Grateful 42 and 41

I brought back a lot more from Cuba than I bargained for. We won’t mention the extra kilos from the sugar in the mojitos and the full-fat coke in the Cuba Libres. We won’t mention the mozzie bites and the unsettling notion of the Zika virus. And we certainly won’t mention what has become a 72-hour stomach bug that grounded me on my last day in Havana, made the 24-hour-trip home less than pleasant, and has kept me housebound all day. They’re all incidental.

Cuba is a lot of things – dirty, decrepit, in a state of disrepair and yet amazingly beautiful. But one thing it ain’t is cheap. It might have been in days of yore but now that it’s opening up to outside influences, everyone is on the make. We must have flushed the bones of €50 down the toilet. It took me a while to figure out that just because there was a 1 CUC coin (€1/$1) in the plate didn’t mean I had to add another. But smaller coins were greeted with a look of disdain that took more than a little getting used to and gave rise to many internal debates about supporting a local economy (which I’m all for) and being taken for a ride (which I resent).

Locals appearing at our side offering what appeared to be helpful information about whatever it was we were looking at balked at a measly  1 CUC, expecting about 5 for their two minutes of unsolicited intervention. This, despite the fact that it was usually in Spanish and my Spanish is not nearly as good as my Hungarian. Expectations are high and are obviously being fed by the other classes of tourist – the wealthy ones, who stay at the posh hotels – and the group travellers who frequent the all-inclusive resorts. Those, like us, who booked our own accommodation (home-stays) and transport (private cars), eschewing anything by way of organised tours, we got to deal with those expectations. [Taking refuge close to a decent loo in the lobby of a posh hotel in Havana on Parque Central when the bug first hit, I overheard a conversation between a local tour rep and a British guy who had paid £5000 for his room – the best room in the hotel – only to find he’d been tucked in room at the back that had sh*t on the bedsheets. We’d booked a homestay down on the Malecón promenade, with a room overlooking the water for €30 a night. Granted we had to navigate four flights of narrow, less-than-clean stairs to get to it, but it was worth it.]

I’d been told that queues are the tell. A line of people (foreigners and locals) heralds one of three things: a working ATM, an exchange bureau, or a place selling internet cards. I take the first two for granted but to find a city the size of Trinidad with just one bank (two ATMs one of which was out of order) and one exchange bureau, that threw me. Thankfully, we’d brought euro as the mighty dollar attracts an additional 10% fee on exchange. Many of the traders would give 1 for 1, euro to CUC, and some exchange places gave more. Havana though – that’s the trap. The best we did there was 0.95. Internet cards for 1 or 5 hours can be bought and used anywhere you see a large crowd sitting around on their phones. The lines from Matthew (18:20) came to mind: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. And not for the first time I wondered if the Internet has become a new god. The Cubans love their phones.

I’d been told to bring soap, as a gift, that it was hard to come by. But it wasn’t until Trinidad that I had the first inkling of locals signaling that they wanted me to give them my clothes – the ones I was wearing. It was bloody hot so I’d little by way of spares to give, but it was a tad disconcerting. It was outside Trinidad in the Valle de los Ingenios that people started asking for soap but the dozen bars I’d brought with me were back in the cassita. I compensated by buying stuff I didn’t want or need for way more than the asking price. It’s hard not to. Remember the food shortages in the 1990s that led to the average Cuban losing up to a third of their body weight? It still shows in the older population.

For the most part, prices vary as they do everywhere. Expect to pay between €1.60 and €2.00 for cigarettes; €1.60 and €2.50 for local beer (Bucanero was my favourite); €2.50 to €5.50 for cocktails; and €5 to €15 for a plate of chicken/pork with the accompanying rice and black beans. Taxis are another story – the best value are the private individuals who pull up and ask you where you want to go. They won’t have a taxi sign or might not even know where they’re going; they’re simply in it to eat. All you have to do is to stand around and look confused (which isn’t hard). The regular taxi drivers seem to charge what they like – I never once saw a meter and again, the conversation between supporting the local economy and being ripped off was had more than once.

I’d been told that two days was plenty for Havana. We had four nights, and three full days and didn’t even come close to cracking the surface. You need a least a week to do it justice. There is so much more to the place than the Viejo.

