2018 Grateful 45

For anyone living abroad, coming home is a lot about things you used to do as a child: the Sunday visit to your granny (if she’s still alive), the Saturday night pint in the pub, doing the shopping on a Wednesday. It might be going to the Panto at Christmas, or putting money in the Trocaire box during Lent. It could be bringing in the hay or feeding the pigeons or cutting turf. Whatever it might be, these rituals of old anchor us to a place and take us back in time. And in a world of constant change, it’s nice to have something that has remained pretty much unchanged.

My security blanket, the thing that makes me feel most at home, is driving in a car with my parents at night. In mid conversation, apropos nothing that has gone before, one of them will utter the words:

Thy Lord shall open my lips.

And the rest of us will take our cue and respond en masse:

And my tongue shall announce His praise.

And the rosary will be given out, all five decades of whatever mysteries fall on that particular day. The Joyful mysteries are said on Monday and Saturday, the Luminous on Thursday, the Sorrowful on Tuesday and Friday, and the Glorious on Wednesday and Sunday (with this exception: Sundays of Christmas season – Joyful; Sundays of Lent – Sorrowful). But we’re still sticking to the old ways in our house. Joyful on Monday and Thursday; Sorrowful on Tuesday and Friday, and Glorious on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

When I asked why we hadn’t made the move over, an analogy was drawn between popes and captains of golf clubs: both have to do something new to leave their mark during their tenure. There might be some truth in that. Years after the updating of the standard prayers, I’m still struggling to master the words.  It was 2002 when Pope John Paul II introduced the ‘new’ rosary – but I suspect in many rosaried homes, they remain a flight a fancy.

The Rosary is supposed to offer time for reflection, but we race through it, chant-like, as if time were running out and we had someplace more important to be. I’ve sat through community rosaries in Malta, in Hungary, in Italy, in the UK, and in Ireland, and reflection is something no one seems to have time for. It’s always well paced – singsong-like. As kids, we would kneel down at the couch and try to keep keep count as we made our way through our decades without giggling. I remember going through a particularly bad period of stammering and having a terrible time getting out my Ms in the Hail Mary. But the name Rosary comes from the Latin Rosarium or crown of roses and ideally the prayer should be said as if you were strolling (not running) through Mary’s garden of roses

Word has it that the Rosary was given to St. Dominic in 1214 AD, so by Catholic standards, it might well equate to being modern, particularly as it wasn’t made an ‘official’ prayer until 1569 when Pope Pius V legalised it. For a time I would say it every night knowing that if I fell asleep before I finished it, the angels would finish it for me. Ah, the beauty of stories.

Today, rosary beads are often worn as necklaces, something that gives me the heebie jeebies. In my day, rosaries were hidden, used discreetly, the 59 beads carried in a purse or pocket and only taken out at mass or at wakes. I had a penal rosary (Irish: An Paidrín Beag) that had just one decade’s worth of beads and was easily hidden. I’d move the ring from one finger to the next, beginning with the thumb, to count the mysteries. Then, and now, it was a stark reminder of the Penal times, a time when we were not allowed to practice our religion, among other things. The more major of the laws included:

  • Catholics were excluded from holding public office such as Judge MP solicitor Jurist or barrister, civil servant, sheriff, or town councillor.
  • No Catholic could vote or be elected to office.
  • Catholics could not own land.
  • Catholics could not lease land for longer than 31 years and the rent was to equal two-thirds of the yearly value of the land.
  • Catholics were not allowed to hold arms nor be members of the armed forces nor own a horse worth more than £5.
  • If a Catholic landholder died, his estate could not be passed to the eldest son unless that son was a Protestant. Otherwise it was to be shared by all the surviving sons.
  • Catholics and Protestants could not intermarry.
  • Catholics could not be an orphan’s guardian.
  • Catholics were barred from living in many provincial towns.
  • Catholic clergy were to be registered and required to take an oath of loyalty, but friars, monks, hierarchy and Jesuits were to be exiled.
  • Clerics could not wear distinguishing clothes.
  • Places of worship could not have a steeple nor display a cross.
  • Catholics and dissenters were required to pay tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland which was the Established Church.
  • Catholics could not establish schools or send their children abroad for education.

