2019 Grateful 34: Fields of Red

I found myself explaining recently that my summer travel would be severely curtailed as it was fruit season. The cherries, the plums, the apricots, the tomatoes – they wouldn’t look after themselves. I needed to be there to figure out what to do with them so that I could still enjoy them next year. My mate looked at me, somewhat aghast and said: Okay – who are you and what have you done with my friend? Read more

2019 Grateful 35: Closed borders

I’ve travelled Route 66 enough to be conscious of how towns and villages are at the mercy of those with planning power. A new highway, a new motorway, a change in public policy can be the death of a place. No doubt those who argue in favour of the change cite progress, the public good, and greater benefits as they justify their plans and decisions. Route 66, with its ghost towns, deserted gas stations, and ramshackle restaurants and bars, oozes nostalgia. People still drive the road daily. They still photograph its faded glory. They still support the occasional tourist spot or truck stop that has fought the odds and stayed open to feed their visitors.

The 420 unfinished housing estates dotting Ireland are a different story. These interrupted solutions to Ireland’s pre-crash housing issues haven’t a nuance of nostalgia. They don’t attract tourists or feature regularly in travel magazines. Today, they’re more likely to offer a public safety hazard than a photo opportunity. Writing for the Irish Times a couple of years ago, Simon Carswell described them as

an unofficial memorial to over-development, reckless lending and the failure of government policy to protect its people in a time of excess.

Strangely, neither affected me in quite the same way as the Goričan-Letenye border crossing between Croatia and Hungary. And no, not the main one on the highway, Letenye–Goričan II, but the older one, a few kilometres away, Letenye–Goričan I. From what I read, it’s only a temporary closure – between March and July this year – because of work being done on a bridge over the River Mura.  And yet I find it hard to believe. With the exception of Club 114, everything looks deserted. The post office, the gas station, the motel, the tourist information centre, the currency exchange kiosk, the bank – all skeletons of their former selves.

Letenye–Goričan I closed border

From what I gather from the Letenye town website, the motorway crossing opened in 2008. It doesn’t require a huge stretch of my imagination to see this as the death knell for the old crossing. With most of the traffic using the A3 motorway from Zagreb which morphs into the M7 motorway to Budapest, the need for the original crossing waned. I’d imagine that when it is in operation, it’s used mainly by local traffic from the neighbouring Zala County (HU),  Međimurje County (CR), and Varaždin County (CR) and at times has been limited to residents of these counties only.

Googl eimage of the Letenye–Goričan I closed border crossing

Google’s satellite image shows the now empty bus parking lots. The aerial view says that some thought went into the planning but when it outlived its usefulness, that was that. We had come off the road to eat at the well-reviewed lakeside Zelengaj restaurant but it was closed for a wedding. Club 114 was our nearest option. It looked closed, too, but not for a wedding. The menu was extensive, testament to the variety of palates that once supped at its tables but as our selections were met with the Croatian equivalent of sorry, not available today, it seemed that the selection had shrunk. We both ordered Wienerschnitzel and the two lads who came in after us got the same. It’s been a while since I’ve seen as good a synopsis.

We sat outside, taking advantage of the break in the unseasonably cold weather we’ve been having. It was like eating dinner in a ghost town. All we needed was the tumbleweed. Inside, two long tables were set as if for a wedding. And from the fussing the couple were doing with positioning the cutlery, it seemed as if guests were expected at any moment. It all added to the surrealness. Time seemed to have taken on new meaning.

wedding table set at Club 114We’d gone to Zagreb to drop off some friends as they made their way back to Australia, the long way around. The 24 hours we’d been away felt like a week. Our last supper in Croatia was as strange a one as I’ve had in while. Facing a border we couldn’t cross, we made our way back to the motorway and did as everyone else was doing: we got in line and waited. Hungary is in the Schengen. Croatia isn’t. Hence the delay. We got lucky. Even with just one lane open, it took little more than half an hour to cross. Friends travelling back from Serbia the same day had to make do with a 3-hour hold-up. It’s not high season yet. That’s when the fun really starts.

While I’m a great proponent of personal space, I have mixed feelings about borders. I like the sense of travelling between countries. I like to see the lines I cross. But I don’t like the bureaucracy that comes with it. It saddens me to see how much of rural life survives at the behest of planners and their ilk who have the greater good in mind when they make their decisions. The voice of the many is louder than the voice of the few. From the billboards and posters still in place, someone once had great plans for the area, plans which seem to have largely come to nothing. Although maybe I’m going it an injustice and perhaps Goričan warrants further exploration.