So despite the extra kilo, the mozzie bites, and the stomach bug, I’m grateful I went and went now rather than later. Massive changes are on the horizon. The cruise ships are docking. Expectations are high. And the crafty few are out to make their money. There’s a danger that Havana will turn into a tourist theme park and that the beach resorts will become compounds within which tourists are fed a diet of ‘authentic’ experiences that would put Disney to shame. If it’s on your list, make it soon.

 

 

 

2017 Grateful 43

I’ve long been a fan of a simple G&T and have only lately moved up the gin ladder to gin-based cocktails. I was a tad late for the onset of the gin revolution but am now happily making up for lost time. I wrote a while back of an eventful meal where gin replaced wine with a new one coming with each course. I’d highly recommend the experience .

Since that memorable evening, my holiday shopping has moved from jewelry shops (my travel bracelet won’t take any more charms) to the booze shelf at the local supermarket or the native equivalent of an off-license. I can lose an hour or so checking out the local gins, taking note of names to try at the local bars before deciding which to bring home with me. I enjoy the research. I was quite taken recently to see that my Dublin local is now stocking a favourite from Wisconsin – Death’s Door.

I’m quite a fan of Spanish gin after my first introduction to it at AkaBar at Baraka in Budapest – the place to go in Budapest for a decent cocktail. Since then I’ve tried the Ginebra Petra Mora (a birthday present) with an international list of ingredients that would keep you in food for a week: wild celery from Belgium, bitter almond, coriander from Bulgaria, more coriander from Morocco, juniper berries, bark of cassia, lemon peel, licorice root, orris root, orange peel, grapefruit peel, ginger, and a touch of cherry. Lovely – but don’t scrimp on cheap tonic. Invest in the good stuff.

This week, I got a belated birthday gin – another Spanish one, that came in its own lantern, stylishly packaged. The gin game is getting serious. Some I’d be tempted to buy just for the bottles. I happened across a 2013 review of this one in Gin Foundry,  and was highly amused. The wine narrative is losing its hold and has competition. You could have hours (well, minutes) of fun trying to pick out the herbal tastes.

 

It smells herbaceous, with resinous juniper and thyme dominating. Olives are also apparent. To taste, more juniper with a burst of basil, rosemary and thyme emerge as well as coriander. The combination feels savoury and different to other gins on the shelf, marking Gin Mare as both authentic and original. It can be considered as being part of a very short list of “Herbal” gins, and when served with the right tonic, makes for a delightful aperitivo.

But as with wine and art, I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about. I know simply what I like and what I don’t. Whether Gin Mare is authentic or original is beyond me. But it rates on my list. Like perfume, sometimes the appeal fades – I’ve gotten over Bombay Sapphire and Gordons. I’ve moved beyond Hendricks. I’ve lost my taste for Dingle (but it had a good run). I never acquired a taste for Sipsmith. Right now, I’m in Spanish mode. And lovin’ it. To MD and JF, thanks, lads. Lots of gin gratitude spinning its way towards ye.

2017 Grateful 44

Dithering at a bus stop outside Dublin Airport recently, debating the merits of taking a 16 or 41, a bus driver hollered at us from inside his bus.

– Where are ye off to?
– Malahide Road
– That’s a long road, love
– Between Artane and Donnycarney
– Ah – you want that bus there (pointing to the one in front of him). Get off at Annesley motors on Cloghran and hop on the 27b and you’ll be sorted. How are ye paying?
– We have Leap cards [Irish equivalent of Oyster cards – prepaid travel cards]
– Ye know it’s two fares, right?
– Yep – cheers
– No bother

So we get on the No. 16 and ask the driver to let us out at Annesley Motors in Cloghran. Then we sit down and wait.

In comes our friendly guy. He has a chat with our driver and then shouts down the bus to us:

– Tommy’ll see ye right. He’ll let ye know when to get off. Are ye okay so?

It’s been a while since I’ve merited such attention.

We motor on and Tommy finally calls us out. As he pulls up to the stop, he asks us where we are going:

– Malahide Road. Between Donnycarney and Artane
– Ah sure, why don’t you come on down with me to Beaumont and pick up the 14 That’ll take you to Donnycarney
– But they’d we’d have to walk up the hill instead of down
– Fair point, fair point. I’ll take ye to the next stop – it has a shelter and a timetable so ye can see where ye’re at. No charge. Ye’ll have a wait though. Sure ye won’t come with me?
– Nah. Thanks though. We’re grand

At this stage, the rest of the passengers, all tourists, were trying to figure out who we were and why we were getting such attention.

