2015 Grateful 11

I have my life back. Rugby, for me, is over. To say that I’m gutted would be an understatement, but the disappointment I felt as I threw my jersey into the laundry basket to be washed, ironed, and packed away until next spring, is nothing to what the Boys in Green must be feeling. To do so well… and not have it be good enough. Heart-breaking.

That said, while the week might not have ended as I’d have liked it to end, it was a good one, all in all.

I was introduced to someone in the pub on Sunday as being ‘famous’ – not in any spotlight sense of the word, of course, but in the sense that so many people know me. That in itself isn’t particularly amazing – I’ve been here for years and a sizeable portion of that time has been spent on stage with the Gift of the Gab. So yes,  my name, if not me, myself, is known. Famous, I don’t think so. Known of? That’ll work.

PlanNot a week goes by that I’m not asked if I know someone who can do something. An English-speaking accountant to sort out the web of Hungarian tax laws. A Spanish-speaking football fan to decipher a player’s call to the camera. Someone who makes stained glass. And I get great satisfaction from hooking people up – connecting those who need something done with those who can do those somethings. This week was particularly good in that respect and at one stage, when I sat back and watched three strands of my life engage in a fascinating conversation at the Art Hotel in Budapest on Thursday, I mentally congratulated myself on a job well done. As Hannibal of A-Team fame might say: I love it when a plan comes together.

I don’t know where I got it. I doubt it’s hereditary. Perhaps it’s because I’ve needed stuff done so often that I’m particularly attentive to what others need doing. I don’t know. More often than not, I find myself volunteering contacts and connections. Just applied for a junior diplomat’s position? Never spoken to diplomat? Let me check. Want to export honey to Ireland but don’t know where to start? mmmm… am sure I met someone lately who was into the honey distribution thing… I’ll get back to you. Looking for a size 6 pair of roller skates? I think I know someone who just quit.

Perhaps I have the fixing gene – the one that wants to be sure that my world, as I know it, continues to function as it does. The one that wants to keep things going so that the status remains quo’d. As I said, this week was particularly good with regard to cosmic connections. And for that I’m grateful.

Had Ireland made the semi-finals… now that would see gratitude take off to a whole new level. Next time, lads. Next time.

 

2015 Grateful 12

From a three-piece suit in a business blue to a shiny silver Vegas number accented with red socks, the boys from Pink Martini had a wardrobe to be proud of. A most unlikely looking bunch of musicians as ever I saw – not that anyone can ever really look like a musician except they have that rock-star chic look going. Ten lads of varying ages and nationalities took the stage in Budapest earlier this  week with lead singer China Forbes. The band hails from Portland, Oregon, but they came from far and wide to get there.

PMOn the road since 1997, Pink Martini is a versatile little orchestra. Their 2013 album Get Happy  features 16 songs in 9 languages. No shortage of variety there. Band leader and founder of the whole shebang, Thomas Lauderdale, spoke to the mainly Hungarian audience in Budapest this week – in Hungarian. Granted, his pronunciation made mine look pitch perfect, but he tried. And not just the usual ‘Hello, Budapest’ either. He had pages of script and introduced many of the numbers in halting Magyar. One of the first classics they played was Je ne veux pas travailler (I don’t want to work) which is now an anthem of sorts for any sort of strike in France): I don’t want to work, I don’t want to lunch, I only want to forget and so I smoke [English translation; song is in French].

PM2Their 2014 album Dream a Little Dream has some interesting guests: Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame. How did I not know that (a) the von Trapps were a real family and (b) they still sing together? Where have I been? It takes listeners from from Sweden to Rwanda to China to Bavaria, and also features The Chieftains, who have to be among Ireland’s best known exports.  pm3

I first met them a few years ago when my mate VB from Arizona sent me their album Hang on Little Tomato. I fell in love with the song Let’s never stop falling in love. She also sent me Hey Eugene with its classic of the same name, written about a chap China met out on the town one night, a chap called Eugene who took her number and never called : Hey Eugene! Do you remember me?
I’m that chick you danced with two times Through the Rufus album, Friday night, at Avenue A

