Grateful 1

When I started this Grateful series at the start of this year, I had no idea of how it would work or what shape it would take. It’s been quite the experiment. In that first post, Grateful 52, I wrote: 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.When I wrote that first Grateful piece, little did I know that I’d be writing the last one for 2012 from Kona, Hawaii.

IMG_1351 (800x600)Today, we visited the Painted Church in Honaunau. I’ve been there a few times and it hasn’t lost its charm. It was built 1899 by Father John Velghe who decorated the inside of the church with his paintings. Fr Velghe was a Belgian priest of the order of  the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Society – the Picpus Fathers. Located on the slope of Mauna Loa, a 13,680 feet volcano mountain, it overlooks the Pacific ocean and those buried in the cemetery have a gorgeous view.

IMG_1359 (600x800)IMG_1361 (574x800)

The small wooden church is both simple and intricate and, perhaps, fancifully, I believe that it’s all the holier for it. To find a church that is open without a resident caretaker comes as such a surprise. To see a stand outside selling crafts with an honor box beside it, was enough to restore my faith in human nature.

IMG_1414 (800x600)

IMG_1383 (800x597)

IMG_1372 (599x800)The paintings are a little faded and when the sun hits, it’s hard to see what they depict but the overall effect is still quite wondrous. There are six pillars inside the church, each with something inscribed. While we were there today, this guy was telling his wife that the inscriptions told the stories of the wall paintings. But he was wrong. I checked. Each contains one of the six mottos of St Benedict, after whom the church is named.

O ke kea hemolele ko’u malamalama – The Holy Cross be my light
Hele oe pela i Satana – Begone, Satan
He poino kou mea i ninini mai ai – You have poured forth trouble
Aole o Satana ko’u alakai – Satan is not my guide
Ua oki oe me kou mea pau wale – Stop with your perishable things
Nau no e inu kou poino – Drink your own misfortune.

In the groIMG_1354 (590x800)unds, there’s a monument to Fr Damien, who so famously worked with the lepers of Kalaupapa.  [I didn’t know that leprosy is known as Hansen’s disease.] His story, too, is a remarkable one of simplicity and courage. In a world where religion has been the cause of so much hardship, I’m reminded by what Kofi Annan once said: the problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah, nor yet the Gospel. The problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other. In this small community of Honaunau on the island of Kona, the faithful are doing an admirable job of staying true to their faith. And it shows.

As this year draws to a close, I’m grateful that my faith takes me places that I might otherwise miss; I’m grateful for the friends who travel with me as I make my way through life; and most of all, I’m grateful that I believe.

Grateful 2

IMG_6919 (800x593)I’ve been in Ireland since Wednesday and have been on an emotional rollercoaster for most of it. This has been my longest absence in years – four and a half months. In the usual run-up to Christmas, people are in a reflective mood and for the most part these reflections make for depressing hearing. Tales of foreclosures, untimely deaths, theft, suicide, and barely making ends meet are rampant. In the villages of Ireland, isolated incidences vault to the top of the list of evidence of why the country is going to the dogs. In Clane, three girls stole four dresses from the local boutique (one each for them and a fourth for the getaway driver). Another girl had her handbag nicked when she was stopped by a man in a car asking directions. His job – to distract her. His partner’s job – to leap out grab the bag and jump back in. And then just last week, the tyres on ten cars were slashed – randomly. And this is just our village.

Taxi drivers in Dublin warn me of the simmering racial angst that is just waiting to explode. They tell me of the drunken mess that Dublin turns into after 2am. They explain the cheap shots and cocktails that have tempted less seasoned drinkers away from the stable fare of beer and wine and have turned our youth into a vomiting mass of blowdried hair teetering on six-inch heels. Add to that heady mix the rumours filtering through that things are kicking off again up North.