Okay, so it was more than 300 years ago, but persecution is still alive and well and thriving in the world today. And how sad is that.

It’s been an interesting week – one that started in a Hungarian village and ended in an Irish one, with lots of towns, cities, and catch-ups in between. I’m grateful for the security offered in coming home, something denied to many as they no longer have homes to go. I’m grateful for the rituals that knit the fabric of Irishness in me. And I’m grateful for the reminder to appreciate all that I have.

A reminder of what the Grateful series is about.

2018 Grateful 46

Up until last Saturday, my knowledge of pigeons was minimal: birds that gather in main squares in old cities to wow the tourists; birds that poop on statues; birds that some people call sky rats. From my banking days in Dublin, I knew of homing pigeons. Some of the customers raced pigeons and Monday mornings always came with stories of how they’d done. I didn’t know that many people of all ages have an irrational fear of pigeons (peristerophobia) or that the term New Jersey pigeon meant anything other than a pigeon from New Jersey (sometimes you can know too much).

So, what happened last Saturday?

The village ain’t exactly hoppin’ when it comes to scheduled entertainment. That’s why I like it. We’re pretty much left to our own devices. But occasionally, when something is put on, everyone turns out. Last weekend it was the annual pigeon, birds, and small animal exhibition. Bird enthusiasts and pet-owners from the nearby villages brought their birds and beasts and set them up in the village hall where, for the princely sum of 500 ft ($1.80/€1.60), you could ooh and aah to your heart’s content. For us, it was a language lesson to see if we’d recognise the names in English. Money well spent.

The first room was full of colourful canaries and parakeets and all sorts. Oranges and blues and pinks and greens all chirped away adding up to a nearly deafening roar. Maya Angelou’s The the Caged Bird Sings came to mind. A long-departed friend of mine in London, the inimitable Sheila José (RIP), kept a parrot, Napoleon. I liked him. He was big and he talked. The little ‘uns didn’t do much for me.

The second room was quieter, but ooh the smell, the smell. Watching an episode of Doc Martin recently, I’d first heard of Pigeon lung – a disease you get from inhaling pigeon poop. I wasn’t about to hang around, but then it got interesting – and I realised that pigeons have been getting a bum rap. They’re gorgeous.

First up was the Páva (the peacock pigeon). Cuter than all git out. If it wasn’t for the neighbour’s cats, these would look lovely picking their way through my mole hills.

Next up was the Fodros galamb (or frillback pigeon). You know the effect you get when you take a potato peeler and peel some hard chocolate? Well, think of this on legs – with a head and a tail and a beak and two beady eyes. Fabulous.

My favourite had to be the magyar óriás galamb (the Hungarian giant pigeon – or the Red Capuchin). This is the Queen of pigeons apparently. She has haughtiness down to a fine art. Think little old ladies with spindly legs in high heels wrapped in mink coats.

The Debreceni Pergő (the Debrecen vulture pigeon) is a classic. I tried to see the vulture in him but failed. And, if you’re curious as to why the vulture pigeon from Debrecen has the city name attached to it, there’s also a vulture pigeon from Birmingham. Who knew. There were lots more, too many to take pictures of (did I mention the smell!) but these were the interesting ones. 

You know those ceramic figures that some people collect, the ones that look like fat chickens? Well, they could be pigeons. I think this is a French Mondain – one step up the evolutionary ladder from the Rock pigeon. I could be wrong. I was so sure it was a fat chicken that I didn’t pay any attention to the name tag.

 

I’d have gone for fat chickens for these, too, except for the fancy slippers. Now I’m not so sure.

These are definitely roosters, though – I heard them crow.