Make no mistake, I like the convenience offered by motorways if I’m on a fast track from A to B. But I also value the back roads, the old highways, the Route 66 equivalents that run across this region. I don’t want to see them die a slow death, starved of sustenance. Just as I will pay more for my washing-up liquid in the village shop because I want to keep the option of being able to shop there, every now and then I’ll take the low road, the back road, and spend my money at places like Club 114 – we might have been half the business they had that day and they won’t get rich from what we left on the table, but if that wedding table was set more in hope than in reality, I like to think that I contributed, just a little, to keeping the dream alive for another day.

This week, I’m grateful for the reminder that there is always a consequence.

pear and walnut bread

2019 Grateful 36: Burnt offerings

I can’t remember if I was asked or whether I volunteered. Most likely I volunteered. Mainly because I like the lads behind 6:3 Borozó and had planned to attend their wine-tasting anyway. They needed some nutty bread to go with their award-winning asparagus pesto. They’d tried out my cherry and orange bread and my pear and walnut bread before (variations on the traditional banana bread) but this time I planned to also try my take on a traditional French walnut bread recipe where I used dark beer instead of tepid water with strong white flour instead of a white/brown flour mix – mainly because I couldn’t find brown flour and I could find beer.

The experimental batch turned out lovely even if I messed up the temperature settings. My non-regulating oven is quirky at the best of times and after nearly three years, I had thought we’d reached an understanding.

Wednesday evening I set to work. I was down to the last jar of pear preserves (I like to use local ingredients – I’ve even managed to find flour that is milled in the county) and was dredging the last of JFW’s walnuts. The first two pear and walnut bread loaves burned in places I didn’t expect. Usually, if I don’t watch carefully, the bottom gets a bit brown, but I had burn creep up and over the sides. The walnuts on top practically roasted. I was annoyed. So I made two more without the added walnuts on top. And they were worse. There was no way I could give them to anyone. They looked awful.

The next morning, I was booked on the 10 am train to the city. I got up at 6 am to start on the French bread. All went well until I got distracted. I failed to score them (that deep cross-like incision that lets the dough breathe) and I forgot to glaze them. They looked less like loaves of bread and more like smooth stones. Another failure. I was incensed. I ran the full gamut of self-recriminations loaded with expletives and salted with a few tears (I’m not at my best that early in the morning).

Back in the city, I searched three bakeries looking for a nut bread and had to settle for less. And funnily, in comparison, mine didn’t look half bad. I’d brought a loaf of each of the burnt offerings with me and duly delivered them to the lads who weren’t at all phased. They trimmed and sliced and served and the compliments rolled in. Delicious. Fab. Amazing.

All this made me stop and think about how wrapped up I am in external appearances. If it doesn’t look close to perfect then it’s an automatic fail. No matter that it looked a little burnt on the outside – inside it was fresh and tasty and full of homemade goodness. There’s a lesson in that, one I’m grateful to have been reminded of. Appearances can be deceiving. And just as ugly on the outside doesn’t mean ugly on the inside, neither does pretty on the outside mean pretty on the inside. Time (and taste) tells.

Pear and Walnut bread recipe

In one bowl, mix 3 cups of flour, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1 tsp of salt (and an optional half-cup of fine-ground walnuts). In another bowl whisk three eggs with 1 cup of vegetable oil, 2 tsp of vanilla essence and1 cup of sugar until smooth. Then gradually fold the dry mix into this, adding 2 cups of liquidised pears towards the end. Then add a  cup of coarsely chopped walnuts. Mix well. Divide into two rectuangular loaf tins and bake. I can’t help you with the temp or the time as my oven is contrary – I put it is about 8 pm on the dial and check it after 20 mins, turning if the back side seems browner than the front. So maybe 325 F or 165 C for anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes. Keep an eye on it. Be sure to preheat the oven though, as this helps. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes and then upend onto a rack to completely cool. It freezes well and keeps in a tin for days.

Pear and walnut bread

2019 Grateful 37: Thought police missing?

Last year, Hungary made the international news because of a controversial decision to pull a production of Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot musical branded gay propaganda in Hungary and cancellations follow, said the New York Times. Billy Elliot musical axes dates in Hungary amid claims it could ‘turn children gay’, decried The Guardian. Hungarian State Opera axes Billy Elliot shows after homophobic campaign, noted The Telegraph. Read more

2019 Grateful 38

I’d been looking forward to April 18th for weeks. The first day in the lead-up to Easter Sunday. The day I’d finally get to leave the city and head to the village.

