2016 Grateful 12

Serendipity, the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, is alive and well and a resident feature of my life. I can’t begin to count the number of casual comments that have led to wondrous things, the number of chance encounters that have morphed into lifelong friendships, the number of random acts of kindness that have made my world a better place.

About a year ago, a mate of mine tried, rather unsuccessfully, to explain a project he was working on: a frequency opera called The Birth of Color. I was never the quickest study in the class but I’m quick enough. But try as I might, I couldn’t get a handle on it at all. He suggested I meet the woman behind it, and the man behind that woman. He invited me for coffee and I met Honora and Dahlan Foah.

Over the course of the next twelve months or so, they kept me posted on developments. At varying stages, both did their level best to explain to me what it was all about. And while I was slowly beginning to get my head around it, it still defied belief. I simply couldn’t see it happening. Now, I’m not short of imagination. In fact, I’m prone to flights of fancy. And I can exaggerate with the best of them. But no matter how much detail they gave, I just didn’t get it.

Last Friday night, 8pm, in the Kiscelli Museum in Budapest, I had the privilege (and I don’t use that word lightly) to see the world premier of Honora Foah’s creation. I had no idea what to expect – I’d heard tell of crystal bowls coming in from Austria. Of a 3-meter pool of water. Of a 60-strong chorus. Of narrators. Of swathes of translucent material. Of lights. Of sound. Of all sorts of stuff that go into such productions. But no matter how I figured it, I still couldn’t do the math.

I invited some friends along, friends who have a greater appreciation for music that I could ever pretend to have. But I fessed up that I had no clue what it was about and couldn’t guarantee anything other than it would be an experience.  I’d met Honora Foah. I knew I was safe in saying that it would definitely be an experience.

The Kiscelli Museum dates back to the mid-1700s. The Baroque building was once a Trinitarian Monastery and vestiges of holiness still reside it its walls. Not necessarily a religious holiness but that sanctity that attaches itself to dedication. Back in 1935, then owner, antique dealer Miska Schmidt willed it to the city of Budapest. And today it is a museum. I was there at a ball some years ago and was mesmerized. It hadn’t lost its magic.

When the doors opened, we were each give a single symbolic rose petal and led downstairs into the crypt along a candlelit path offset by myriad frescoes. It was a tad other worldly, the perfect entrée to what would be even more surreal still.

As we sat in a circle, four narrators took their stations around a silver pool in a darkened stone-walled chamber. Dressed completely in black with their hoods drawn, their faces and voices seemed to separate from their bodies and float free. Two spoke in Hungarian, two in English as they told the story of the birth of colour. The uplight from their tablets cast a spectre-like glow that I would only later appreciate. Nothing in this production was a matter of chance. Everything, from the white in the sheets of music to the stone grey of the walls, everything had its role, its purpose, its place.

Initially I tried hard to hear all the words, to understand what was being said. I like words. I like how they can be strung together to fashion new forms. And I can listen. But I stopped trying to follow the story and instead let myself float on the tide of words and phrases that had a music of their own. I heard of secrets whispered between night and morning, of breathing in a perfume of magenta, of dark being wisdom and light being illumination. And I listened on a whole new level. The story wasn’t unfolding in front of me, it was unfolding within me.

©Andrew Daneman

©Andrew Daneman

When the Budapest Cantate Choir filed on stage with the much-lauded Dr Sapszon Ferenc wielding the baton, the silence in the room was deafening. They put music to all we had just heard. At times they weren’t singing words, but sounds. Composer Lucio Ivaldi’s music is exquisite.

Someone started to play the crystal bowls. And you could feel the room pulsating with energy. The swathes of material suspended from the ceiling were for all the world how I could now imagine frequencies to look. The lights, the sounds, the voices, the story – everything married, including darkness and light.

©Andrew Daneman

©Andrew Daneman

The entire performance lasted  just 1 hour and 10 minutes (and I suspect the 10 minutes had to do with the bilingual narration) but in that 70 minutes, time was transcended. When it was over, no one moved. When the choir filed out, no one moved. Even the air was in deep thought.