A little reading tells me that pigeons go as far back as 3000 BC. Apparently archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) found some images of the birds dating back that far. I didn’t know that the words pigeon and dove are used interchangeably: pigeon is used for the bigger birds and dove for the smaller but they’re all part of the same family. And as for pigeon poop, far from the irritant it is today, it used to be very valuable stuff, a prized fertiliser and the only source of saltpetre – the key ingredient in gun powder.

There are famous pigeons, war heroes like Cher Ami, who saved the lives of 200 American soldiers in WWI. Stories abound of pigeons like Ariel in New Zealand who carried a record-making 5 sheets of paper over a 90-minute trip back in the 1880s between Great Barrier Island and Auckland. Or a pigeon called Velocity who holds the record for that run (50 minutes) averaging 125 kmph (only 40% slower than a modern aircraft!). That’s some going.

It’s a fascinating world, the pigeon world. They’re private, they co-parent, and they mate for life. And they’re supposedly very intelligent.

Laboratory PIGEONS learned to recognize each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. It seemed odd to the researchers that the birds made the same kinds of initial mistakes as elementary school students.

I had a lovely couple of weeks in the village – even if some of that time was spent without heat or hot water. And yet again I’m grateful, ever-so grateful, for my retreat, and for the curiosities of village life. It’s amazing what you can learn when you have no distractions.

2018 Grateful 47

Ah, no! Seriously, Tibor? Monday? Say it isn’t so! That was me on Thursday morning. We’d arrived down to the village the previous evening to find the house freezing. It was 5 degrees in the kitchen and there wasn’t a gux out of the boiler. Thinking we might have missed a simple reset button or perhaps needed to do something embarrassingly obvious to everyone but us, we called our go-to guy and then the boiler lad. Neither could help.

Tibor came to check it out on Thursday and said it was beyond resuscitation. A new one was called for. And it wouldn’t arrive till Monday. So four more days of being damn cold, with the lovelies due to visit on Friday for the weekend and no heat, no hot water.

Himself was called back to Budapest and I could have gone, too. But it says a lot about village life when I’d rather be here, freezing my ass off and nipping over to the neighbours for a hot shower, than in the flat in Budapest with every modern convenience at my fingertips. I spent Thursday evening on the couch with a hot water bottle and a blanket watching Season 2 of Doc Martin. Szilvi, she who gives a great home massage, arrived on Friday lunchtime as arranged and we managed to have a brief conversation. A bojler elromlott. Nincs melegünk. Nincs meleg víz. At least my Hungarian vocabulary is expanding; the silver lining in this particular cloud.

Undeterred, the lovelies came anyway on Friday evening after work, armed with heaters and thermals and the makings of some whiskey cocktails for that inner warmth. The kitchen got up as high as 13.4 degrees at one stage. We’d borrowed a noisy industrial heater and had the oven going full blast. For a brief moment, I was warm. Friday night, wrapped in winter woollies, as we sat around the kitchen table making the best of it, I gave silent thanks for the friends I’ve been blessed with. No complaints. No moans. Not one.

The next day, we headed over to Dobrovnik in Slovenia, for a walk in the healing forest. We had the place practically to ourselves. There was snow on the ground and a bite in the air. It was beautiful. I spent time at my four stations and came away feeling tired but content.

Healing forest Dobrovik Slovenia

A stop-off at Vadászcsárda (Hunters’ Inn) in Zalacsány on the way home topped off a lovely day and got me ready for Season 3 of Doc Martin.

Tomorrow, the heating will be fixed. My creature comforts will be restored. And another glorious week will begin. This day last week I was heading to the airport to catch a flight to Malta. Seven days later, I’m back from mass, hatted and scarfed and wrapped in a blanket, waiting for a chap to come quote for a télikert, a winter garden (the Hungarian term for a conservatory). If there’s any money left over after buying the new boiler, it might just be my next project.