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2019 Grateful 39: Intergenerational Communication

Something strange and wonderful happened this week. I turned a corner to face the realisation that I’m of another generation. I’m the X in the XYZ of generational clusters, morphed by circumstance and defined by having lived both with and without computers. I can still remember the magic of receiving my first Fax and being blown away that an image could be sent across telephone lines. When I recall that, I feel old, and yet it’s been a long time since I was the oldest person a room of nearly 200. Read more

Kis-Balaton

2019 Grateful 40: Kis-Balaton Tour

I’ve driven the road from the village to Sármellék and on to Balatonszentgyörgy often enough to comment repeatedly on the dead trees and reed fields that follow it on either side. I knew the Kis-Balaton (Little Balaton) was once drained to increase the amount of available agricultural land in the area but when the Balaton waters started to suffer because of it, it was reflooded to act as a much-needed filter for the lake that is the backbone of Hungary’s domestic tourism.

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2019 Grateful 41: Mothering Sunday

Today is Mother’s Day. Despite Farmers Market having achieved apostrophe-free status in recent years, Mother’s Day will never be free of it, because

the original campaigner for creating Mother’s day, Anna Jarvis, explicitly wanted an apostrophe, and she wanted it to be before the “s”: … it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.

On 10 May, 1908, Jarvis held a service to commemorate her mother who had died three years previously. She wanted a day that would celebrate her mother and for everyone else to celebrate theirs. She campaigned against much derision from male senators and in 1914, US Congress made the day an official holiday in the USA. The profitmakers soon saw an opportunity to capitalise on sentiment and from the 1920s, Jarvis fought them, calling them

charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.

Driving to the market this morning (I love sunny Sundays in the village), the inimitable JFW, a bottomless font of trivia, said in passing that today is actually Mothering Sunday, a religious holiday in the UK and Ireland, where people once returned home to visit their mother church (and presumably stopped in to see their mother mother, too). It must have been a Protestant thing, I said. I’ve never heard of Mother’s Day being religious – and I practice this, a lot. He assured me not. And he was right. It’s a Christian thing. And it’s always the fourth Sunday of Lent. The things you learn, eh?

Depending on what source you consider, the Mother Church is the main cathedral in the diocese; parish churches are considered daughter churches. Others have it that the mother church could be the one in which you were baptised, the parish church, or the nearest cathedral. Who knew? And from what I’ve read, it’s thought that this sixteenth-century practice of returning to the Mother Church once a year led to domestic servants getting a free half-day to visit their family. Back then, I suppose, most were in service locally and wouldn’t have had that far to travel.

And while mothers in Ireland and the UK today are enjoying the attention, the retailers are laughing all the way to the bank. Last year, the UK spend on Mothering Sunday was estimated at £600 million. In the USA, some $813 million was spent on cards alone. Mad money, Poor Jarvis must be turning in her grave.

I’m happier knowing that Mothering Sunday originally had little to do with mothers and that the commercialisation of Mother’s Day disgusted its founder. I’ve always been slightly peeved that those who’ve never had kids (either by choice or circumstance) don’t have their offical day, too. But anyway, with a nod of gratitude to mothers everywhere, including my own, here’s one from Irish poet Lola Ridge (1873-1941),

Mother

Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors . . .
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.

You are less an image in my mind
than a luster
I see you in gleams
pale as star-light on a gray wall . . .
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.

 

 

2019 Grateful 43 – Celebrating St Patrick

St Patrick’s Day in Budapest has a long lead-up. From the Embassy’s National Day celebrations on Wednesday evening to the IHBC gala dinner on Saturday night, the parade today – and everything else in between – you need to be made of strong stuff to keep going. I’m feeling my age. Trippin’ the light fantastic isn’t as easy as it once was. I’m always surprised at the local interest in the best known of  Ireland’s three patron saints. A couple of times over the course of the last few days, I was asked to explain why or what we (Irish) celebrate on St Patrick’s Day. His is a story that varies in the telling, but today, I was reminded by the lovely SR about this gem.

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paisley kettle

2019 Grateful 44

I’ve been feeling a different sort of gratitude these days. Not gratitude for stuff that has happened – although there’s plenty of that in me – more being grateful for things that haven’t happened, with two big ones this week. Last summer, in Ireland, in Lidl, I bought a kettle. Mad you say. Surely they sell kettles in Hungary. Even ones not made in China. And yes, they do.

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