Gradually, people came to. And reality intruded.

I was interviewed afterwards and ask for a reaction. And I cried. On camera. I have no clue where the emotion came from. It was as if something, deep, deep down in my soul had been awakened and didn’t quite know what to do with itself. A birth, a rebirth. I still don’t know.  Thirty-six hours later, I’ve stopped trying to name it. To classify it. To label it. If I learned anything on Friday night it’s that there is no need to be all-knowing, there is no need to understand everything. Sometimes, we simply need to attune our emotions and remember to feel.

So, serendipity, once again you have my thanks. The wait was worth it.  I am truly grateful to have borne witness to the Birth of Color: The Marriage of Darkness and Light.

2016 Grateful 13

As the week draws to a close, I’m officially confused. Even more so than usual. Back in 2009, I went on a road-trip to Eastern Hungary and saw one of the simplest and most beautiful churches I’ve seen, ever. Since then, when I think of Gothic, that’s what comes to mind. So yesterday, in the Church of St George in Spišská Sobota, I was a little taken aback to read that it was Gothic, too. And the two couldn’t be more different.

img_7106_easy-resize-com Just as we went in, a busload of Austrian tourists descended on the place and we got lost in the crowd. Taking photos was verboten and usually not one to break the rules, I put my camera on silent and shut down the flash. But when I could, I snapped. I made my peace with God figuring that such a beautiful place deserves a wider audience.

It’s a miracle that the five Gothic altars have survived as long as they have (the earliest dates back to the 1400s) and are in such good nick. They’re stunning.

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The 1464 Altar of the Blessed Virgin features the four principal virgins (a new one on me, one that leaves me wondering what made them principals?): St Dorothy of Cesarea, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Margaret of Antioch, and St Barbara of Nicodemia. The two on the right look shinier than the others because they’re copies. The real ones were stolen back in 1993. Is nothing sacred any more?

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But beautiful and all as the altars (and the Holy Tomb) are, it was the modern-day stained glass windows that mesmerised me. Added over time from 2007 to 2013 they’re quite something. Each has a story. I could’ve looked at them for hours trying to interpret their meanings. I didn’t manage to get photos that did them any sort of justice, but someone else did. They’re worth checking out.

I’ve banged on before about modern architecture and the shortsightedness of urban planners ruining the look of places so I was really glad (and grateful) to see that it is possible for old and new to coexist and harmonise. It’s a matter of taste. When fifteenth-century Gothic can sit quite happily beside twenty-first-century whatever, that’s something to behold.

Higher up the Tatras, in the town of Nový Smokovec, there’s an Evangelical Church with one of the most interesting altar backdrops I’ve seen. One that makes Christ look positively human. That too, I could have looked at for hours, but the church was locked up and standing on the wrong side of locked doors shortchanged the moment.

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And not alone am I confused, I’m also a little worried. September is officially over. And October has opened with a bang. Today, Hungary will to the polls in a referendum that asks the question:

Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?

Critics say this is the Hungarian version of Brexit – I hope that’s an overreaction. But for months now, the city has been awash with billboards asking questions like:

  • Did you know? More than 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Europe since the start of the migrant crisis.
  • Did you know? The Paris terrorist attacks were carried out by immigrants.
  • Did you know? 1.5 million illegal immigrants arrived to Europe in 2015.
  • Did you know? Brussels wants the forced resettling of a city’s worth of illegal immigrants into Hungary.
  • Did you know? Almost one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone?
  • Did you know? Since the start of the immigration crisis, sexual harassment of women has increased in Europe?

I worry that the propaganda might have taken hold. I hope not. It remains to be seen whether reason prevails.

2016 Grateful 14

When you go to Sunday mass in a small village where everyone knows everyone, you’re bound to stick out if you’re not a local. When you don’t plan ahead and pack your Sunday best, it’s difficult to adhere to the dress code. The men, for the most part, were all suited and booted with collars and ties. The women were all pressed and dressed giving their best handbags an airing. Dark, sombre colours were the order of the day.