It was bloody freezin’ as we stood and waited our 12 minutes for the 27B. It was on the screen, getting tantalizingly close only to drop back as it was overtaken by another bus. We watched the countdown. 5 min. 4 min. 2 min. Due. And then it disappeared off the screen and never appeared over the hill. And we were in Cloghran.

A couple of minutes later, a bus pulls up. It had its as seirbhís sign up (out of service). The driver opened the door and the story continued

– What number are ya?, I asked
– What number do you want me to be?
– I’d love you to be a 27B

– Grand so. Hop on.

Not quite believing the randomness of it all, on we got.

– What fare to you want?
– I’ve no clue. I want to go to the Malahide Road. The stop after the turn to Artane Castle
Yeah, but what fare do you want?
– The cheapest

Grand so. That’ll be €1.05

We were on that bus for at least half a hour if not 40 minutes; our €1.05 had run out in the first ten. We wandered in and out of estates, passing the same church at least twice. It was like a mystery tour.

I love Dublin. I love Dubliners. I love the irreverence and their ability to knock some craic out of just about anything. And for those who say that the ‘furriners’ or the ‘non-nationals’ moving into the country will ruin it, only one of those three bus men was Irish. It hadn’t taken the others long to catch on. And for this, I’m grateful.

 

2017 Grateful 45

Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris? Nope, he’s not. He’s dead. Dead and very buried on an island in French Polynesia. But his songs are still doing their thing and at the Gate Theatre in Dublin this week I met the Belgian in spirit for the first time.

I was in town. My mate had tickets. It was a given that I’d go. I asked no questions as I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen bad, really bad theatre. I’ve seen mediocre stuff, but even a mediocre night at the theatre beats a night of thumb twiddling.

So, to Jacques. I wasn’t the only one in the company who’d not heard of him so I wasn’t that put out. Born Jacques Romain Georges Brel, he died back in 1978 at the very young age of 49. Lauded as the master of the chanson (a lyric-driven French song style), his work has influenced the likes of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen, two of my favourite lyricists. McKuen was one of the first Americans to translate his songs, which were originally written in French and Dutch.

Brel himself wasn’t above influence either. Probably his most recognised song, Ne me quitte pas (If you go away), recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Marlene Dietrich and a litany of others, has a melody in part derived from Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Needless to say, I didn’t recognise it. But no surprises there.

The cast of four – Risteárd Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan – were well into it all. The revue was originally performed in Paris in 1968 to great acclaim and there wasn’t anyone in the audience on Thursday night who didn’t enjoy it either. It was magical. The scene was set in Paris, in a crumbling old bar reminiscent of Budapest’s Piaf. It ran uninterrupted for 90 minutes with song after song sung with a passion and enunciation that lent clarity and soul to every word.

The four swung seamlessly between tunes, adopting the roles required by each set of lyrics. Each song told the type of poignant and heartfelt story that never dates. I was particularly taken with The Old Folks and the lines:

Though you may live in town, you live so far away
When you’ve lived too long

As I said, Brel’s songs were originally recorded in French or Dutch and subsequently translated to English so while Elly Stone’s version does the man justice, his original is something else and worth a listen.

McKeon’s version of Carousel left me reeling. I was there with her, on the carousel, going fast and faster to the point of dizziness. Amazing. But like all Brel’s songs, this too was what Cooper calls a ‘playlet’. And what Peter Crawley explains in his review in the Irish Times as creating

 an image of life that is always accelerating, finally moving so fast that it threatens to spin out of control completely.

We met a young girl whose sweetheart didn’t come home from the war. We met a young soldier who lost is virginity in army whorehouse. We even had a glimpse of Brel talking from his grave. I enjoyed every last minute of it and have made a note to self to buy Marc Almond’s album Jacques to hear it all again. If you’re in Dublin in February, it’s a must see.

This week, I’m grateful I didn’t ask questions because it wouldn’t have been something I’d have picked to go to see myself… and although discovering him late, my life is already all the richer for knowing of Jacques Brel.

 

2017 Grateful 46

Of all the gigs I get to do on a semi-regular basis, going to Malta for the Master/Postgraduate Diploma in Contemporary Diplomacy workshop is up there among my favourites. Numbers vary from year to year with participants coming from all over to spend 10 days together before embarking on their online course of study. They each bring a different perspective to the table and, with such a wealth of experience and knowledge in the room, I invariably come away with more knowledge than I went with.