Percussionist Martin Zarzar (from Peru) works Mar Desconocido, a number which Lauderdale describes as ‘like a song from a Pedro Almodovar film with an excerpt of a Chopin waltz in the middle of it.’  That might go some way in describing just what the band are about. They’re bloody amazing. One of the most memorable numbers of the night had to be a duet of an old Armenian number featuring percussionist Timothy Nishimoto (him of the red socks). I lost count of the number of languages on stage – I know there was French, and English, and Armenian, and Croatian, and Spanish … and possibly more. But then again, what would you expect from Harvard graduates?

Hungarian audiences aren’t noted for going wild. Theirs is a more restrained enthusiasm. And yet, when Lauderdale invited the audience on stage a couple of times to dance to particularly dancy numbers, there was no shortage of volunteers. By the time I weighed up the hassle it would be to extricate myself from my centre section seat and the energy it would take to actually move in something fashioning a dance, against being able to say that I was on stage once with Pink Martini, I stayed put. Make no mistake: I’m a fan. And I’m glad that the lovely VZsZs managed to get some tickets. But I was knackered. So tired, in fact, that I almost fell asleep. Not good.

I’ve been to concerts (Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen come immediately to mind) that have gone on for more than a couple of hours. But lately it seems that gigs are getting shorter. Sinéad O’Connor wasn’t on stage for much more than an hour. And Pink Martini didn’t last much longer. What it is I wonder? Is it because our attention spans are shortening? It can’t be money, can it? It’s the same to them whether they play for one hour or two surely? They’re in country anyway. Mind you, there was some debate on stage over whether or not they’d been to Budapest before. Turns out they had been – but only to eat. They actually played at the Balaton.

No matter. I got to seem them live. In Budapest. And for that I’m grateful. If they come your way, do what you need to do to get tickets. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

2015 Grateful 13

Now that my heartbeat is back to normal, life can continue. My fingers have unfurled and the seagulls have fled my stomach. Ireland v. Italy yesterday really took it out of me. Twice I had to get up and leave the pub because I just couldn’t bear to watch any more. I think I wanted Ireland to win as much as some of the lads on the pitch. But more than winning, I didn’t want them to lose. And there is a difference.

Okay – so if you win, you might say, you don’t lose. But you can lose and still win. But had Ireland lost, it would have been a loss, loss.

Take Wales v. Figi. Even though Figi lost, they won. They played their hearts out and gave the world a stellar game of rugby. The emotion. The heart. The spirit – it was all there. So far they’re not on the scoreboard but the rugby they’re playing is super (in my humble opinion and yes, what I know about rugby won’t take me far). Compare that game to the England v. Australia game … let’s just say that I missed the prR3omised brilliance.

It was interesting. I watched the England game without any vested interest in who won, other than wanting Wales to win because I’d very much like to see a Wales v. Ireland final. [And I’ve been stockpiling Irish rashers and sausages and black pudding for a pre-match breakfast for my Welsh mates should the occasion arise.] I may as well have stayed at home, though. It just didn’t do it for me. I’m not one for watching sports unless I can relate – I need to feel the pain, to have my heart stop, to take my anxiety to a whole new level. If there’s no emotional involvement, it simple doesn’t work for me.

I posted this on a Welsh friend’s page last week – and man, did I pay for it. Just a game, me arse!

R4

Ireland delivered a result yesterday. We won. But we failed to deliver on form. Irish captain Paul O’Connell apologised to the fans for not giving us something worth looking at.

The lock apologised to Irish fans, who made up the majority of the 53,187 in attendance at the Olympic Stadium, after the game.

“The crowd were amazing,” he said. “I wish we could have put on a better performance today… It was a shame we didn’t match them [for energy and enthusiasm].

I’m mad at them for driving my blood pressure through the roof. But I’m grateful we won. Grateful we didn’t lose. And really grateful that none of our boys was hurt. We have a place in the quarter finals. Sometime between now and Sunday’s game with France, we need to rediscover our form.

