kids get to stay together.

Families can stay for no more than 18 months. By this time, it is hoped that mum has a part-time job and that they’ve managed to save some of the children’s allowance (13 700 huf /€45/$47) and her salary to set themselves up in social housing (if they’re lucky enough to get one). Clothes and food donations play an important part in the Shelter’s provision and they heavily rely on public support. Government funding goes to pay building maintenance and upkeep and the salaries of the seven employees who provide the support and counselling the families need.

As I sat there chatting with the director, I couldn’t help thinking, on a theoretical level, that it all sounded rather good. Mums are taught parenting values, the importance of routine in a child’s life, the value of nutrition and personal hygiene. The kids go to kindergarten and to school. They have access to a computer for homework if needed. All rather lovely.

Then I saw the rooms. Bright and airy but small. I can’t imagine three people living in one and not killing each other. One mum I met – let’s call her Kati – shares a room with her two children, a boy and a girl, aged 14 and 16. They’re at that age where space is important and moods are frequent. Yes, they go to school, but they’re home by 7 (a house rule). Kati says she’s lucky. Had the home not accepted them, they’d have been split up. They’ve been there close to 18 months. She has a part-time job as a sales clerk and the kids are doing well in school. She’s managed to save some money and is hoping to be rehoused as part of the social housing scheme. She’s there because of a bankruptcy. Her husband left. She had nowhere else to go. Her kids have adjusted well. They’re old enough to know what life could have been like. They’re good. They manage. But they are looking forward to having their own space. Soon.

Not for the first time, I stopped and gave silent thanks for the blessed life I lead. And I thought, once again, about perspective. Kati and her kids are happy – happy they’re not on the street, that they’re together, that they’ve a clean bed to sleep in that they can call their own, however fleetingly. I was looking at the room unable to get beyond the size of it and the horror of living in such close quarters with anyone. If circumstances dictated, I’m sure I’d adapt. But man, am I grateful I’m not there.

The bridge that Menedék Mamásotthon provides is incredibly important to the lives of those families fortunate enough to get a place. Given that the connection between the various municipalities in the city and those in need of their services is tenuous at best, all too often these families have nowhere to turn.

The foundation itself, Menedék Alapítvány, under which Menedék Mamásotthon operates, has other places, too. This home was once a Baptist church, renovated in 2005, so it’s been in operation for a while. I’m a little wary of religious institutions. I’m not comfortable with the idea of conditional giving: I’ll help you, but only if you attend prayer services and bible study groups or only if you share my beliefs. And while the Baptist foundation and Christian beliefs are very much evident in their literature, neither colour nor creed play any part in the application processes. Attendance at bible study and prayer groups is voluntary rather than a condition of acceptance and support. In a sermon last year, Pope Francis talked about the deception of ‘saying and not doing’, of talking piously but not actually doing anything good. Menedék Alapítvány is an example of doing a lot, with very little by way of saying.

Also in Budapest, they operate a weekly TeaKlub for young people in need of support. And a home for self-sufficient, homeless young men aged 18-35, those who need time to get themselves together. Sometimes, all people really need is a break, for something to their way, a chance to right themselves. This respite keeps many off the streets and that can only be a good thing. Down the country, in Kiskunmajsa, a renovated former Soviet barracks now provides temporary housing for 30 families in Menedékváros (City of Refuge) [and there are plenty of these dotted around the country that could be put to similar use].

So, having done my due diligence, I’m happy to redirect my 1% and work also towards getting them the heavy-duty washing machines they so badly need (40 people makes for a lot of laundry and their current machines just ain’t up to the job). If you want to help them out, and redirect your 1%, this is the number you need to quote on your tax form:  Kedvezményezett adószáma: 19004909-2-43. They’ll also accept in-kind donations of food, clothes, and furniture (delivery by prior arrangement to the main office). And cash donations, too. Specify on the transfer which home you want the money to go to. Details available on their website.

As poet and philosopher Samuel Decker Thompson said:

We are all just a car crash, a diagnosis, an unexpected phone call, a newfound love, or a broken heart away from becoming completely different person. How beautifully fragile are we that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are forever.

Kati and her family dodged a bullet when they got a place in the Mamásotthon. They were lucky, she said. We can be part of creating that luck for others, too.

