How to marry a farmer

I’m told that the best place to find a farmer husband in Ireland is at the National Ploughing Championships, a three-day mid-week event that this year attracted more than 279 000 people. Not that I’m looking or anything… but it’s been on my bucket list now for a number of years – the Ploughing, that is, not the farmer. Mind you, I could well be tempted. Some of those lads had to be in search of a wife themselves, but it’s hard to compete with the latest Massy Feguson. Most of the punters were there to see  the 460 or so stands displaying everything from supermarket food to combine harvesters. Apparently only 10% (myself included) actually go look at the ploughing itself.

IMG_4758 (800x400)IMG_4754 (800x600)You could eat your way around the Aldi and Lidl stands (the sausages were in the great demand) or enter competition after competition to try to win a year’s supply of fertiliser or heating fuel. There were fashion shows (wellies are all the rage this year) both for people and animals, and displays of all sorts that made sure everyone was catered for. Had I been in practice, I’d have signed up for the Welly-Throwing Competition. As it was I had to tear myself away from the sheepdog trials. Just about anything passes for entertainment and it’s the simple stuff that’s the most amusing.

IMG_4795 (800x600)On the radio during the week in the lead-up to the big event, Lorna Sixsmith  was being interviewed (she’s written a book called Would you marry a farmer?). And she was at the Ploughing  – am raging I missed her stickers:

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I dated a farIMG_4747 (800x600)mer once. And while we were stepping out, I read the Farmers Independent on a Friday with a religiosity that bordered on fervour. I knew all there was to know about artificial insemination, silage, and calving. I could IMG_4748 (800x600)find my way around a milking parlour and even managed to milk a cow or two by hand. That skill is still with me. It’s like riding a bike – you never forget. I was as familiar with cattle prices then as I am with the forint/euro exchange rates today. And I knew enough to know that you have to get the lingo right – drawing cattle means moving them, not painting them. Leave the easel and the oil paints at home. Thank you, Lorna. And as for the abbreviations and the acroynms? You’d need a degree to figure out what they’re talking about.

IMG_4837 (800x600)IMG_4757 (600x800)But back then, farming was farming. Today it seems to have gone all technical. Do you know that cows have showers now? Custom-made jobs, too. And these calving cameras had me going for a while. It’s all high tech stuff and I suppose it has to be really – there’s no reason in the world why modern technology should have passed the farmers by. And, believe it or not, there’s a UK-based Internet dating site specially for them  – Muddy Matches. ‘Tis a far cry from the days of John B. Keane’s John Bosco in  The Chastitute. Bachelor farmers these days apparently think more about the land they stand to lose should a marriage not work out than all they stand to gain if it does.

I hadn’t given much thought to what sort of farmer I’d be into, were I in the market for one. But apparently tillage farmers, according to Lorna, actually have down time and there might be some chance of a holiday once a year. The dairy ones are early risers and are at it year ’round. And as for the breeders… am not sure I could compete with a prize heifer. I have a thing for undivided attention and sharing it with a beast who is regularly titivated might be too much for me. Mind you, there’s always Seamus.

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What you find when you go looking for cider vinegar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI travel. Quite a bit. And I’m no stranger to unusual ‘bring back’ requests, but this was the first time I’d been asked to bring back cider vinegar from Ireland. And not just Ireland, but from a specific market in Dublin. I could quite easily have said a) I couldn’t find it or b) I didn’t make it to that part of town or c) I couldn’t be arsed – but I didn’t. And I didn’t in part because I was curious to see where they were sending me. And also what they were sending me for. Llewellyn’s Cider Vinegar no less… I’d never heard of it. Among other things, apparently ‘cider vinegar has long been considered beneficial to horses, but it is only recently that scientific evidence has emerged that it seems to improve milk quality in milking cows.’ Imagine that.