2015 Grateful 14

Someone asked me today if I ever tired of travelling. The hassle. The queues. The lost luggage. The never-quite-knowing-how-much-a-flight-will-cost until you press the final button. The packing. The unpacking. Did I  mention the hassle? And I said no. Never.

Travelling is something you like or you don’t. Very few people are ambivalent. For many, it’s a chore. Something they have to do for work. They rack up hotel nights with the same frequency as others make cups of tea. For others travel is a choice. Something they do once or twice a year. The annual summer holiday with months spent planning where to spend those two weeks. And perhaps a week around Christmas, visiting family at home or abroad, or skiing. More still mark anniversaries and birthdays and notable occasions with a city break to somewhere foreign. But for some, like me, travel is an innate part of being. I can no more imagine not travelling than I can imagine not sleeping.

Yes, I’m lucky in that I have a job that facilitates my trips. I can work anywhere I have an Internet connection. Unless I’m giving workshops. And recently, when asked for dates for workshops in October and November, I froze for a minute as I looked through my diary and realised that for two whole months I would have to be in Budapest at least two days a week. Which left with with a five-day travel window.

time off

It’s not that I have anywhere in particular I want to go. Rather that I want to be free to go should the opportunity arise. A Serbian friend mooted a week in Israel – but I don’t have week. Two weeks in Iran was also on the cards but I don’t have two weeks either. And for a while, my narrative voice kicked in and I was caught up in a mental castigation of not being able to say no. I could have just said I wasn’t free. But that wouldn’t be true. I could have declined to bid on the job but that, as a freelancer, would be tantamount to heresy. You take what work you can get (within reason) when you get it, because you never know when the next lot will come along.

Some time in the last few months, my attitude to travel has changed. I missed out on tickets for Pink Martini who are playing next week in Budapest. I’m kicking myself. I’d give the toenail on my big toe to go see them live. So what did I do? I checked other tour dates in Europe and when I found myself trying to work in overnight train trips to Munich at mad h0urs mid-week, I realised that I enjoy a luxury denied to many. I’m living smack, bang in the middle of Europe. Getting a train to another country is often quicker than a drive from London to Newcastle. Flying between capitals is relatively cheap – and while the environmentalist in me screams NO!, the twenty-first century me pays her carbon dues and plants trees to offset her airmiles and reasons that as her dad wouldn’t set foot in an airplane, she can use his allocation, too.

This week is a quick trip to Ireland for a book launch. Next week is a quick trip to Malta for a workshop. Florence is also peeping over the horizon, as is Venice. And the States are calling – again.

If I’m not thinking about travelling, something is definitely wrong in my world. I’m grateful indeed that I get to indulge this particular passion and that the world is big enough to keep me thinking (and travelling) for many years to come.

2015 Grateful 15

There I was, on Friday night, sitting on stage at the New Orleans Music Club in Budapest. As you do. It was the Final of the Finalists, the 31st and final round in the English-language speech slam that I’ve been presiding over since 2009. Five finalists had come together to see which one of them would take home the honours.

For those not familiar with the event, five competitors each give five-minute prepared speeches on a topic of their choice and then a three-minute impromptu on a topic chosen by the audience. For his impromptu, Rupert Slade drew me – yep – a slip of paper asking him to talk about me – Mary Murphy.

Now, I’m sure that had I not been in the room, he would have had little trouble meeting that goal. It’s easy enough to talk about anyone if they’re not there to contradict or take offense. But I was there and I wasn’t about to go anywhere.

As the audience waited for him to give up the dirt, I sat  on stage wondering where he was going to go with it.  Rupert knows me well enough to have some stories to tell and has a way about him that would make that telling very entertaining. And as he is not exactly backward about coming forward, I readied myself for public exposition – but it never came.

He talked about my losing weight – the equivalent of a piece of checked luggage on RyanAir. He talked about my blog and my thing about being grateful[so I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity].  He talked about my run-in with sheepdogs on my way to mass in Transylvania. And he talked of how I’d told him to invite his now wife out for a coffee after the GOTG final in 2012. [Apparently, I tell... ]. And he said nice stuff, too, about GOTG and the difference it has made to the orphanage.  And he did all this in the most horrendous stage-Irish accent that was so bad it was  funny.