All in a name

I’m a great fan of Oscar Wilde and one of my favourite plays is The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve been known to bet on a horse just because its name reminds me of something or someone I like to remember. I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to see what is behind a curious place name. So when I discovered that the neighbouring village of Zalavár was once known as Moosburg, I laughed aloud. The Alaska me had come full circle.

Driving around the lake recently, we went in search of the museum signposted on the road to Sármellék. We had passed it once before and I’d noted the funny-looking church that I’d mentally added to my Lake-Church photo project. Not quite sure what to expect, what we did find was remarkable.

The history of Zalavár dates back to about 840 AD. At the turn of the twelfth century, it became the county seat, long since relinquished to Zalaegerszeg. Around that time, the Benedictines built an abbey and monastery there and over the centuries other private estates grew in the area. The history reads like a saintly Who’s Who with the likes of Adrian,  Cyril, Methodius, and Benedict all getting an honorable mention. Various churches and chapels were built and dedicated and then razed in the battles and wars that ensued: The martyr Adrian’s Church, the Chapel of St Stephen, the Church of the Blessed Virgin, and a church with no patron at all.

Looking out over the fields at the remnants of the foundations, it doesn’t take much to imagine Zalavár as a thriving metropolis, a far cry from the sleepy village it is today. That so much has survived the ages is a miracle. Excavations over the last 60 years or so have yield a treasure of antiquities that flesh out the history of what was once a very important place indeed. So whether it was Moosburg or Mosuburg or Mosaburg (depending on what you read), Zalavár is worth a second visit when the museum opens at the end of this month.

Selflessness in action

The village of Tarnabod sits 113 km east of Budapest. A shadow of its former self, today success and plenty are but a memory. Like other villages in rural Hungary, things are bad in Tarnabod. Jobs are scarce, resources few. And, for many villagers, by the last Saturday of the month, food and money have run out.

In 2011, Gabriella, a then Budapest-based journalist, visited the village to do a piece on child poverty. It was the beginning of a journey that saw her and her best friend and fellow journalist Kata, getting involved in making life a little easier for the locals. Tarnabod és mi (Tarnabod and us) was born. What started as donations of food, clothes, and cleaning materials has grown into solid support. Their relationship with the village is open and trusting, and their help is much appreciated.  When the kids go back to school, Kata & Co., provide school supplies. When the football team needs new boots, they are there. When the village needs hot food, they’re there, too.

Photo by Péter Horgas / Tarnabod és Mi

The Saturday I was there, it was -12°C. I watched as Chef Daniel, from Revolucíon Budapest, one of the city’s top Tex-Mex restaurants (Akácfa u. 57), and his team tried valiantly to get the barrel fires going. They were there to cook a hot stew for the villagers (all 600 or so of them). They’ve been doing this every month in winter and every second month in summer since 2015.  They worked outside, on open fires, in freezing temperatures. When the food was ready, word went around and the people came to collect.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Up the road, in the tanoda (study hall), Zsuzsa and her gang from Caledonia Social Bites prepared hot chocolate. We were lucky. We got to work inside. In the next room visiting singers, musicians, and storytellers entertained the kids. The place rocked. Two of the local young lads have gotten places in a gymnastic school in Budapest – one is particularly talented and destined for great things. They both come from large families with unemployed parents. This scholarship is their way out of the cycle of poverty in which the village is mired. And that’s Kata’s aim – to show the kids that they can have a life outside the village, that theirs can be a different world.

As we worked, I met other volunteers from other groups, all there to contribute in their own way. Volunteers like 20-year-old Selina, German born of Turkish descent, who’s spending her gap year working in Tarnabod. An Order of Malta programme funds her food and accommodation and gives her pocket money in return for the work she does at the preschool, the kindergarten, the primary school, and the tanoda. There are far more glamorous places to spend a gap year, but a 10-day student exchange to Debrecen sealed her fate. Selina fell for Hungary in a big way and wanted to contribute to the greater good. She’s one of a group of 12 young people on the programme from Spain, Germany, and Poland aged 18–29 who are volunteering around the country, giving of their time and energy and getting invaluable life experience in return. The kids love her and she gives every ounce of that love back, and more besides.