For me, Christmas in Ireland is a time of tradition. I’ve been meeting the same three lads every year I’ve been home since I left in 1994. We’ve all aged. And the Bank we used to work in has disappeared, both in spirit and in substance. But Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this annual homage to times gone by. And every year since God knows when, the Nugent-Manning’s have had a Christmas party where people who might not see each other from one end of the year to the next catch up on what’s going on and the morning after is filled with ‘Did you know….’ At home, we say the rosary, sit around, drink tea and catch up on who’s dead or dying. Every Christmas Eve, after mass, our neighbours come in for a drink or three and the whole country is put to rights as opinions abound and experiences are shared.

IMG_6921 (800x567)When I balance the two – tradition and reality – I worry about Ireland’s future. I worry about Hungary, too, but that’s a different sort of concern. For Ireland, I worry about her people. For centuries, we’ve been the toast of the world – everyone wanted us to visit. But now, Australia and the USA are having second thoughts because the type of people we are sending are not of the same calibre. There’s a latent agression – a feeling that the world owes them something – a hardness and a meanness that was never there before. The landscape, too, has changed. Modern architecture sits in subdued silence with the Georgian buildings of old and I can’t help but compare old and new.

I took the bus to Dublin one morning and as I sat, ears ringing from the chorus of disillusion I’d met with the night before, I watched the bus driver. He was a Dub, in his early fifties. He had a word for everyone. The return fare was €9.20 and those that hadn’t the 20 cent were forgiven. He helped people on and off with their bags and wished everyone a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. His good humour never faltered, despite the manic traffic and dangerous drivers. He stopped before a bus stop to pick up a couple making a mad dash for the bus. He stopped beyond one to shorten one woman’s walk in the rain. He sang along to the radio and over the 20 miles slowly restored my faith in Irish nature.

I had a box of Hungarian chocolates in my bag, intended for another home. When we got to Busáras, I was last off. I gave him the chocolates and told him that since I’d been home, I’d heard/seen nothing to give me hope that Ireland would right herself. And then I’d seen him in action. It was shortly after 11am on a Thursday morning in the Central Bus Station in Dublin. The two of us were hugging like long-lost mates, both of us close to tears.

At the end of this penultimate week of 2012, I’m grateful that I got to travel on this man’s bus and see for myself that the spirt of Irishness for which we are famous, is still alive.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 3

Back in the days when I first started travelling, I had this urgent need to see everything. I’d visit cities having done my homework and armed with a checklist, I’d get up before the milkman and hit the streets. I was a woman on a mission. In Amsterdam one year, I finally realised that there was no rush. I could always go back. And go back again and again until I had seen all I wanted to see.

IMG_0880 (800x600)

When I’d come back from somewhere without having seen THE sight, it no longer bothered me. I was happy enough to have a reason to return. For me, in Malta, the thing to see was the Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa) on the island of Gozo. I’d seen postcards and photographs. I knew what to expect. It wasn’t going to be a surprise. And yet it was – on so many levels. Photographs and postcards might capture the reality but they miss the essence: the smells, the sounds, the feel of a place.

IMG_0887 (800x600)

This natural beauty spot has starred in the  Clash of the Titans (1981)  and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), in the television miniseries The Odyssey (1997), and HBO’s TV series Game of Thrones. The sad thing is though, is that it’s slowly wearing away. Large pieces of rock are falling from it and despite the signs, irresponsible idiots keep walking on top of it. Earlier this year, a sizable chunk fell, widening the window even more.

IMG_0892 (800x600)

Experts say that it’s only a matter of a few years before it crumbles altogether. This week, as I finally unpack my suitcase from that trip in preparation for my next one, I am grateful that I got to see it, in all its majesty, on a perfect November day in the company of three wonderful women. It is on days like this that I am reminded of how blessed I truly am.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 4

Christmas is associated with giving – and unfortunately much of what’s given is unwanted, not needed, and a huge waste of time, effort, and money. Yet the one gift that is most sought after, is also the most difficult to find. Time. Everyone seems to want it and no one seems to have any. It’s all rush, rush, rush, wrap, wrap, wrap. Presents to buy, parties to go to, gifts to give. The mania is well and truly upon us. But we forget, perhaps, that the most meaningful gifts we can give are love, compassion, and  … a hug.