And the audience was  left wondering.

He didn’t slag me. He didn’t divulge the undivulgible. He left that to me.

When you’re doing anything even remotely humourous on stage, the best person to rag is yourself – you’re the only one who might take offence and you know your limits. I tell stories. About me. About my experiences. And occasionally about my mother. Most have enough truth in them to be credible. But the choice of what to divulge is mine.

Rupert could have gone with the easy option – but he didn’t. And for that, I’m truly grateful. Perhaps I’d be better than most at taking a public roasting but I’m glad that I wasn’t put to the test.

 

 

2015 Grateful 16

I fell completely, madly, hopelessly in love today. I’d met him before, briefly, a couple of years ago, and while mildly taken with him then, it was nothing compared to what I experienced today. A drop in the ocean. A grain of rice in a paddy field. A grape in a vineyard. Today, I fell hook, line, and sinker.

He’s cute. He’s blonde. He’s constantly smiling. And he’s two.

I can’t say that I miss not having kids. Occasionally – very, very occasionally – I wonder what it might have been like. But it’s a fleeting thought, one that doesn’t last very long. It didn’t happen. End of. I’m a firm believer in what’s for you not passing you and being a mum obviously wasn’t for me. Given that my levels of patience are questionable at the best of times, it’s probably best that way. I have no regrets.

Down2But this little man is adorable. And he has Down Syndrome. He’s not a Down Syndrome child – he’s a child who happens to have Down Syndrome. And that’s not just semantics.  Down Syndrome is a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome and this third copy of the twenty-first chromosome has an amazing effect on the world. Some it repels, most it draws closer.

Many years ago, in Alaska, a friend of mine whose son has Down Syndrome, was telling me how another parent of a child with DS had asked her if there were ever times when she wished her son was normal. Why, she answered, somewhat surprised, sure he if was ‘normal’ as you say, he’d be someone else.

Down

Today I got to experience those amazing eyes, that infectious laugh … and the hugs. And the uncomplicated, unadulterated joy of being.  And for a short while, I managed to be completely present.

Last night, in Belfast, I listened to Eckhart Tolle, a German-born Canadian resident who has been lauded as the ‘most spiritually influential person in the world’. I read his book – The Power of Now – many years ago and have recommended it or given it as a gift to friends over the years. And while I liked his message, I never really took to him. Quite irrationally, I never really liked him. But today I do.

Far from being the tall, ramrod straight, officious, imperious German I had imagined, he’s a short, hunched, lovable chap with a mischievious glint in his eye. He sat on stage looking strangely like a cheeky schoolboy who knew something none of the rest of us had yet grasped. And over the course of 90 minutes or so, he let us in to the secret.

He talked to us about egos. About how our mental commentaries turn neutral situations into marked unhappiness. About how we merge reality with a fictional image of life that we make available to others via social media. He talked about our thought-burdened sense of identity. About the illusion we have that  in order to hold our life together, we have to think about it all the time. About how our thought forms give us our sense of self.

And he told us of the gap that exists between two thoughts – the space where one thought finishes and another has yet to start. That stillness. That awareness. That presence. And he said that if we looked into the eyes of a baby, we could see how they look at us without thinking about how much they like or dislike us, about how our glasses look, or how many wrinkles we have. They have yet to form thoughts so they look and they see and they’re in the moment, in the now. [And if we didn’t have a baby to hand, we could do the same with a dog.]

And today, when I was enjoying the hugs and the smiles and the love from this little miracle, I finally got what Tolle was on about. Today, when we were out and about, everywhere Finn went he radiated joy. He lit up the restaurant. Random strangers drawn to him came over to say hi. People passing us in the village turned to smile. It was magnetic. And for a while, as people engaged with him, they were present, completely present. It was  quite something to behold.