His bright turquoise hoodie over a shirt and grey jeans glowed like a neon light on the approach and got the heads turning from a distance. As we walked to the door, three ladies standing sentry looked me up and down with the practiced eyes of mothers who’d sent an army of kids to school after a hands and nails check. My Hungarian isn’t what it should be but I know enough to know that my cropped pants were worthy of a comment and three sets of raised eyebrows as was the fact that I was wearing no socks. I had no argument. My mother would have said exactly the same in a look that would have creased the trousers, too. Okay for a weekday mass but definitely not what to wear on a Sunday.

But it wasn’t the clothes that did me in. ‘Twas the lipstick. Bright red. To match my scarf. I like a little colour. But it screamed HARLOT!!! I took solace in the fact that the village would have something to talk about for the week ahead.

Kneeling is part and parcel of the Sunday aerobics class that many non-Catholics view as mass. But in this particular church, the kneelers were so low that it I went into freefall when I took the plunge. Assuming (incorrectly) that mass the world over has the same kneeling points, I didn’t check what everyone else was doing before I sank to my knees, dropping from a height onto uncushioned slats. I managed to stifle my curse before it escaped and bounced off the walls. I looked around to see everyone else bending forward but not kneeling. Things are different in the countryside.

I usually leave mass then the priest leaves the altar. But having learned my lesson, I stopped and waited to see what everyone else did. No one moved. One old néni (auntie) pulled out her rosary beads as the choir sang on. To my shame, I thought ‘Oh no, not the rosary. We’ll be here till lunchtime.’ I looked around in something approaching a mild panic and thankfully hers was the only purse to open. But not until the last note had been sung did anyone make a move. The priest had vacated his spot a good three minutes earlier. No one was in a rush. Things are different in the countryside.

We were out in under 45 minutes. Budapest mass is closer to an hour or more (depending on where you go). My father is a firm believer in the 3-minute sermon and will just about tolerate a 40-minute mass. He’d have done okay. With years of research under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hungarian seminaries teach their seminarians that the minimum length of their sermons should be 10 minutes. And most oblige. As a minimum.

szodavizOutside, there were lots of friendly good mornings and plenty of interested looks but no approaches. We must have screamed NOT HUNGARIAN. We decided to walk up the village to the local bar/shop/tabac/café to check it out and get a bottle of szódaviz (soda water). You put a deposit on the spouted bottle and bring it back to be refilled. They’re hard to find in Budapest so I had been quite excited when I’d spotted a man leaving the premises the previous day with a box of six. I’m easily pleased.

In we went for a coffee. It was just coming up to 9am. One chap was happily sipping on his pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) and another two were enjoying a beer outside.

Pálinka in small amounts is a medicine, in large amounts a remedy, so Hungarians say.. Our grandfathers liked to start the day with a small glass of good pálinka and were convinced that they owed their health to the benevolent effects of the distillate.

A fourth came in as we were there and ordered a bottle of Törley pezsgő (Hungarian sparkling wine). He was celebrating (a new grandchild, I think). He asked for four glasses and they all had their toast. A couple more turfed up. All on bikes. We moved outside to one of two tables to have a second espresso (great coffee am happy to say) and I noticed that I was on display: the sockless harlot in the red lipstick, a lone woman among all these men. Things are different in the countryside.

Next time I go to mass, I’ll wear socks and tone down the lippie. The hoodie will be replaced by a jacket but the suit and tie won’t be happening any time soon. It’s the earliest I’ve been up on a Sunday for a while. Been to mass. Been to the pub. And still home by 10 am.

As a new chapter unfolds, life is promising all sorts of interesting experiences. This week, I’m grateful for the nudge from JFW. I’m already going through the calendar to see when I can come back and for how long I can stay. Sunny days in late September, falling asleep to the sounds of ducks on water and waking at cock crow to the baa’ing of sheep. Restorative. Good for the soul. Practically a religious experience in itself.