This year, participants hailed from Algeria, Namibia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, South Africa, Tonga, and the USA. As part of my public speaking session, I asked them to prepare 5-7 minutes on some aspect of their country. Who knew there were kangaroos who lived in trees in Papua New Guinea? Or that the oxygen we enjoy on Earth may have resulted from a meteor strike in South Africa? Or that four times as many Tongans live abroad than do in Tonga itself?

Each year, it does my heart good to see so many different nationalities sit around a table and talk. They talk about everything from consular diplomacy and Internet governance policy to favourite foods and music. Opinions differ. Convictions vary. But their shared experiences add a richness that is often missing from education and help forge a cohesive unit that will embark on a two-year online journey together.

This year was particularly memorable. Catherine, one of the US participants,  shared with us  a video of her 102-year-old great-great-aunt talking about growing up in Brooklyn, arguably the heart of the melting pot that is America. She talks of walking down the street and greeting Greek, Irish, French Canadian, all sorts from everywhere – all getting along rather nicely, thank you very much. She says it taught them acceptance, acceptance of everyone.

Given the madness that’s going on today, it’s a timely reminder of what diversity brings to society.

In a week that involved planes, trains, and automobiles to a backdrop of inanity, insanity, and inverity, I’m grateful for the testimonies of women like Anna Kane who bring with them valuable lessons from yesterday. I’m grateful, too, to have met the 2017 MA cohort. With hearts and minds like theirs readying themselves for the policy world, I have renewed faith in tomorrow.

2017 Grateful 48

Another week over with me sitting here on a Monday evening wondering where it all went to. It’s the end of January already. And it’s been a mad opening to what promises to be a mental year.

There is so much to be grateful for after the full week I had last week and there’s more to come on that when I get my head around it all. But for now, after a long, long series of disbelieving cries and loud exclamations of incredulity, I am ever so grateful to MK for drawing my attention to Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator speech, one apparently he penned himself. It’s a timely reminder of what we should be striving towards: a world of reason.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. …..

Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Final speech from The Great Dictator Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. All rights reserved

 

2017 Grateful 49

While out on Friday night, a Hungarian friend mentioned that the Monk of the Gulag had died earlier this week (January 15th), aged 100. As I’d never heard of him, I asked her to tell me some more.

He was born Károly (Charles) Olofsson on 23 December 1916 in Rákosszentmihály  in Budapest’s XVIth district. When he was 16, he entered the Benedictine Order and when ordained, took the name Placid. He studied in Pannonhalma and later in Munich. During WWII, he served his time as a military chaplain and spent some time at Komárom, in the military hospital there. During his 11-month term there, he was demoted for speaking out from the pulpit against officers’ mistreatment of enlisted men. After the army, he went back to school, this time to head one in Budapest. His post-war activism drew some media (and other, unwanted) attention and to remove him from the public eye, the outspoken priest was called back to the Abbey in Pannonhalma, where he was arrested in June of 1946 by the ÁVH, Hungary’s then Secret Police.  

Despite their best efforts, they failed to extract a confession from him but this didn’t stop them. [1946/2016 – have we come any further at all?] Fr Placid was sentenced to 10 years in a Gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges.  He served his time in a camp about 900 km outside Moscow, not allowed contact with friends or family outside until  his final year when he could legally send a postcard.

In 1955, Fr Placid was allowed to return to Hungary but forbidden to teach or work as a priest. What ministering he did was done in secret. He spent his time variously as a factory worker making boxes in Pesterzsebet, as an ambulance driver at the at the Országos Reumatológiai és Fizioterápiás Intézetben (National Institute of Rheumatology and Physiotherapy), and later as a laundry worker.  Finally, in 1977, he went back to being a priest as auxiliary chaplain of the Cistercian parish of St Emeric.  [An aside: In Cleveland, OH, USA, a church by the same name offers mass in Hungarian – it was founded in 1904 to minister to the many Hungarians in the city – who’d have thought eh?]

My friend told me of the four rules that Fr Placid had shared, his secret to surviving the Gulag. He once apparently joked that for ten years, the Soviet Union had tried to destroy him, but that he had the last laugh as he survived and it didn’t, thus proving that God has a sense of humour. In the Gulag, he said he found his true vocation – not to teach but to keep the souls of the prisoners alive. The Soviet Union taught him how to live, he said. And these are his rules for living: (in translation)

  1. Don’t dramatise suffering because it makes you weaker.
  2. Recognize and consciously look for the little joys of life.
  3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are.
  4. Hang on to God. With His help, you can survive every hell on Earth.