 

 

2018 Grateful 48

On my way back from the doc’s this morning, I took the long way around so that I could go by Amber’s, the fab new French bakery on Fővámr. I’m addicted to their almond croissants. For the last few mornings, as a reward for withstanding the discomfort of having daily infusions, I’ve rewarded myself with one, a sort of adult lollipop. It’s the least I deserve. [I score the nurses’ injecting skills by the degree of pain I feel, with 10 being barely anything and 1 being bloody sore. Wednesday and Thursday were 10s. Friday was a 2 – it didn’t work in one arm so we had to go with the other. And this morning was a 3. Same injection needed, four different nurses, four different scores. The mind boggles. Painless injection is a much underrated skill.]

Anyway, while on the tram, an elderly man stood beside me. He was in his late 70s (which, by my nonagenarian dad’s reckoning is still young). I made to get up, asking him if he’d like my seat. Thanks, but no. Then he said something to me that sounded very much like he was asking me for money to buy bread. I thought something had gotten lost in translation. He was well-dressed. Nicely turned out, wearing a good, if worn, leather coat, and shoes that shone from lots of care and attention. His hands were clean and he’d recently shaved. Surely he couldn’t be asking me for money? I’d been caught before and didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

A while back, I spotted what I thought was an elderly gent down on his luck standing, cup in hand, at the bottom of the steps at Blaha Lujza tér metro. I passed him by, walked up the steps, thought again, and walked back down to give him money. As I reached out to put the note in his cup, he lifted it to his mouth and drank from it. I was mortified. But he had a sense of humour, thankfully. So this time, rather than ask this gent to repeat himself slowly, I smiled blankly. He turned questioningly to the woman sitting opposite me, who shook her head. He thanked us and moved on.

We sat, both of us in shock. I told her I didn’t speak much Hungarian and asked her what he’d said. She repeated it more slowly. And yes, he had asked for money. I watched him as he made his way up the tram, stopping by each passenger and spinning his spiel. The replies he got alternated between smiles, frowns, brush-offs, shakes of the head, and angry words. But no money. Everyone was judging him. Perhaps they were upset that he’d asked them, putting them on the spot. Perhaps they were embarrassed that he’d had to ask in the first place. Perhaps they were dismissing him as a chancer. But a man of his age, with more dignity in his little finger than many of his fellow passengers could lay claim to? I wondered.

My conscience got the better of me. I went after him and pressed a note into his hand. My travelling companion passed me money to give to him, too. He thanked us again.

Somewhat numbed by the experience, I looked around and saw that the naysayers were now shaking their heads at me as if to say – You idiot. You fool. You stupid foreigner.

And yes, perhaps he is laughing all the way to the bakery, and if so, I hope he enjoys his croissants. But maybe, just maybe, the man was in real need; then the money we gave him might just make a difference. It’s a miserable, wet, cold, day, a day made for hot soup. Perhaps that’s all he needed.

I was reminded of Tolstoy’s story Where love is, God is. And the story of Baucis and Philemon in Greek mythology. Perhaps I’m being rather fanciful, but then, that’s nothing new. I wonder, though, how much better the world might be if we learned not to judge, but to trust that another person’s need is real. Suitably chastened, infusions done, my croissant spate over,  I’m grateful for the lessons that keep on coming and for occasionally remembering to pay attention and listen. 

2018 Grateful 49

I often wonder why I’m so busy, always running around like a blue-arsed fly, meeting someone, doing something, going somewhere. It was only this week, when the talented Bobacsai Zsolt resurfaced on the blogging scene after a long hiatus, that I figured it out. Reading his piece on the busy trap and the need to waste time consciously, I was struck by what he said about busyness being a learned behaviour.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of my parents sit and do nothing. Oh they sit, but while they’re sitting, they’re reading or doing the crossword or napping. They spend time outdoors, but they’re gardening or walking or playing golf. Apart from a few failed experiments with meditation, I don’t think I’ve ever sat and done nothing. So this week, I tried. For no predetermined period of time, I simply sat and did nothing. I did myn’t lie down – I sat. And sat. And sat. And, when after 20 minutes or so I started twitching, I rejoined the world. On reflection, I definitely felt all the better for it.