This week, I’m grateful to a two-year-old for the laughs, and the smiles, and the unconditional love. And for teaching me how to be present.

Down3

2015 Grateful 17

A late afternoon decision and the almost miraculous appearance of a local shark (illegal taxi driver) saw us heading towards Stana (Sztána), one of nine villages in the commune of Almaşu (Váralmás). As we bounced (I kid you not) along a dirt and gravel road, I realised why the Romanian map feels the need to show three classifications of road: main roads, asphalt roads, and dirt roads – the latter are well-travelled. Given that most rental car agreements would ban travel down such byways, it must put half of the country out of reach of tourists, which might explain why strangers in the more remote towns and villages are such a novelty. Transylvania is one part of Romania that would be a perfect home for a Rent-a-Wreck franchise.

IMG_0772 (800x600)IMG_0763 (600x800)Stana is Romanian for sheepfold. And there were lots of sheep and a few people and a nest of houses, and a church, two shops, and, strangely enough, lots of new-builds. Yep. Seems like EU money is pouring into this tiny community with a massive guest house going up on the outskirts of town. I’d heard that one of the conditions for getting these EU grants is that you have to undertake to have an indoor recreation area – which is why they have a table-tennis (ping-pong) table in the cellar. Go figure.

We were the only guests in the Kék Iringo, an old house that has been renovated to within an inch of its life. A shame really. But hey, we were treated like royalty and looked after like we were the last two women on Earth.

IMG_0761 (800x600) (2)A wander around the village included a beer outside one of the two shops – this would seem to be what passes for entertainment. There’s a lot to be said for passing the evening in the company of neighbours on the village streets – but were I living there, I’d wonder on those nights I stayed away whether I was the topic of conversation. That they build seats into the gateways and porches says so much for a tradition of meeting and mingling. I had thought it might be a bus stop but then remembered that there are no busses.

IMG_0647 (800x600)A few days earlier, while driving from church to church, we’d passed a number of sheep stations. Our driver warned us about the dangers of marauding sheepdogs, who do their  best to ensure full employment for walking guides. The shepherds, apparently, make cheese on the spot. And, when I think of the age I’ve reached without ever questioning where ewe cheese comes from, I’m shocked at how surprised I was to think of sheep being milked. Sometimes I really doubt my own intelligence.

IMG_0795 (600x800)We’d planned to walk over the fields to the next village of Petrinzel (Kispetri) in time for a Reformatus service at 10am. In the distance we saw a horse-drawn cart ferrying other churchgoers from village to village in a scene that could have been plucked from The Little House on the Prairie. So much so that I could have sworn I heard the theme tune as Laura’s freckled face flashed in front of me. We could see the church in the distance and the path was relatively well-worn. We’d not get lost.  But then we saw the sheep and later we saw the dogs (all three of tIMG_0797 (800x600)hem). The shepherd obviously didn’t see us as no amount of waving would get him to look our way. And dressed as I was in my Sunday best rather than usual hill walking gear (if I had any), I did sort of stick out. The sheep seemed determined to thwart us. Just as we thought the coast was clear, the dogs came back. Three attempts we made, walking a little further each time before doubling back. Eventually, at 10am, just as the service was starting, we gave up.

Everyone carries a big stick when they walk further than the village. Kids can play in the streets but not venture out into the hills. Which is a shame, given the gorgeous countryside they have as a back garden. Traffic, which is practically non-existent, doesn’t keep you awake at night – but howling dogs do. And just when you get off to sleep, the roosters start crowing. Were I to live here for any length of time, I’d go demented. I need my sleep. And on the rare occasion that I fancy a walk, I’d like to be able to walk from A to B unaccosted.

IMG_0781 (600x800)We all live different lives. Yes, there might be overlaps and similarities, but each life is unique. Every now and then it’s nice to get a new perspective, to get a  glimpse of how other people live. It’s fun to play what if and imagine how well I might fit in, how I’d adapt. If nothing else, it makes me appreciate what I have. And while living the experience is wonderful, and being treated like royalty is something not to be dissed, the simple joy of sleeping in my own bed is one I’d not trade for the world.