It’s been quite a while since I had a Saturday morning to roam around Dublin – so long in fact that the place has changed immeasurably. The whole Temple Bar evolution passed me by as I (quite wrongly, as it turns out) felt that that part of town was strictly tourist territory, to be avoided at all costs.

My destination was the Temple Bar Food Market in Meeting House Square. Thankfully, I had a local guide as I’m not sure I was in possession of the faculties needed to find the place on my own, given that it was the morning after the night before. As we strolled through the cobblestoned streets, I had flashbacks to nights spent in Bad Bobs and the Oliver St John Gogarty.  I noted with surprise the diversity of shops and the distinct lack of twee-ness about their wares. Has the tourist tat been barred from the Bar?

IMG_4732 (800x600)IMG_4731 (600x800)The market itself was impressive. Lots of freshly baked breads and scones and cakes with fresh smoothies and even an oyster bar. I was impressed by the burgers and wishing I was on carb day. There was an international flavour to it all with French crepes and an Asian noodle bar which all sat nicely with the home-grown  fruit and veg (bloody massive turnips!) and the hand-turned cheeses. Yes, were I living in Dublin, I could well see myself dropping in here quite regularly on a Saturday morning to pick up a few things – including a bottle of cider vinegar! How ever did I live my life without it?

IMG_4737 (800x600)With time to spare before our brunch date (sounds posh but we were on the Southside and one simply must do as one does!) we ambled up to Cow’s Lane to the Designer Market  and again, I was impressed by the quality of what was on offer and the reasonable prices. Some of these Irish artists are quite clever! Had they taken credit cards, I could have done some damage. Does the cash-strapped purse so peculiar to the morning after the night before sound familiar?

The sign exhorting me to take a new look at the old city hit its mark. I was looking and I was impressed (how many times can I use that word in one blog?). On our way to Cow’s Lane, we passed an outdoor exhibition space – which really was just a fence with a load of posters on it. On closer inspection though, it gave me plenty to think about. The recent scandals in Ireland about the mother and baby homes was quite heart-breaking and seeing these old photos posterised (is that even a word?) drove it home. The homes and the Magdalen Laundries were a bleak part of Irish history.

IMG_4733 (800x600)IMG_4735 (800x600)It’s mission is to ‘dignify and return individuality to people who were victimised by harsh and unforgiving institutions’. It said that ‘Irish society also needs to take responsibility for the silence and the indifference which allowed such horrors to be perpetrated in plain sight in so many villages, towns  and cities throughout the country’. Sobering thoughts indeed for a Saturday. IMG_4739 (800x600)Seeing as we were up that way anyway, we detoured to see where Handel first performed his Messiah back in 1742 (did you know he composed it in just 24 days?). I had some vague recollection of seeing the organ on which he played many moons ago on a school tour but I didn’t remember walking down Fishamble Street. I felt some vague stirrings of pride that were  amplified when, some time later, I looked down to see a series of brass plaques in the ground commemorating some of our more famous writers. And to think I’d only come out looking for a bottle of vinegar!

IMG_4741 (800x600)I can highly recommend being a tourist in your home town – you never know what you might come across. So, next time I go to Ireland, who wants what? Now, be specific please…

 

 

Bare bums and books

I’ve a thing for markets. I can spend hours sifting through other people’s junk. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was high on my list of places to see. What I hadn’t bargained for though, was the matryoshka effect. Just like the Russian nesting dolls, the Grand Bazaar opened on to other, much smaller, delights.

IMG_4282 (600x800)IMG_4314 (600x800)I wandered in through Gate 7 and came out through Gate 14. I have no idea how many gates there are but it is, apparently, the biggest indoor market in the world. And it’s impressive, with its 56 interconnecting vaulted passages, housing over 4000 shops.There’s even a website advising you how to prepare for the experience (which, of course, I found after I’d been).