Bobacsai speaks of wasting time consciously, something that goes so much against my grain, if you hugged me, you’d get splinters. I’m all too conscious of how little time there is in a day or a week, in a month or a year. And knowing that it could all suddenly end is hardly affirmation that it’s okay to waste it. I no doubt waste time unconsciously – sitting in front of the big screen watching episode after episode of whatever series has my attention. I can sit for hours reading a book when perhaps I could (or should) be working. Flittering away those hours is usually met with feelings of guilt, pin-pricks of conscience that tell me I could have put them to better use.

Instead, though, I should be wasting time consciously, says Babocsai, and for a whole day – not just 20 minutes.

[..] no TV, no internet, no phones, no screens of any kind. Unplug yourself for this one day. Don’t even read a book. Ideally, you’d go to a lake in the woods and stare at the water all day. That’s how you properly, consciously waste a day.

Luckily, I have a lake in the woods practically in my back yard (something I’m exceedingly grateful for and appreciative of). So I’ve made an appointment for myself in early May to go there and sit, for a day. I’ll have my thermos and my sarnies and I’ll just sit. No book. No phone. No pencil and paper. And we’ll see how I get on. In the meantime though, I’m going to continue sitting and doing nothing for short periods every day until I can build it up into a couple of hours with no residual guilt. Small steps.

2018 Grateful 50***

There’s lots of talk about Millennials these days, about their sense of entitlement, about their heightened expectations. I had to go to the Net to see what ages are included in the definition and from what I can see, Millennials are those aged 18 to 35 today. I know a few and entitled isn’t a word I’d use to describe them. But hey. Anyway, I was more curious about the generation that follows – the Linksters. These are those born from 2002 onwards apparently. And, as I read, they’re called Linksters (or Generation Z) because they’re the ones who’ve been linked into technology from the start. They’re the tech-savvy one-year-olds who are puzzled when a picture won’t swipe. They’re the ones who probably won’t ever see the inside of a bricks-and-mortar bank, or perhaps buy a real book, or maybe even go to the cinema.

I’ve heard a number of TV and radio reports this week where Linksters were being interviewed and I’ve been seriously impressed with their self-confidence, their fluency, their assuredness. Blown away, in some cases. But I stopped to wonder whether self-confidence equates to capability. You can have all the confidence in the world but lack the ability needed to take you all the way. Will these fall short?

Then I saw an article about a group of 9th graders who could teach me a thing or two. They noticed that their concentration suffered if they slept with their mobiles by their heads so they decided to experiment and see if there was any scientific reason for this. They sowed some watercress seeds and put one sample in a room without wifi and another in a room between two wifi routers. All other conditions were equal. The results were quite alarming.

In a wifi free room, the cress flourished:

And in the room with wifi?

I’ve been thinking about this all day. I keep my phone in my bedroom at night because it’s also my alarm. I’m not too worried about calls or messages – I just want to be sure that I wake up. Suitably concerned, I’m on a search now for an old-fashioned alarm clock. The windy up kind. And there’s a wifi router in the bedroom, too. That’ll have to go.

I suppose I should be grateful to the Linksters for bringing this to my attention – I might now wake up awake in the mornings. But it’ll take practice. And I’ll need to remember to wind the clock. And I’ll need two at least. And… ahhhhh

 

***FACT CHECK UPDATE – apparently there’s some doubt about the accuracy of the experiment reported: https://www.snopes.com/cress-wifi-experiment/

2018 Grateful 51

A 90-year-old atheist has outlived and out-smoked his contemporaries, and as he comes to terms with his own mortality, he searches for ever-elusive enlightenment. So reads the blurb for the movie Lucky. I hadn’t read that before we decided to go. It wasn’t my pick. I’m not sure I’d have gone, had it been left to me to decide. Which would have been a shame.