Yet again, I’m grateful for the wanderlust, for the need to see new places and experience new things. I hope it’s something I never grow out of. As Mae West supposedly said ‘you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.’

 

 

 

 

2015 Grateful 18: Daniel Silva

For the last month or so, I’ve been keeping fairly constant company with a lovely man who has the most amazing green eyes and even more amazing hands. He’s in his mid-fifties, Jewish, Israeli, and absolutely and utterly fascinating. He goes by many names but the one I like most is his real one – Gabriel Allon. Born of the pen of Daniel Silva he has taken me to places I could never otherwise hope to go. Read more

2015 Grateful 19

Sometimes things just ain’t what they seem. Sometimes our expectations let us down. Sometimes, though,  we can be pleasantly surprised. So much of it depends on patience …

Cluj-Napoca (known to Hungarians as Koloszvár) has been on my list of places to visit for a number of years. And yet I never once thought to read up on it, check it out, or do any sort of research at all. I was just fascinated by the name and by the fact that it’s in Transylvania in Romania.

IMG_0402 (800x600)IMG_0397 (800x600)Some 7.5 hours by train from Budapest, the journey itself doesn’t help much. As we passed over the Hungarian-Romanian border, I woke periodically (it was a 5.30 am train) to see it alternate between heavy industry, rural poverty, and urban richness. I was particularly fascinated by the ornate tin roofs on some of the houses. Quite surreal. A little Vegas’y without the ding ding of the casinos. It all added to the mix of expectations that were being raised and dashed and dashed and raised to the point that I IMG_0403 (800x585)gave up and stopped wondering at all.

The city, which sits in Central Romania, is home to some 340 000 people and has been inhabited since 200 BC. Okay, so I was sort of expecting an old town wonderland – perhaps the best bits of Prague and Budapest combined – but when we arrived outside the train station, it was like stepping  into a  construction site. The first thing that struck me were the cables and the wires. Everywhere. It’s like the whole city is plugged into one socket. Mad. The juxtaposition of old and new is something I’ve come to expect so it didn’t phase me. But the lack of footpaths did. And the crazy driving.

IMG_0416 (800x600)We stayed in the Hotel Belvedere, a leftover from the days of Communism when the hoi polloi would stay on the hill overlooking the city. The 253-step climb  took some practice but we eventually got it down to 7 minutes. The hotel itself, a *** venue, was a delight. So like the Kyviec in Bratislava IMG_0481 (800x600)IMG_0411 (800x600)(or how it was before the renovation – I’ve not been back to see it since). The marble-floored massive open plan lobby complete with the regulatory six clocks showing various time zones over the elevators and the mad chandeliers just needed Brezhnev or one of the boys to walk across it to complete the feel. Wedding guests passing through decked in gold bow ties, purple suits and pink loafers (and that was just the men) lent it a move-set feel. And all for the princely sum of €45  a night, including breakfast.

IMG_0442 (600x800)We wandered downtown that evening, just to have a look-see, as you do. And once we’d navigated the rubble and made our way into the heart of the city itself, I was surprised. Shop windows had stuff I’d come back and buy. Bars were inviting. Menus were creative. And the Jazz Club was dead cool. The city has style.  Hearing Hungarian so widely spoken and yet being somewhere that is so not Hungarian was a little odd. Budapest has its charm but the bar/restaurant scene has a certain sameness once you get used to it. Cluj has variety. I was seriously impressed. So impressed that it now warrants a full weekend on its own instead of just one night. I’d need at least two lunches and three dinners to do it justice, there were that many places I wanted to visit.

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There are plenty of churches so I lit my share of candles and made my litany of wishes. There was a bit of a faff  back in 2013 about the number of new Orthodox churches being built (something like 10 a month) given how relatively poor the country is. And they’re still going up.