It’s a warren of small boutiques and stalls selling everything imaginable and more. I had a few moments of blind panic when I lost my way and couldn’t remember from which direction I’d come, so that was a tad distracting. But for the most part, while the glitz was something to be seen, on my market meter it ranked a 6. It takes more than bare bums to impress me.

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The joy came later, when wandering through the maze of streets surrounding the bazaar, I ventured through an archway, went around a corner, and came across the Sahaflar Çarşısı, a second-hand book bazaar.

IMG_4298 (800x600)IMG_4297 (600x800) I let out an audible gasp of awe when I happened upon this quiet courtyard lined with booksellers, a welcome respite from the heaving crowds two streets over. Its only drawback (from a selfish, mono-linguist tourist’s point of view) was that there was nothing in English, other than English language primers. [Mind you, I did find an English-language bookshop later and man were those books expensive – my quest for translated contemporary Turkish fiction will have to wait.]

IMG_4299 (800x600)IMG_4304 (800x600)And then, through another archway, I found my Mecca – a flea market. Give me blankets on the ground over stalls and boutiques any day. What was interesting was  that all the sellers were men. Not a woman in sight, other than those buying. In the calm light of a waning afternoon sun, these men just hung around chatting. Some deals were struck but for the most part, men on their hunkers passed the time of day, smoking and drinking coffee. Despite the cacophony of conversation, it was a tranquil place, a social place, one where I’d imagine y0u’d come in search of solutions to all sorts. Were I living locally, I’d be a regular.

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Shopping for a new perspective

It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people. Smiles are cheap. Manners are the same price. Yes, we all have our bad days when wallowing in self-pity or bemoaning the state of our world is all we can bring ourselves to do. That’s a given. But for the most part, it is nicer to be nice, trite and all as it sounds.

Mind you, a happy, clappy state of relentless good humour can be a tad annoying. I am uncomfortable with unwavering positive outlooks –  I immediately think inhuman. The negativity in us all has to come out somewhere.

Budapestans are often referred to as a dour people. Personally, I don’t find that to be true. Yes, some of those in public service jobs might benefit from a dose of cheeriness, but compared to their Bratislavan neighbours, they’re positively exuberant.

I got into conversation with a woman in Skopje who’d been to Budapest and was commenting favourably on the city’s collective personality wishing that people in Skopje could be as pleasant. I countered with my experience in Skopje where everyone, without exception, was helpful, pleasant, and good-humoured (especially those without a word of English whose efforts to understand and be understood were inspiring). I can’t think of a time or place where I’ve felt so at ease.

IMG_1926 (800x600)IMG_1927 (600x800)Walking through the Old Bazaar area one morning, I felt as if I’d stepped into another world. Cobble-stones and dilapidated houses lined the narrow streets. Sellers plied their trade. Café tables were full of men in conversation, the women notable by their absence. The jewellers on Gold Street were doing a hefty trade while the Albanian presence was obvious in the colourful and somewhat garish wedding dresses on display. The food market was one of IMG_1942 (800x600)the largest I’ve ever seen. It seemed to IMG_1937 (800x600)go on for miles, selling stuff I’d never seen before alongside the usual staples.

There was a buzz about the place that was timeless. It could have been any century, any decade.  People seemed lost in their own individual worldsIMG_1930 (800x600) as life proceeded at its own pace, unfettered by modernity or progress. Built in fifteenth century, the bezisten (covered market) hasn’t changed since its renovation in 1899.

Everyone had a wave or a smile or a comment or even all three. There was no pressure to purchase, none of that hawker harassment that takes from the whole market experience. No one tried to drag me into their shop and sell me something. I didn’t have to dodge eye contact or ignore those sitting outside taking tea. It was all rather lovely. Movie-like. You know, when the expat has been living there so long and speaks the language and they go to the market and everyone knows them as they’re the only foreigner in town? It was that sort of feeling, only I didn’t speak the language and I wasn’t the only foreigner in town.