2016 Grateful 15

My first car was a Ford Fiesta. I had no say in the colour, the make, the size, the year, the price. I’d been talking about getting a car and was even taking driving lessons. I went home one weekend and the car was there. My dad had gone shopping for me. I got the car and the bill. It wouldn’t have been my pick and ungrateful wagon that I was back then (hey, I was young), I still remember feeling a tad peeved at not having had a say. But it was a car on a deferred payment scheme and it got me from A to B. I soon forgot any complaints I might have had.

My only car in California was a two-tone green monster of a Buick Regal. I mentioned wanting a car and someone knew someone selling this one so I bought it. No research. No shopping around. It was in my price range and he said it ran fine. The front seat was like a sofa. The first time I went to put gas in it, I had to leave the garage, embarrassed. I couldn’t find the tank. I circled and circled and circled the car but couldn’t find it. How was I to know that the tank was hidden behind the licence plate.

The next car I bought was a maroon Ford Mustang. A great little car. I drove it up the Alcan highway from Washington and took it on the ferry when I moved from Anchorage to Valdez. But it wasn’t built for snow. I was constantly getting stuck on snow berms in winter and would have to call the pub to see if someone could come tow me out of trouble.

Back in Ireland, I drove my mam’s old Starlet. And then my brother’s Santa Fe. It’s been years since I’ve had my own car and I’d forgotten what it was like.

When the search began, I had a budget. And for that money I wanted the newest car with the lowest mileage in the best condition. Not a tall order, I thought. A pretty reasonable ask. Clueless, I asked a mate, TZ, who knows cars for advice.

'Tell us again why we need three hundred horsepower to get groceries.'

‘Tell us again why we need three hundred horsepower to get groceries.’

He asked some questions: projected mileage (I way overestimated); preferred capacity (a boot that would fit two large suitcases and a back seat that would take three people comfortable); trips envisaged – frequency, length, etc. (I definitely exaggerated); parking; total budget; degree of urgency. He then sent a list of cars (models/makes) to avoid as it’d be parked on the street and these were prone to theft. This isn’t something I’d have thought about, ever. He then discounted various other makes/models for a number of reasons. Third generation of this car had a design flaw in backseat placement. Second generation of that car had an engine fault and so on. His knowledge of cars is encyclopedic.

We went shopping on Saturday. Three cars to see. The first, a Ford Focus, I’d have taken in a heartbeat. Low mileage, good nick (or so I thought), and well within budget. An import, from Germany. And so the education began.

Mileage was suspiciously low. It had been crashed at least once (the bonnet didn’t align quite exactly !*&S! – like I’d have noticed that). The tyres were old (check the four digit number). And the upholstery screamed valet job rather than regular upkeep. (So there was a hole … wouldn’t have bothered me.)

The next place had two cars on offer. Both Toyota Avensis – one a 5-door liftback, the other an estate. Both looked great, if a little big. Both were in budget. The five-door was gold though… I wasn’t mad about driving around in a bling car but I wasn’t going to be a girl about it. If it worked, it worked. I checked the bonnet – it seemed to align. I checked the tyres for the week/year and they seemed okay. But I missed that the wear on the steering wheel and gear knob were too much for the mileage done, even though the rest of the car was in great shape. The oil around the oil pan was went rather than dry flaky dirt-like stuff (another new one). All an education. The other was too big for me – I’d never parallel park it.

Sunday we saw Ime. A silver Toyota Avensis. She’s had one careful owner who has babied her for years. Lots of years. She’s in great condition and looks way younger than she is. She’s immaculately kept. Records of each and every service in its own plastic sleeve. Serviced religiously every 10 000 km. In budget, silver, good to go.

She’s my first grown-up car. The type of car my dad might have had. It took me a while to come around to the fact that I am grown up, too. When I mentioned to TZ that I thought she might be too big, car1too grown-up for me, he said, in all seriousness, referring back to my original list of wants: Mary, you can’t have sex and still remain a virgin.

I took her home today. And tomorrow the bureaucratic nightmare begins with the help of another of Hungary’s wonders, CM. The chassis test (to verify that she is just one car and not a mutation of many parts and that all parts are her own). Then it’s to the Halls of Hell to transfer registration and pay my ‘wealth acquisition tax’ (oops – capital transfer tax – a tax on transforming cash to steel) and get my car papers sorted. And then to another office to get my parking permit for district. The NCT/MOT is due in November when she gets a new clutch and a complete fluid transfusion. You see, when it comes to looking after her, I’m going to be more Hungarian than Irish. I’m going to do it by the book. I need her to live a long, healthy life. I need her to keep going.