Down at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage) today with a gang of IHBC’s Give a Little campaigners, both time and hugs were in demand. We descended on the place at 10am and then set about entertaining and being entertained. The Lions Club had donated Santa Bags for all the residents and while they danced and sang and recited, we had a tune or two of our own to share.

IMG_1152 (1024x768)IMG_1160 (1024x768)

It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to have so many hands reaching out to touch you. It’s humbling to know that by simply shaking a hand, or giving a hug, or just letting someone touch your hair, you can make a big difference to their day. The staff are wonderfully caring, supportive, and loving. And to see this in their interaction with the residents is heart-warming. They seem to have endless patience. It takes a very special type of person to be able to do this sort of work, day in, day out. For those like Kristóf, or Norbert, who have visitors maybe once a year, having people like us visit literally makes their day.

In an era when social media is doing its bit to distance us from each other physically and the main experience we have of being tactile is a frighteningly intimate relationship with a smart phone or an iPad, visiting Göd is a sobering reminder of what matters.  As we move closer and closer to Christmas, when thoughts turn to gift-buying and partying, we could do worse than remember that the best gifts we can give are our time and our compassion. We might not be able to wrap a hug, but it’s one gift no one will want to exchange.

As one mad week finishes and another hovers on the horizon, I am grateful for my involvement with the Give a Little campaign, and the orphanage. I certainly get far more than I give.

PS A reminder of what novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) had on his suggested gift list:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Happy shopping:-)

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 5

Everything I’ve ever done in my life to date has led to my being in Budapest right now. Difficult to imagine that each little decision I’ve made in the course of my life has somehow contributed to my today – my present – my reality. I sometimes wonder where I’d be if, say,  I’d been accepted to teacher training college or if I’d not applied for a US Green Card. But only occasionally. I spend way more time marvelling at how I end up doing what I do.

I met LS at a Toastmaster’s meeting. We got chatting. I’m naturally curious and him being the first Hare Krishna devotee I’d met in person, I had plenty of questions. I’d just learned, too, that I needed to mentor a new starter as part of my ACG and he seemed ideal. He invited me to visit the temple at Csillaghegy. And so began our friendship. I was at the TM meeting because of WB and met WB through ESz and met ESz through BC… and the line goes on. Had any link in that chain been broken, I doubt I’d have seen the marvel of the Sweet Festival earlier this month.

Celebrating Krishna’s lifting of Govardhana Hill, the sweet festival is quite simply amazing. Over the previous two weeks, 900 kg of sugar went into making 1923 kg of sweets which are first offered to Krishna and then distributed amongst the villagers down in Krishna Valley. The ceremony has happy, joyful, and full of energy, in sharp contrast to some of the Catholic and Protestant services I’ve been to. The cake replica of Govardhana Hill alone weighed 400 kg.

After the ceremony, we were invited for lunch. The miracle of the loaves and fish came to mind as hundreds of us sat down to eat and were fed with great efficiency. Plates piled high with vegetarian food, each spoonful tastier than the one that had gone before it. Everyone in good humour, a kindness radiating throughout, a true sense of community.

I was struck, once again, at how varied and interesting my life is; at the diverse nature of the people I meet; at the strange situations I find myself in. This week, I am grateful for the curiosity gene I’ve inherited, the one that keeps me asking questions and wondering why. The one that opens doors and unveils new experiences. The one that makes memories and keeps that sense of wonder alive.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 6

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. So said  G. K. Chesterton many moons ago and althought he himself was not a man I’d have fancied in his day, that insight alone would have earned him a dinner invitation (if he brought Fr Brown with him).

I’ve noticed that, more often than not, I come home from somewhere without having seen the sight. I rarely buy guidebooks and tend to rely on fiction set in the city to navigate my way around. Inspector Morse in Oxford, Commissario Brunetti in Venice, Spenser in Boston, Kate Shugak in Alaska – the list goes on. If anything, I have stronger feelings about what I don’t want to see than what might interest me. I didn’t visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam until my fifth trip there (and then only because it was pelting down rain).

I’ve been going to Malta two or three times a year since 2010. It’s a small island and as my play time is limited, my list of things to do is still quite long. Had I to rank those places still to be explored, though, Popeye’s village – the set where the 1980 musical movie was filmed – would not have made the list. But life has a funny way of taking you to places you need to see, just when you need to see them.