When he turned 100 last year, Fr Placid described himself as a ‘simple man of average abilities’. And this simple man has been lauded with just about every award the country has to offer from the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary to being one of four people to hold the Hungarian Order of Honor. He survived against the odds, with spirit and in faith.

And today, when the future is looking bleak and tantrums are being thrown, it is the likes of Fr Placid to whom I’ll turn when I need an example of humility, strength, justice, courage, and empowerment… all the qualities great men need to inspire and to lead. RIP, Fr Placid. RIP.

Thank you, my friend, for sharing. I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid Olofsson, the Benedictine monk who was imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag from 1946 to 1955, passed away yesterday evening.


In a book published on his 100th birthday, Father Placid described his life in the following terms:

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 rules of surviving GULAG: 1. Don’t dramatise suffer because it makes you weaker. 2. Recognize little joys of life. 3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are. 4. Hang on to God. With his help you can survive every hell on earth.

2017 Grateful 50

In trying to find a word to describe a friend of mine recently, I had occasion to Google the term ‘giving people’. And once I’d stopped trying to remember how I’d found similar information before Google, I started to think. Three things struck me from a list of 10 things that supposedly characterise a ‘giving person’ and what they give to the rest of us. [All are relevant but these struck me as particularly pertinent.]

The gift of requesting help: Requesting help is is a difficult one. It’s something I’ve had to learn myself. It not easy because somewhere buried inside all our insecurities is that irritating voice that tells us that asking for help is a sign of weakness, of failure. But if we view it not as helping ourselves but as giving others the chance to help us, it takes on a different appearance. Giving people know when and how to ask for help.

The gift of opportunity: Our rhetoric is full of if onlys. I could spend the better part of a day listing mine: If only I spoke Hungarian, I’d apply to go on study tours. If only I had time, I’d spend two hours a day learning the one language I need. If only I had an ear for music, I’d be able to better pronounce my letters. For many with a community spirit, the if onlys could also include ‘if only I had the opportunity, I’d volunteer to do something good, to give something back, to help make someone else’s lot a little easier.’ Giving people do this – they create an opportunity for the rest of us to give something back.

The gift of purpose: In a world where insecurity is rife, change is a constant, and lunacy prevails, it anchors us when we have purpose, some clear, solid goal which we can work towards alongside others also intent on making our corner of the world just a little better than it was yesterday. Giving people give the gift of purpose.

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Just when I thought that my mate Zsuzsa Bozo had topped it all with the soup kitchen/feed the homeless drive she and her gang have been working tirelessly on, a wonderful initiative that the Caley and Age of Hope are facilitating, she goes and takes it one step further.

The cold weather is going to be around for a while and warm coats are needed. The Caledonia has joined the Free Coat initiative. It’s simple. If you have coats you’ve grown out of, don’t like, don’t want, are not wearing and they’re warm… hang them up on the coat-rack outside the Caley where those who have a greater need can come pick them up (and remember to bring a hanger, too). And if you don’t have coats that are warm and suitable but you still want to help, why not swing by any one of the many many many secondhand-clothes shops in the city and buy a couple. Then drop them by the Caley, and while you’re there, stick your head in the kitchen to see if help is needed to peel those veg. The soup drive continues all this week and ingredients are needed.

This week, I’m adding my thanks to those of the hundreds of homeless who are grateful for the soup and sustenance delivered through the good auspices of Zsuzsa and Ákos. Without their provision of an opportunity and a purpose and without their ask for help, the rest of us might well still be mired in a sea of if onlys. They are two truly giving people.

Zsuzsa shared this story with me, a story that has done its bit to restore my faith in human nature. I hope she won’t mind me passing it on:

I left the Caledonia, distributing the soups with Ákos and Gergő. Once we finished, I got out of the van, said happily goodbye to both of them, not realizing that I had no money or no metro pass with me. So I was there , out in Határ Ut, at the metro underground, thinking how I could get back… I spoke to the people of the street there (homeless). One old man went and came back, holding a ticket, he just bought. For me… that’s all he had.

Yep, you reap what you sow.