This week in 2007, I came to Budapest. Nine years later to the day life seems to be motoring along in a direction I’d not have planned (were I a planner). But hey, the scenery is great; the route’s full of twists and turns, never boring; and there’s plenty of miles left on the clock. This week, I’m so glad I met the embodiment of the used-car classified ad classic: one careful owner. And for mates like TZ and CM, who willingly donate their days to help, I’m truly grateful.

 

 

2016 Grateful 16

Friday evening. The last day of the working week. The question of who was going to go down the pub for drink would inevitably raise its head after lunch, when all anyone could think about was not having to come to work for two days. The stalwarts, those who were religious about kicking off their weekend with a couple of pints of a Friday evening, spearheaded the recruitment campaign. Those who recognised the danger of going ‘just for one’ and still had vague memories of how the previous Friday night’s excursion had carried over in to Saturday morning were a tad more reluctant to commit. Others, who had sworn ‘never again’ would leave it to the last minute to say – Ah, what the hell.

I was a great fan of the FND, when I had to escape from under the yoke of someone else’s corporate harness. Before I knew that Americans for the most part prefer to socialise at home, I remember being completely shocked when my workplaces in California didn’t engage. Now, every day is a Friday or a Monday or a Wednesday. I don’t have weekends. I work when the work is there and don’t when it’s not. The FND may as well be the WND or the TND.

This weekend though, we decided to have that FND. But not go down the pub. We walked over Rákóczi híd, the most southern of the Danube bridges in Budapest.

Photo by Tibor Polinszky

Photo by Tibor Polinszky

Previously known as Lágymányosi híd, this massive steel girdered construction which runs parallel with a railway track was opened in 1995. The views upriver were spectacular. We were heading  to Kopaszi gát, a landscaped peninsula accessible from the Buda side, a relatively unknown spot in the city, a smaller version of Margit Sziget the island which lies off Margit híd farther north.

lebistroLined with bars, restaurants, and cafés, the river runs down both sides. We saw two wedding receptions, one kids’ party, and numerous other picnics and meet-ups. The place was buzzing. We walked the length of it and decided to stop at Le Bistro for a fish dinner on the way back. It’s a little more spendy by way of drinks than other places, but it’s the one I tend to gravitate to. I got to speak Hungarian with the waitress, all evening. She was patient with me. Very patient. And didn’t once lapse into English although she speaks it. We sat with our FNDs, overlooking the river, watching the rowers make their way up and down the water. A far cry from a London or a Dublin pub on a Friday evening.

20160909_192019_resizedHeading back around 9pm, we stopped on the steps up to the bridge to peek in at the live gig going on at the old Zöld Pardon (aka ZP) which is now the Barba Negra Track. While the crowds sang to the stage inside the venue, others had brought their beers and blankets and were enjoying free music from the bridge. Kowalsky meg a vega were on stage and sounded good. Good enough to keep an eye out for them in future, when we have that blanket and that beer.

barba_negra_music_club_0We walked between Müpa and the National Theatre and marvelled, not for the first time, how beautiful both buildings look at night, all lit up. We had a choice of trams and let fate decide where we’d go next. If the 24 came, we’d head back to the VIIIth; if the 2 came, we’d go to Bálna (the Whale) and have another FND by the river there.

Nehru-part, the park between Báross tér and Bálna that is named after the first Prime Minister of India, has been undergoing a facelift for most of the summer. It reopened last week and is quite something. Fearless teens were busy trying out their bikes, scooters, and skates, hurtling through the air, falling and picking themselves up again without so much as a grimace. The multicoloured lounge chairs were full of groups of young people sorting out the world. The basketball courts waited to be discovered. Those too old to try the swings in daylight were getting in touch with their inner child.