We’ d left St Julian’s hoping to make the 10.30 ferry to Gozo but got stuck behind a bus and another bus and another bus. Resigned to catching the 11.15, our intrepid guide, the inimitable SB, decided to detour to the village. She didn’t tell us where we were going until we were practically upon it by which time the child in me was already drooling at the wonder of it all.

It was like looking down on another world. The voices of faceless children cut through the air.  From our vantage point on the cliff above, everything seemed tiny. Positively Lilliputian.  It was whimsical.  Playful. Fanciful. For the first time in a while, I felt the joy of pure delight. Simple, uncomplicated emotion, reacting to nothing other than what I saw. Innocent amazement.

It gave me pause for thought. Our lives are way more complicated than they need to be. Our relationships, too. Our expectations have lost all sense of proportion. We’ve forgotten the simple joy of contentment. Our days are harried – targets, deadlines, quotas drive us forward. Goals, objectives, plans keep us moving. And all for what? To be happier, richer, better off than our parents and in a position to leave our children better off than ourselves? And in all this haste, I fear that we are in danger of forgetting how to live.

At the end of another manic week, I’m decidedly grateful that SB knew what I needed better than I knew myself. I’m glad that the child within me escaped for a a while and reminded me that there is a place in my life for whimsy. After all is said and done, to quote the man himself,  I yam what I yam.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

 

Grateful 7

Earlier today, in Bonn, Germany, I gave a two-minute impromptu speech entitled: One of my most treasured memories. It was a competition speech. Thirteen other speakers from District 59 (Continental Europe) of Toastmasters International also spoke on the same subject.  It’s the fall conference. I drew slot 5 so I got to hear 9 others deliver their take. The results will be announced later tonight at the gala dinner. I spoke well. I felt well. And I was surprised at how emotional I was.

Afterwards, random strangers (although all Toastmasters themselves) came up to me and gave me feedback. They told me that I’d touched something in them, that I’d hit a chord, that my speech had resonated at some level. Former District Champions and other professional speakers complimented me on my performance. One man told me that I’d brought tears to his eyes.

I’ll admit to being a little cynical at first – a little taken aback by the cultish nature of it all (I have no clue what’s going on in the outside world, of what I’ve missed, so tightly cocooned are we in this world of stage and speech.) But on closer examination, the sincerity, the genuine concern and drive to help others improve far outstrips that.

I realised that it’s not the winning that matters – although it would be nice to be on the podium this evening. It’s not the applause or the accolades or the judges’ decision. Speaking – motivational, inspirational or even humorous speaking – is about connecting with your audience, reaching a part of them that perhaps they didn’t know about or had forgotten.

It’s been a manic 48 hours. Being with 299 other people who are passionate about public speaking is new to me. To hear their feedback and to see how willing they are to share their thoughts and help others improve is moving. The sense of goodwill, of appreciation, of generous acknowledgment, is inspiring.

Budapest won its bid to host the 2013 District 59 conference next November. It will be a momentus occasion. An opportunity to see how shared goals, mutual objectives, and common passions can enrich the world – even if it is just a small part of the world at large.

At the end of what has been a mad, crazy week, and at the start of one that promises to be equally manic and crazy, I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to touch people, to connect with them, and to indulge a passion.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 8

I’ve managed to get myself into trouble on occasion but never anything so serious that I couldn’t be extricated, more or less intact. I still have all the organs with which I was born and have never, to my knowledge, undergone an operation. I did break my sacrum in a snowmachine accident in 1998 and memories of life at that time are coated in a morphine haze. Apart from the odd pain when I stand too long on concrete or sit too long anywhere  or lie down for too long … in fact, as long as I keep moving, I’m grand. Had the break been a couple of centimeters higher, though, I might be telling a different story.