A veil of reflection settled over the audience as the credits rolled. I’m sure everyone was contemplating their mortality and resolving to make a will and draft an end-of-life plan. Even if you don’t have much by way of anything material, an end-of-life plan seems like a good idea. It’ll make little difference to you – as you’ll be gone. But it might make it a little easier on those you’ve left behind. Note to self duly made.

It reminded me a little of another favorite – The Station Agent.

When his only friend dies, a man born with dwarfism moves to rural New Jersey to live a life of solitude, only to meet a chatty hot dog vendor and a woman dealing with her own personal loss.

Both are slow movies with not a whole lot going on, on the surface, but they run deep. In Lucky, the late Harry Dean Stanton played the leading role. He died in September last year, aged 91, a few months after the film was released. What a poetic last movie to have worked on.

It got me thinking. About death. About how I want to die. About burial vs cremation. About how long I’ve left to do all the things I want to do. About what exactly it is I want to do. About what’s important. About what matters. About the sort of funeral I’d like. About making a will. About the burden and responsibility that comes with owning property and having stuff. About obligations and whether they’re real or perceived. About the attractiveness of Jack Reacher’s life on the road. About the increasingly frequent urge I’m getting to step outside the circus ring and swap the insanity for simplicity. About how happy I feel inside when I’m telling people of the beauty and solitude of the kis-Balaton.

I made a conscious decision last year to step back and reduce my level of commitment. I promised myself that I would be more respectful of my time and learn to say no, politely but emphatically. I won’t change overnight. It’ll take a few months to work through it. I’m making slow but steady progress, though, and for the first time in a long, long, time, I have time. And for that I’m grateful.

As for the movie:

On Rotten Tomatoes, Lucky has a rating of 98%, based on 92 reviews, with an average score of 7.9/10. RogerEbert.com gave the film four out of four stars, writing that the film is “the humblest deep movie of recent years, a work in the same vein as American marginalia like Stranger Than Paradise and Trees Lounge,’ but with its own rhythm and color, its own emotional temperature, its own reasons for revealing and concealing things.”

 

2018 Grateful 52

If I told you that this author has received numerous awards for their writing and holds not one but twelve honorary doctorates from universities in Europe and North America, or that they have a CBE for services to literature from Her Majesty in the UK and were also another by the government of Botswana for services through literature … would you know of whom I was talking? Yep – and I bet it was the Botswana bit that gave it away.

I first came across Alexander McCall Smith when I picked up a copy of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency many many moons ago. I thought it delightful. I loved the characters and the setting and promptly added Botswana to my list of places to visit. I read the first ten books in the series and passed them on to friends all over. I now see that McCall Smith didn’t stop writing when I stopped reading – I have another eight to go.

His protagonist is 34-year-old Mma Precious Ramotswe. After her dad dies and leaves her some money, Mma Ramotswe ups sticks and moves to the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, where she buys a house for herself and finds an office for her new detective agency. She gathers a cast of regular characters around her, each one quirky and interesting in their own right. Her cases are often more about the people than their problems and her constant reference – a book by Clovis Andersen on the Principles of Private Detection – is sometimes hilarious in itself.

Last year, while in Geneva, I picked up a DVD of the TV series at a church fete – the first series. Last week, I finally got around to watching some of the opening episodes. I felt a rush of nostalgia for a time when simplicity was fashionable, when movies and TV shows didn’t need car chases, sexual exploits, and gruesome murders to keeps us engaged. I felt myself morphing into the adult I swore I’d never become, reminiscing of times long gone where things were cleaner, simpler, and more humane. Ah, back in my day…

Maybe it was the stark contrast in ways of life – Botswana could hardly be more different from Budapest. Or perhaps it was the colours of Africa juxtaposed with the goose-laden greys of winter on the Kis-Balaton. Or maybe it was the growing need in me to get back to where it all used to matter. Whatever it was, Mma Ramotswe and her mates made an impression and in their tender, unsophisticated, pragmatic way, gave me the kick up the arse I needed to start 2018. And for that I’m grateful.

My plan for this year is to live simply, to spend my time wisely, and to make whatever it is I do worthwhile.