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st2small basketballcourtsmall[And yes, you sharp cookie, it does look too bright for that time of night… photos taken later.]

We sat for a while over a few hosszúlépés and talked about how good life is, how blessed we are, and how grateful we are to live in this city and when the yawns started to come more quickly, we knew it was time to leave. We decided to walk back through the IXth, up Ipar utca, to Bokréta, and back home. Along the way, we stopped for a nightcap at a cheerful neighbourhood bar on Ferenc tér – the only non-nationals there. The bells were chiming midnight as we unlocked the front door. A lovely Friday evening. In a lovely city. What’s not to be grateful for?

 

 

2016 Grateful 17

Last week, I gathered some of my miscellaneous currency – you know the bits you have left over after a trip and are too lazy to do anything with? I had notes from Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Switzerland, and Turkey. About €10-20 worth of each so not an unreasonable haul. Me and my man in the Northline booth, a young lad of about 30, were getting on just fine until I went to give him 30 Turkish Lira. He waved it away, dismissively, with an attitude. When I asked why, he roared at me.

NO!

I asked why again, thoroughly confused, and got an even louder: I SAID NO!!

Up till this point, language hadn’t been an issue. And I had no reason to expect it to start now. I counted to six and asked again, quietly, Why? Sure after four consecutive transactions, I at least deserved an explanation.

And I got another maniacal: I SAID NO!!!!

Still in control (barely), my heart thumping and my teeth clenched I told him that there was no need to shout at me. I could hear him perfectly well. [Man, I sounded so like my mother.]

He screamed: I SAID NO!!!!!

I didn’t know where to go with that so I told him that I really hoped his day would get better.

THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH MY DAY. I SAID NO. NO.

I didn’t stay to argue. And I won’t be going back there any time soon.

I called my bank today. I wanted to transfer money from my euro account into my Hungarian forint account, both of which are in the same branch. I was curious to know what it would cost me and what sort of rate I’d get. I also needed to clarify the difference between foreign currency and foreign exchange.

Because I’m an individual not a corporation, they could offer me 301 ft for my euro. If I was a business I could get 305.

But I have a business, I said. I can transfer it to that account. It’s with your bank, too.

No. As I would be the one transferring the money, it would be classified as an individual transaction.

So I thought, if I withdraw the money, walk outside, change it at a different Northline office, I can get 308 ft. Then I can come back and deposit the cash in forint.

Yes. But withdrawing the euro will attract a 1.09% charge, he said. Of course, we wouldn’t charge you anything to accept the forint.

How do banks get away with this crap?

Last week, Louis CK commented on how we’re all using the Christian calendar to date our cheques. I, for one, would love it if we could all use the same currency, too. Think of how much it would improve my life: no mad men with a pathological dislike for handling Turkish lira screaming at me, no unseemly profits for my bank for its discrimination against individuals and its penury currency exchange rates.No blood pressure issues for me.

On the grateful side: I didn’t shout back. I’m learning that I need to pick my battles and that sometimes, I simply can’t win so best not to even attempt the try.

2016 Grateful 18

It’s hard sometimes to look on the bright side of life. [Amazing how those five words, in any sentence, immediately cue the Monty Python tune in my head.] The daily deluge of atrocities, injustices, and calamities served up to us by the global media challenge the most optimistic of optimists, and the most positive of positive thinkers out there. I lay no claim to being either an optimist or a positive thinker, but I delight in the extraordinary, the quirky, the OTT stuff that brightens up my world.

Heading to Rosslare recently, I detoured through Piercetown following the big signs towards Johnstown Castle as instructed.

I did a double take when I came around the corner at Rathaspeck Manor and saw the gate lodge. Known locally as the doll’s house, this little gem warranted a stop and stare but traffic didn’t allow. So I had to go back the next day to investigate.

fate2Apparently, back in 1900, then owners, the Moody family, bought the house from the Paris Exhibition and had it dismantled. They shipped it to Ireland in pieces, where they put it back together as their gate lodge. It’s been lived in by a succession of families over the years and rumour has it that the lodge will soon be opened to the public.