A car pulled up. Heni and Szilvia had arrived from Debrecen with bags of clothes. They got involved with Tarnabod és mi after experiencing first-hand how activism and volunteerism work. For nearly 80 days straight they worked their day jobs and then helped man the train station in Debrecen from 6pm till 1am helping refugees figure out where they were going. With a multinational student cohort at the local university, they had lots of willing translators and interpreters who juggled exam schedules to be available. Since then, the pair have continued to do what they can for those in need. They joined forces with the Bike Mafia in Debrecen to feed the homeless and are in the process of setting up an NGO.

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

A couple of weeks ago, a Roma family in the village of Sáp heard a knock on the door. Officials came and removed their 8 youngest kids and 2 grandkids to places unknown, saying that the house wasn’t fit for kids to live in (the family had just moved in). For three days, the parents didn’t know where the children had been taken. The dad’s boss posted a request for help on his Facebook page, a request that was brought to Szilvia’s attention. Thanks to local volunteers and community donations, within 6 days the house had a new fitted kitchen and new floors. It was fully furnished and carpeted. The cupboards were stocked with food, the wardrobes filled with clothes. The kids are expected home soon.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

The hot chocolate went down a treat. It did this jaded heart good to see so many smiling, laughing faces, despite the odds. Because the odds ain’t good. And despite there being people willing to give of themselves and their time for no other reason than to help others, naysayers, politics, and egos can thwart the best of intentions. What’s needed is action. What’s needed are more people like the Tarnabod crew – people who do more than sit around a table and discuss the whys and wherefores of possibilities; people who recognise a need and act on it.

Yes, there will be those who show up for the photo opp. And perhaps the gloved volunteers who went to draw with kids in a refugee camp did more harm than good.  But as long as the Katas in this world make things happen, there is hope.  And today, more than ever, we need to work together, to give of ourselves, to do what we can to redress the imbalance and mitigate the fear being fomented by those in charge of our world.

PS: The villagers badly need gloves – all sizes. The collection point is Jurányi Produkciós Ház, II. District, Jurányi u.1. Give what you can. Make a difference.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2017

Elephants and ice-cream

I’ve noticed that the meaner the world gets, the nicer I want to be. The crazier world politics becomes, the more simplicity I crave. And as we teeter on the brink of insanity, I’m spending more and more time trying not to lose sight of what really matters.

Ever wonder where your money goes when you donate to a charity, or sponsor someone to run a 10k, or buy a raffle ticket? All too often we never see the effect. We have vague notions, perhaps, of the difference our help may have made. Then again, perhaps we don’t care. Perhaps the giving is something we do automatically without wondering what next. Perhaps in our own little universe it’s not about ego or power or public recognition. Perhaps we don’t care about the applause or the back slaps or the congratulatory adulation. Perhaps we simply give to share and share to give.

Yet there’s a whole debate to be had about where to give, to whom to give, and why to give. I know I’ve had more than few conversations about it. I have an innate distrust of big charities and the money they spend on plush headquarters and fancy cars for their CEOs – but as was pointed out to me recently, if they want to attract big money, they need to have a big presence. On an intellectual level, I can see the validity of this. On an emotional level, I still have problems.

I prefer to support people I know involved in projects that are making a difference. Okay, so maybe these projects won’t bring about world peace, or make any sort of difference on a grand scale, but what they have in common is that they make a difference to someone.

My friend Zsuzsa B has adopted the village of Zabar in Eastern Hungary. At Christmas, I had a blast shopping for a 5-year-old girl, making her wish list a reality. Others did likewise and the kids in the village experienced the magic of discovering that wishes can come true. But it didn’t stop there.

These kids had never been to the theatre or to the zoo or eaten in a restaurant. Until recently, their universe was limited to their village and nearby towns. The capital, Budapest, the seat of their parliament, the home of their government, was some place they’d heard about but never seen. For them to have some hope of a better tomorrow, they need to see what’s out there, to broaden their horizons. And for this to happen, they need help.

A bus was hired. Arrangements were made. And 45 children from this remote part of the country embarked on a trip of a lifetime that included pantomime, elephants, and ice-cream. What an eye-opener it was for them. For those who helped make it happen, little else is needed by way of validation that to see the smiles on their faces. This video captures it all.

It is small initiatives like this one that make such a huge difference in the lives of these kids. And in these troubled times, we need to remind ourselves of what’s important and not lose sight of the necessity of doing our bit to make our world a better place.