IMG_0510 (800x600)
IMG_0508 (600x800)My vote went to  the Reformed Church and its magnificent organ made all the more special by the simplicity of the Gothic interior. So far removed from the gilt and gold of the Cathedral or the iconic innards of the Orthodox Church. It is a lovely, lovely space. And, I wondered, as I’ve wondered before, how many more prayers are said without the distractions. I had to look up the religion though as I didn’t realise that Reformed mean Calvinist. Seems like I learn something new every day.

IMG_0437 (800x600)Outside sits the somewhat famous statue of St George killing the Dragon. I came across something similar in a painting in Bulgaria a couple of weeks go – and this after years of never happening upon the boy at all. Am just waiting for him to show up a third time sometime soon.

We ate, we saw, we wandered. The wine isn’t much to write home about, but if that’s the sum total of my whinge, it’s not half bad. Will definitely be back.

This week, I’m grateful for so many things. For new beginnings, new discoveries, and new experiences. What’s not to like about my world?

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2015 Grateful 20

Many years ago, while dancing with some chap in the Dinn Rí nightclub in Carlow, he turned and paid me what I can only suppose was his idea of a compliment: ‘I can see by ya’, says he, ‘that ya like a bit of chocolate.’ When I finally found the positive in this, the song was over, the dance was over, and we were over, having never even started.

But he was right. I like my chocolate. I like my food. Eating is a joy. One of the simplest pleasures in life. And for those who don’t share my love of all things culinary, I feel for you.

Food7Bulgarian cuisine was  like one massive fish’n’meat menu with variations on the same theme. There were definite staples shared by most restaurants, with some doing them better than others. There were fish I’d never heard of – and didn’t fancy trying. And there were Food6versions of things I orderd that didn’t come close to what I had in my head. A roasted pepper, tomato, garlic, and olive dish that I expected to be a salad turned up as a pureé. A spinach, mushroom and cheese dish showed up as mush, and I was never Food3Food5curious enough to order the popular dish ‘Mish Mash’.

As in most cities, TripAdvisor has taken over. There’s a restaurant here in Budapest – Zeller Bistro – that is booked up days in advance because it’s rated  in the top 3 in the city. And
yes, it’s good. But there are plenty better that don’t get a look in. We ate in Vodenisata twice before we noticed it listed by Lonely Planet. And it was good. Good Eastern European cooking. And it’s not rated by Trip Advisor at all. But then, it was mainly Food 2locals. Which is always a plus.

One night, we stayed in the ‘hood and wandered through the maze of back streets overlooked by towering apartment blocks. About a mile away, on the edge of a park, beside a kids’ Food1playground, sits Teniova Kashta – a family-run institution that has been serving massive helpings to the local populace for what seems like centuries. It’s all over the place. Inside takes about 150. Outside, on all levels, takes another 120. The size of the tables and food8the size of the portions speak to the tradition in Bulgaria of big groups eating out. You could get a whole stuffed roasted lamb for €150. A piglet for €135. A rabbit for €25. And then there’s the offal – livers, gizzards, tongue, tripe, even pigs ears. There are over 300 items on the menu – more choice that I usually like to have – but it made for fascinating reading. I was particularly taken with them calling a Baked Alaska dessert an omlette 🙂

I found myself imagining winning the lottery and bringing 12 of my nearest and dearest meat-eating friends to the table. What a night that would be. And isn’t that what meals were made for? None of this eating in front of the TV, or from your  lap on the sofa. If you’re in company, a meal is an occasion. And indeed, even if dining alone, they can still be occasions. Think Trond Sander, in Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. Or my visit to Croatia a while back when I dined each night with Jack Reacher. [I was quite delighted today to see that Lidl has some one-glass cans of prosecco on offer. Nothing like a few bubbles to spruce up a dinner table.]

This week though, as I land again in Budapest and read of the countless thousands flooding in to the country, thousands who have had little in the way of fine dining (or any sort of dining) for quite a while, eating has taken on a whole new perspective. And, if anything, is o be even more appreciated. This blessing came to mind:

In a world where so many are hungry,
may we eat this food with humble hearts;
in a world where so many are lonely,
May we share this friendship with joyful hearts.

Yep, this week, I grateful that I can find such pleasure in the simple act of eating.