IMG_1949 (800x600)IMG_1948 (800x600)Barbers, cobblers, and tailors still work their trades. And in the newer section, the usual ubiquitous tat has taken root. I am sure that if you were in the know and spoke the language, cheap cigarettes wouldn’t be all that was on offer. It seemed IMG_1950 (800x600)like a place where you could buy anything from a  tractor to a teaspoon.

I loved it. Стара Чаршија is the biggest bazaar in the Balkans this side of Istanbul. Dating back to the twelfth century, it’s home to IMG_1921 (600x800)more than 30 mosques and the Ottoman influence is visible. I spent a lovely few hours wandering the streets, nosing around places, people-watching. It reminded me a little of Sarajevo – just a little.

It’s a place for talkers. Idle conversations sprang up randomly. Walking up ul. Sevastopolska, I met Tair. He pointed to his shop and said I was welcome to look inside. I told him I was at the mercy of the airlines pitiful baggage allowance. He pointed to a small restaurant – his sister’s. Food …that I could do. He came with me. He introduced me to his sister and I ordered some lentil soup.He sat. And we chatted. He’d spent 15 years in Turkey and had many Irish friends – he’d even sold his leather jackets at house parties in Kilkenny.  People came and went to our table, asking him this or that and all the time he kept an eye on his shop. He told me of his time in the army, when he was conscripted. He spoke of life in Turkey, in Macedonia. He talked a lot about life – and getting old – getting to that point when the freedom of being on your own starts to pall. He spoke of wanting a family. Of wanting to settle. He’d come back to Skopje last year and set up shop. He was doing well. Twice a week he’d take his motorbike and ride in the hills. Business had started to pick up so I left him to it, promising to drop by again  to take tea with him before I left to cross to river back into Disneyland.

In the hours that I was gone, he’d sold quite a bit. He reckoned I’d brought the luck of the Irish with me. As we sat in his shop later that afternoon, I was struck  by how much we miss in not taking the time to chat, in not trusting a little more. As we swapped our stories and shared our perspectives on relationships, on marriage, on parenting, on politics, on tolerance, on life in general, sipping hot Turkish tea amidst the leather jackets in his shop, some of my faith in human nature was restored. Tair’s is an uncomplicated life that I found myself envying. He lives it based on openness and trust and honesty. No agenda. No judgment. I learned a lot that day – and was reminded of what Scottish poet George MacDonald had to say:  ‘To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upscale street markets

I have a fondness for other people’s junk. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning than wandering a flea market, picking up and putting down bits and pieces of other people’s lives. Budapest has its fair share of markets and, in fact, most cities have regular market days – perhaps a sign that we’re becoming more thrifty?

I associate markets with bargains. Good deals. Stuff I wouldn’t see elsewhere. Old stuff that has character. I loathe the Chinese and Turkish tat that encroaches on the traditional fare, preferring plain old junk to new junk any day.

IMG_0119 (800x600)IMG_0122 (600x800)I missed out on Milan’s famous flea market: the Fiera di Senigallia and have made a note to book a return trip that include a last Sunday of any month, to catch the 400 or so antique dealers displaying their wares at the Antiquariato sul Naviglio Grande. This canalside market takes up 2 km of city streets and attracts more than 100 000 people each time. But we did stumble across the Via Fauchet which didn’t have much in the line of old stuff (if you don’t count the elderly ladies elbowing their way through the cashmere cardis) but the prices made my eyes water.

IMG_0127 (800x600)IMG_0124 (800x600)I took my life in my hands to get close to the leather bags on offer. Display samples in an array of colours in real leather. I could feel the adrenaline as I started to mentally check people off my Christmas list and visualise the space available in my suitcase. But then I saw the label – Made in China. Written in Italian mind you, but made in China nonetheless. I’m still refusing to buy anything made in China except when I can’t avoid it (It’s hard to find a laptop or a phone that wasn’t made there.) It was hard – and as I found myself trying to justify the bargain, I walked away. It’s a slippery slope.