Renovated a couple of years ago, it’s deceptively roomy with two bedrooms on the ground floor, alongside a sitting room, two porches, and a kitchen in the extension. Upstairs in the attic is another bedroom, with turrets accessed by a wooden stairs and four portholes giving an outlook in every direction. That’s the one I’d choose were it not for the constant stream of tourists pulling up outside to take photos.

In a world blighted by bleakness, it’s nice to revel in the whacky, the zany, the quirky. But on the world’s list of eccentric buildings, this wouldn’t even register. Have you seen the Basket Building in Newark? Or the Mushroom Tree House in Cincinnati? Mad. And brilliant. And guaranteed to make me smile. And that’s something to be grateful for.

The-Basket-Building-in-NewarkThe-Mushroom-Tree-House-by-Terry-Brown

2016 Grateful 19

I’m a great fan of public transport. Especially in Ireland. Not because there’s anything at all regular or dependable about it, but because of the conversations that just happen and the characters that use it.

On Friday, I was heading to the airport. I sat in beside an older blonde and paid little attention. I turned on my kindle and started to read. Three pages in, she spoke.

– Are you going the whole way?
– I am, I said. To the airport.
– I’m only going as far as the Red Cow myself. I’m on my holidays – over from the West of Ireland.
– Nice, I said. I hope you enjoy.

And I went back to my book. Two pages later, she piped up again.

– I suppose you can tell by me that I’m a crossdresser.

Yup – I’d clocked the nails, the hair, the dress, the tights, the earrings and I’d also clocked the tufts of grey hair that did nothing for the decolletage.

– You’re looking well on it. Have you been at it long?
– A fair few years. Men weren’t built for trousers you know. The Scots and the old boys had it right. Skirts are far more comfortable.
– How do you manage the make-up?
– I had to get a few tips at the start, but today I’m only wearing the nail varnish and a bit of lippie, he said, brandishing his shocking pink nails.
– And the heels? Can you cope with the heels?
– I stay low. I leave the heels to the young ones, he said, showing me kitten-heeled sandals.
– What did your family have to say about it all?
– Sure the wife didn’t mind. She’s gone now though. And the in-laws don’t mind either. I don’t go out dressed up at home – just when I’m on my holidays. Ireland’s come a long way, though. We’re a lot more accepting and a lot more tolerant of those who’re a bit different. But sure, we’re doing no one any harm. And life is too short to be miserable. Far too many of us stay home, afraid.

crossdresserHe had to have been in his late 60s, tipping 70. A man from the west of Ireland, from a small town that might be less than charitable in its thinking if he felt he had to get away for a few days half a dozen times a year, to be anonymous, to be himself. But fair play, I thought, fair play. A lesser man would never have brought it up or gotten into conversation. It was good to hear that for the most part, the people he met reacted well and had the manners to tell him he was looking grand. That said, had he being going the whole way to the airport, I might just have suggested a wax, a scarf, or a higher neckline. I’m not sure how he’d have reacted. I’m grateful though that I didn’t get the chance to find out. I love being home.

 

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Back in 2001, when I had a feeling that my time in the USA might be coming to a close, I took a road trip with the inimitable RosaB. On our way from somewhere to somewhere in the State of Alabama, we passed a billboard for the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. Then we passed a second. By the time we hit upon the third, the advertising had done its job and we left the highway to see what the fuss was about.

Built by a Bavarian Benedictine monk, he himself a little on the small side, too, the four acres is known far and wide as Jerusalem in Miniature. Not far into the twentieth century, Br Joseph’s job was to man the pumps and watch the oil gauges at the Abbey’s pump house, a mind-numbing task he did for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. To keep himself sane, he started to build little grottos around tiny statues. He made tiny copies of the Holy sites in Jerusalem and eventually had enough to put together a miniature of the city. The monk had rarely travelled so he built his pieces from images on postcards. [I still send postcards – maybe somewhere, someone might put them to use. You know who you are.]