 

2017 Grateful 51

You don’t have to look very far on Facebook and other social media to see people’s reaction to the current cold front that is sweeping Europe. It’s bloody freezing. Perishing. Mind-numbingly cold. And for those of us who have homes to go to, we can bitch and moan to our hearts’ content knowing that our discomfort is temporary. Fleeting, even. We can even opt to stay at home and not stir outside until the weather starts cooperating. But for hundreds if not thousands of others in cities like Budapest, life is a tad different.

They have no homes to go to. And perhaps for some who do, they’re faced with the heat or eat dilemma. Money is tight and people have to make decisions based on need. One homeless activist told of how he personally had taken ten dead people from their homes last winter – they’d died of hyperthermia, in situ, having chosen to eat.

There’s been a homeless chap camped under an archway on our street for the last few months. I’ve never seen him drunk or belligerent. He keeps his stuff tidy. And he always looks neat and relatively clean. He can leave his stash and it’s left undisturbed. No one bothers him. He seems to hold himself apart. When we’ve had occasion to interact, he is pleasant and sweet. A nice lad who could be anything from late 30s to early 50s. It’s difficult to tell.

When the cold spell hit, we were worried as he was showing no move to go to a shelter. We talked of inviting him home but this brought up a litany of concerns mostly stemming from the fact that our Hungarian and his English were nowhere close to facilitating a conversation that didn’t run the risk of being misunderstood. What if he was mentally unstable? What if he threw a fit? What if he was allergic to nuts? What if, what if, what if…

But the biggest what if was what if he died during the night and we had done nothing? In the UK you can call a number to report where someone homeless is camping out so that those working to help can come and do their thing. We rang a Hungarian friend to see if there was a  local equivalent. When we explained what was going on, she offered to come with us to talk to him and see what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to go to a shelter, even though one locally would have taken him in. He was adamant. It was dangerous in there. He preferred to take his chances on the street. He was working down on Mester utca during the day so only needed to get through the night. He could slip the night watchman a few forints and he’d let him sleep inside the building he was camped outside. We bought him dinner; she gave him money, and the next day he was alive. That was Thursday.

On Friday, as I was walking by, two policemen were talking to him. From what I could gather without loitering with intent, it seemed that he was still refusing to go a shelter. When they’d gone, I went back and slipped him some money for his bribe, feeling his hands to make sure he was warm. An hour later, a visiting friend told me she’d seen the cops there and she’d thought he had died. But I think they made him go inside, because he was back the next morning.

Respecting his right to decide, we brought him food and blankets to make the decision a little easier, and added money to facilitate his choice. Our conversation is always pleasant and he seems quite okay. But around the city, in the underpasses, other homeless are not coping as well. Cheap booze is fueling what often seems like a death wish. It’s hard to watch.

Budapest Bike Mafia and other activist groups are collecting blankets and food donations to distribute around the city. And when one of the city’s most socially conscious pub – The Caledonia – stepped up to help, we didn’t need to be asked twice. On Sunday morning, we went shopping for ingredients to make 200 portions of goulash soup to be distributed throughout Sunday night and 200 portions of a healthy tomato soup for Monday. We retired to The Caledonia and sliced and diced and cooked it all up. Kilos and kilos of fresh veg and meat. It was distributed that evening by volunteers from the Age of Hope Foundation who stepped in to help out those from Menedèk. Job done. Conscience appeased. And it felt good, damn good, to do something constructive. Giving money is easy, but when it comes to getting bang for your buck, using the money you could donate to buy ingredients and then help prep and cook is far more rewarding.

caleAkós from Age of Hope has said that they’d be happy to distribute more this week, if there is food to distribute. The shopping list, when it comes to feeding 400, is expensive. So we thought – why not ask others to contribute… and to help. Chopping onions, when done in volume, is a Zen-like experience. Ditto for peeling carrots. It can be very meditative.

What’s needed:

  • Onions
  • Celeraic
  • Fresh paprikas (the TV sort, I think they call them)
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes (fresh and tinned)
  • Garlic
  • Gulyas meat
  • Paper bowls/cups for hot soup with lids (Metro has them :-))

You can drop off all donations to the Caledonia, Budapest, Mozsár u. 9, 1066. They’re open from 2pm. And sure when you’re there, stay and have a drink and chop some veg. Restorative therapy has never been so cheap. You can make a difference. I am grateful to have had the experience. Thanks to Zsuzsa & Co. for making it happen.