Milan is famous for its fashion and if you had an ounce of style and the fortitude to battle with the masses, you’d easily fill your wardrobe with classic items at half of what they’d cost in a bricks-and-mortar market.

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Shopping, anyone?

Tell me that  it’s not a place for tourists and I’ll move it to the top of my list. Tell me it might be dangerous, and I’ll be sure to bring someone with me. Tell me that I shouldn’t go, and I’m already on my way. I’m a child at heart. And just about the only person who still gets to tell me what to do, with any hope of me doing it,  is my mother.

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IMG_3505 (800x598)Once I heard that the flea market – Tirgus Latgale – in Riga was not a savoury place, I had the map out. Luckily for me, my partner in crime last weekend is not one to be told either, so we ventured forth to this den of iniquity having been told repeatedly that photographs were not allowed and that could it be dangerous. Apart from one crotchety old cow, everyone seemed happy and friendly, although the stalls ranged from madly disorganised to compulsively neat.

IMG_3503 (800x598)IMG_3504 (800x578)Prices ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime and just about everything imaginable that you might want to use over the course of an entire lifetime could be found there. I bought a blue bottle (my current obsession is with blue glass) from a lovely woman for 1 LAT (about €1.50) and she wanted to give me a set of six teacups and saucers as a present (thank God for the luggage allowance excuse!)

Were the spy business still in vogue and were it still necessary to build a new life on a regular basis, it would be quite easy to purchase the trappings from places like Latgale. I’ve quite fancied the idea of creating an entirely new past for myself, using photos purchased at markets around Europe of people who bear even the slightest resemblance to me. How cool would that be?

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Riga is also home to the largest market in Europe – Rīgas Centrāltirgus – situated in old German Zeppelin  hangers close to the train station. About  72,300 square metres  (778,000 sq ft) wide,  they house more than 3000 stands and sell just about everything you might imagine eating.

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IMG_3441 (599x800)I was impressed – how could I not be – but Budapest has many like it, if on a smaller scale. I was up for something more local. As we traipsed the streets, armed with the new-found knowledge that Tirgus is Latvian for market, we found all sorts. And no doubt, were we living in Latvia, in Riga in particular, there is a chance that we would grow immune to the sameness of the crafts on display, but this time, they were really something. Latvia is famous for its wool and its linen and the two are put to such varied use that the ensuing crafts, although a tad expensive, make for very pleasant viewing. It’s also famous for its amber, but not as famous as Lithuania – and yet I still didn’t find that big green amber ring I’ve been hankering after for years.

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IMG_3562 (600x800)The big craft market on the corner of Kalku and Kaleiu is worth a visit any day of the week – if for nothing else, then inspiration.

All over the city  there are fresh veg markets with great local food. The shapes, the smells, the people – all just that little bit different to what we have here in Budapest. Not necessarily better or worse, I might add, just different. I saw lots of things I hadn’t seen before but then I said the same when I first came to Hungary. It was a nice wake-up call not to take things for granted.

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Mind you, when you venture inside to the shops, it’s a different story entirely. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been recently (as in the last ten years) where I have been less tempted by what was on offer. The colours – so 1980s – but perhaps it’s just me behind the times.

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But these colours seem to pervade the city – bright greens, blues, oranges… most peculiar. And yet no one was wearing them… yet another conspiracy methinks!

 

 

The difference that daylight makes

IMG_2360 (600x800)There was a time when Szimpla Kert was my last port of call on a night out. When I first arrived in Budapest, it fascinated me with its nooks and crannies, its clever (re)use of junk and other people’s cast-offs, and its eclectic mix of people. But that was years ago. Before it made the guide books. Or before I realised that it had made the guide books. So now it’s somewhere I bring visitors for a look-see. to show them what a classic ruin pub looks like and to show them a side of Budapest that many don’t get to see during their weekend-stay in the city.