The Abbot of the monastery would have made Walt Disney proud. He soon cottoned on to the winner he had within his walls. He had great plans for an OTT religious grotto, carefully landscaped, meticulously made. Work began in 1932 in an abandoned quarry in the Abbey’s grounds and today, it’s visited by millions. It was one of the highlights of a memorable trip. Well worth a look if you’re in the vicinity.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in the UK. I’d gone to meet my then boyfriend who was on leave from the QEII. We ended up in Wimborne with its 1/10th scale model town. An idea that incubated during the 1940s, it opened to visitors in 1951. The buildings are made from concrete with beech windows. I still remember feeling like Gulliver as I wandered through the tiny streets, afraid to put a foot wrong lest I step on something or a little someone. All very real it was.  Another lovely memory. Another one worth a visit.

In Portugal recently, we happened across a third such marvel in the village of Sobreiro. Aldeia Tipicia (typical village) was a the brainchild of potter José Franco who began work on this masterpiece in 1960. Driven to preserve the customs and crafts of Portugal, he wanted to replicate the old workshops and stores, the houses, and the communities that were all in danger of being swallowed up by progress. He also wanted a miniature village for kids, with working windmills and all sorts. Later he added a third part – an interactive children’s agricultural centre inside some castle-like walls. Franco died in 2009 leaving a legacy that,  like the others, and indeed like Miniversum here in Budapest, is still working its magic.

Because no matter what adult worries and concerns you might have going in, when you happen upon these miniature places, you can’t help but revert back to being a child. Rediscovering the open-mouthed child-like awe often jaded by cynicism is quite the experience. I found myself pointing and exclaiming like a kid on Christmas morning.

None of the visits were planned. But all happened when I needed some perspective. Someone up there is looking out for me. For this, and for the artists like Br Joseph and José Franco who made them possible, I’m truly grateful. Cost of entry: free. Recalibration: priceless.

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2016 Grateful 21

I’ve been dreading turning 50. Not because I see it as the onset of old age but because of the math. There is far more of my life behind me that there is ahead of me and I worry that I mightn’t get to do everything I want to do before my allotted time on this Earth is up.

Time is going a lot quicker these days. It’s accelerating. Weeks and months are morphing into years at a rapid rate. And while the outside me is showing signs of aging (can you believe that my toes have wrinkles!), the inside me is still stuck on 37.

My neighbour told me recently that I didn’t dress 50. I took that as a compliment and recalled shopping for shoes with my mum not long ago. I was putting her in sensible black heels, much to her disgust. She went for some vertiginous silver ones instead. I learned something that day.

Now that I’m on the home stretch, instead of accumulating more stuff, I’m getting rid. Paring back. I’m far more interested in experiences that in accoutrements.

Antique Limo Tour of BudapestOn Saturday, the birthday, after a late lunch/early dinner, the lovely BZs had organised for a vintage car to come pick us up and take us on a tour of the city. Sitting in the back seat of this Ford Model A, Bramwith Limousine Elite, I felt a little like royalty. I couldn’t make eye contact with the hordes of tourists taking photos of us. I was afraid I’d succumb to giving the royal wave. Seeing the city from that vantage point was lovely – I saw stuff I’d never noticed before. I even found myself vaguely considering whether I’d have a driver, if I ever had that sort of money. It’s a life I could get used to.

Later that evening, I was serenaded in front of friends who had gathered to help celebrate the big day. Some I hadn’t seen in years. As I blew out my candles on my wonderful RM birthday cake, I had only one wish: that my blessed life would continue to be so blessed.

While the flowers will fade, the booze will be drunk, and the chocolates will see a quick end, the next few months will see me at art exhibitions, classical concerts, and early breakfasts. I’ll also get to enjoy massages, being pampered, and go completely gaga with the mad money. Massive thanks to everyone. But really, it’s the memory of it all that I will cherish. Being 50 is something that should be celebrated. If yours is approaching and you’re in doubt about what to do… go for it. Make it an occasion. Celebrate. Celebrate what’s already gone and what’s yet to come. Celebrate the friendship and the love. Party like you’re still a young one. Life is way too short to have regrets. It was a long but lovely evening – I got to bed about 7.30am. And yes, even at 50, if it needs swinging, I can still get it swung.

oldwoman