Tip – Suck on a teaspoon while you’re chopping the onions and you won’t cry. It works.

 

2017 Grateful 52

I heard once that what you do on New Year’s Day determines what you do for the rest of the year. At 11.55 last night, I was standing on my balcony, sipping a glass of bubbly, looking into the dark. All was quiet. Even the geese. I was reminded of Pico Iyer’s piece on the Eloquent Sounds of Silence:

We have to earn silence, then, to work for it: to make it not an absence but a presence; not emptiness but repletion. Silence is something more than just a pause; it is that enchanted place where space is cleared and time is stayed and the horizon itself expands. In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below our selves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows.

Then 2017 came flooding in and the silence was shattered. The geese kicked up quite the racket down by the water and the village dogs howled at the fireworks that were going off all around the lake. I had my own private viewing point. It was pretty spectacular. No people. No crowds. Just me and the geese and the bubbly and the cold. When the fireworks stopped, the stars looked all the brighter.

Cold but happy, I went downstairs and, in true Hungarian tradition, ate a spoonful of lentil soup that I’d made earlier. This, apparently, will ensure that I have enough of everything in 2017. [Enough is a concept that is underrated. If we had more appreciation for it, we might be a lot happier.]

I fell asleep with Cormoran Strike, the detective created by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) [an excellent series, btw] and woke this morning in time for 8 am mass. Someone else was in what I’ve come to regard as my seat in the church – visiting family no doubt – and we’re not due a priest till next Sunday so it wasn’t the full Monty- but it was a lovely way to start the day.

Since then I’ve been cleaning and cooking and making beds in preparation for The Visitors who are wending their way down the north shore of the Balaton as I write. At last contact they were in Tihanyi. The table is set. The beer and wine are chilling. The fish is prepped. And the lentil soup is just waiting for its ham.

grat2All is good in my world. My closing Grateful piece of 2016 spoke of restoration and my hope that 2017 would be a restorative one. So far it’s off to a great start. Life is good.

But in Istanbul, hundreds of people trying to make sense of more senseless deaths. In Russia, families of those lost in the plane crash on Christmas Day are in mourning. In Syria and other war-torn parts of the world, people woke up to a different sort of day. I have a blessed life and with that blessing comes a duty, an obligation, to make the most of it. And remembering to say thanks is just the start.

I started this series of blogs back in 2012. Five years later, I can’t imagine not taking the time to appreciate just how good I have it. This is how it began:

Many years ago I worked with this very bubbly young American girl whom I avoided like the plague in the mornings. I just couldn’t handle her effervescence; I liked mine soluble, in tablet form. Working late one evening, we were chatting about whatever, when she told me that every night, before she went to sleep, she tried to think of ten things that had happened that day for which she could be thankful. And some nights she fell asleep before she reached No. 10.

She challenged me to try it. I was sure that I’d have no trouble finding ten things to be thankful for. And I’ve been doing it every night for the last eight years because it keeps me focused and it keeps me positive…well, sort of positive ?

It’s way too easy to let go and submerge myself in the daily horrors of 21st century living. It’s far too convenient to spend my days worrying about global problems that I cannot hope to fix or even effect and in doing so miss out on today. It’s really not all that difficult to lose sight of what’s important – and who’s important – as I spend my time moaning about what might have been.

My nightly lists will never be published in a miscellany. David Letterman is unlikely to ask to borrow them for his Top 10. But ranging as they do from the ridiculous (I am grateful that I noticed my skirt was tucked into my tights before I walked out on to the street) to the sublime (I am grateful to Árpád at Kadarka wine bar on Kiraly utca for introducing me to Fecsegő), chalking them up each night has become a ritual and as close to meditation as I can get.

I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if more people took the time to give thanks – to themselves and to others. Thanks for the little things that make life worth living. Thanks for the people in our lives who keep us sane. And thanks for karma – who, will, at the end of the day, make sure that all wrongs are righted.

Inspired by the inimitable Biddy McD in Australia who has kept the world amused by her photo album Grateful 365 and posted a pic a day of something she and her two sons are grateful for, I’ve decided to be less adventurous but equally committed and focus each week on something I’m grateful for. Introducing Grateful 52.

Today, as 2017 gets underway, I’m grateful for gratitude and the comfort it brings.

Boldog új évet – Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh – Happy New Year