IMG_2377 (600x800)In  addition to being  a late-night hangout, Szimpla has now added a Sunday morning market to its repertoire. And seeing the place in daylight is quite an experience. Room after room is furnished with bits and pieces from everywhere and anywhere. Graffiti passes for decor and the whole place has a sense of old-style destitution that once laid claim to regality. I’ve heard tell of those who can spend hours in front of  a painting in a museum and still not see everything it has to show – I feel a little bit like this about Szimpla. I thought I knew the place inside out but each time I turned my head, I saw something different.

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IMG_2390 (800x600)Vintage toys seem to litter the place but on closer inspection appear more strategically placed. For all is mismatchedness, everything seems to fit and have its place. Perhaps that’s a reflection of Hungarian society in general  – or simply the way it is in Szimpla. Perhaps its beauty lies in the depth of its shallowness and nothing more.

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IMG_2380 (800x600)I was there a few months back with an Australian mate who had dropped in for a few days en route to Ireland. We sat upstairs and through the window watched old black-and-white silent movies from way back when  – fashion shows of days gone by. This Sunday, the silent movies were replaced with cheese and sprouts and jams and jellies and all sorts of homemade goodness.

IMG_2368 (800x600)I’ve been converted to sprouts and have them now for breakfast, dinner, and tea. Who’d have thought that Szimpla could have wrought such a change in my diet? It just goes to show that surprises lurk in the strangest corners. I’m still working on the cheese thing though. IMG_2367 (600x800)There’s plenty going on and lots to choose from, so if you’re in the neighbourhood on a Sunday morning and fancy a snoop ’round Szimpla, drop by. You can stock the larder at the same time and indulge in some homemade cakes and pastries on the top floor. Something for everyone really.

And seeing the scene that was the ‘night before’ in broad daylight isn’t the disappointment it usually is. Funny how nothing quite looks the same when the real light of day shines on it.

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Finally … a decision

BZs came to breakfast. I told myself that if he drove, I’d ask him to take me to get a Christmas tree. One of the first things he said when he arrived was ‘Hey, I took public transport for once!’ The tree gods were telling me something. But still I was hankering. KG offered me hers as they are leaving for the holidays. But along with the hankering was the need for immediate gratification. I couldn’t wait till the weekend. I wanted it now. A quick check on Kika’s website showed me one that would do nicely – only thing was, I couldn’t be sure where it was made. Would I go there only to find it was made in China?

IMG_1281 (768x1024)The tree gods were talking to me again. I went. There was one big one left. On sale. And it was made in Poland. [Tip: If you want the world to look at you, carry a 1.5 metre metal tree on the tram and the metro.]

Going through my boxes of ornaments would have been everything I’d hoped it would be had I not been rushing to get a bus to Belgrade.  With time pressing, it was like a whirlwind tour of my life – with ornaments from all over the USA, from Alaska to Louisiana and beyond: a lobster from Maine, Santa on an alligator from Louisiana, cable cars from San Francisco.  Hungary is well represented too, with quite a collection of hand-painted bells, and cornhusk cribs. I have a miniature violin from Strasbourg, a lemon from Modica, a felt angel from Mongolia, and a gorgeous set of carvings from Bethlehem that I can’t place at all.

IMG_1274 (1024x768)Best of all though, I have been cataloguing these ornaments since 1994 – nearly 20 years! I have a record of where each one came from, where I was, when I was there, who I was with, or who brought it back from somewhere. People I knew (and still know), places I visited, places I have yet to visit , birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, births, deaths, marriages – all represented on my trees (yes, I bought two, little and large).

IMG_1237 (800x588)So what brought about this change of heart and mind? Well, I ‘did the markets’ at the weekend. I tried blood sausage in Obuda and was surprised that what I thought was a cranberry … wasn’t. But I survived. In the company of the lovely BS, we figured the safest course of action was to drown the bugs in mulled wine. It worked. We hit the food fair at Hold utca market where I capped off a wild mushroom soup with a rather expensive macaroon. From there we went for some better cake at the Bedő Ház.  On Sunday, we tried hot beer at WAMP and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

IMG_1249 (800x600)All this wandering about, and seeing the city dressed for the festivities, put a longing on me. I’ve made a note in my diary to stay in Budapest next December for as long as possible. The weather is great – cold dry days with the occasional blue sky. The type of cold that makes me feel alive. [Easy for me to say, I know, when I’m dressed for it – not so nice for those who are not.] It’s that time of year when goodwill abounds – people give to strangers, do good deeds, and generally are a lot nicer to their fellow-man. Dare I say it … I’m getting in the mood! ‘Tis Christmas!!!!

PS: Today is the 12th day of the 12th month in 2012 so at 12 minutes past 12 noon, make a wish.

Christmas… again?

Christmas is just around the corner. It’s not long till December and once the 1st of December hits, it’s fast-forward all the way to Christmas Day. My annual internal debate has begun: Do I  put up a Christmas tree or not. I have a collection of ornaments that I’ve purchased (and received as gifts)  in various places over the years (all neatly catalogued as to where I was and who I was with) and they deserve an airing on what I’ve called my ‘travel tree’.

But the question is, can I be bothered? Does the hassle of buying a tree and lugging it home outweigh the excitement of decorating it and the lovely memories that will come flooding back? Being superstitious adds to the complications as it’s ‘up by December 8th and down by January 6th’ with me and I won’t be in town on January 6th. Will that adversely affect my luck for the next year? Is it worth the risk?

I tell myself that if I had children and could make a big deal of the decorating, then I’d be first in the queue to buy a tree. If I had kids I could borrow, I might also be tempted. If I had someone patient enough (and interested enough) to share my reminiscences, then perhaps I’d do more than just consider it. Right now though, the hassle factor is winning out.

And, as I always do when faced with a major decision (major? shows just how complicated my life really is), I seek distraction. It seems that I’m never really on top of what’s happening and each year hear of something or somewhere that I’ve missed out on. So this year, I’ve been doing my homework and reading up on what’s on in Budapest over the holidays. What’s open and what’s closed. When everything is open and closed. Where the markets are. And I found it all in one place – everything from when the Santa train leaves to the times of the Advent Fair in Obuda. Written mostly Anna Sebestyen at  TopBudapest.org, this site is well worth forwarding to any visitors you might have coming in over Christmas, and is also a good point of reference for what’s on in town. It’s certainly solved my problem: with so much going on, I won’t have time to get my tree – let alone decorate it.

Converted to coffee

A mate of mine once told me that you know when you hit the Balkans: the coffee gets good. Finding myself in the old town market in Sarajevo last Sunday afternoon, I sat down beside this old woman at a table outside a café. I asked the lady of the house for a coffee with milk. She shook her head. I asked for a Nescafé – I knew I wasn’t in Serbia but I was close enough to hope that the Nescafé concept might have leaked over the border. She shook her head again. Wine? Shake. Beer? Shake. She said something and at a complete loss for something to say, I nodded. This was a one-item menu.

I got a traditional Turkish coffee served with two cubes of sugar and a square of Turkish Delight. The coffee looked like mud. Something that reminded me of pond scum floated on the top. It poured like treacle, and the word ‘oleaginous’  came to mind. I don’t take sugar – and I never have coffee without milk. But when in Rome – or Sarajevo – I did as the locals do. And, as years of conditioning condensed and melted away, I found myself enjoying the experience.

Perhaps it was the market though – the ambiance? But no. The next day and the day after, I tried it again both at the hotel and at the conference room. I was in danger of becoming addicted – not to the coffee, but to that rush I got when the caffeine hit my veins and shocked me awake. And to the leisurely pace at which each tiny cup is sipped. I could live this life…