I was reminded of my mortality recently when driving the winding roads between Zirc and Pannonhalma (aka Highway 82), in Veszprém country in northwestern Hungary.  I passed underneath Csesznek castle and was suitably awed. Built around 1263 AD  soon after the Mongol invasion, it changed hands many times, housing the Habsburg troops in the early eighteenth century. The Turks captured it at one stage and then it was won back by Hungary. It managed to get through hundreds of years of conflict to be damaged by a force majeure – an earthquake – in 1810. Some time later, a fire caused by a lightning strike completely destroyed it. In 1635,  Dániel Eszterházy bought the castle and village (nice to be able to think in such terms) and it remained part of the Ezsterházy estate until 1945. It’s been under excavation and restoration since 1967.

One this sunny Sunday in November, I navigated the bends of Route 82 at speed, doing my best impression of Rosemary Smith (I was late for mass…)  I  love to drive and I love to drive on deserted, winding, country roads in a real car with a manual gearbox. It was an unseasonable 17 degrees and the radio station was playing hits from the 1980s. I was in heaven. Late or not, I had to stop to take a quick photo of the imposing castle. It was then that I noticed that someone else hadn’t been so lucky.  Losing a life, any life, to the roads, is a sad thing, especially when nine times of out ten, it could have been avoided.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of the twelfth-century castle on the hilltop, testifying to the durability of medieval architecture and construction and the modern-day monument on the roadside testifying to the fragility of life and twenty-first century living. I started to think of legacies and what we leave behind and was reminded of something I read somewhere about legacies, deeds, and monuments. I tracked it down:

If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.

I wonder how right Agesilaus II was. I think of how statues are torn down, destroyed or relocated on the whim of political or national fervour. I see neglected graves in cemeteries everywhere, no-one left to remember or to care. And I wonder.

This week, I’m inclined to be grateful that I made it to mass on time… and in one piece. While I doubt that given such a road again I’d drive more sedately, at least I might be a little more aware of the possible consequences. And I’ll certainly be giving more thought to legacies and good deeds.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 9

Hate takes effort and energy and, quite frankly, I’m too lazy to expend either on something that offers little reward. There’s some food I’d rather not eat; some people I’d rather not talk to; some places I’d rather not visit. But there are very few things in life that I actively hate. Even people who don’t keep their word; who make promises they have no intention of honoring, while low of my list of faves, earn my pity rather than my hate [and,  imho, ‘sorry, I forgot’ doesn’t cut it as an excuse].

November 1 (aka All Saints Day, aka The day of the Dead) dawned bright and sunny this year. When I revisited an old blog post to see if I’d written about how to get to the Jewish cemetery on Kozma utca, I was surprised to find that the trip I made wasn’t last year, but two years ago, in 2010.  And I was horrified to find that I’d promised Bródy Sándor that I’d bring him flowers and now, two years later, I still hadn’t fulfilled that promise. I hadn’t forgotten – I’d just lost a year somewhere… Mind you, I doubt he’s given it much thought in the meantime, but still – a promise is a promise.

Off I trotted with the lovely BS, popping in at the New Cemetery to buy said flowers before walking up the road to the Jewish one. The contrast couldn’t have been  more startling. The former was packed solid, with police on point duty directing traffic; the latter was empty but for us, a strange man with a map, and an elderly trio who looked lost. All sorts of reasons for this emptiness came to mind – no-one left to remember the dead; the city’s Jewish population depleted; the competing priorities of progress. We mourned the neglect and cursed the wars and debated the pros and cons of cremation. It wasn’t until later, over goose legs and cabbage at Huszár that our waiter pointed out the obvious … All Saints Day is  Catholic day… nowt to do with the Jews. [If we’d brains, we’d be dangerous.] Poor Bródy must be turning in his grave.

As we wandered through the graves, I noticed a number with their own garden seat installed. It brought to mind long, one-sided conversations between the living and dead: reminiscences of the past and consultations regarding the future. Perhaps even some remonstrations for broken words and forgotten promises.

I was struck again at how beautiful the place is, no matter how overgrown, and perhaps because I’ve just finished reading The Invisible Bridge, it was all the more real for me. The monuments to those whose bodies will never be recovered were particularly moving. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time – and this week, I am grateful that although it took me a while to get around to doing it, I finally got to keep my promise.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 10

I’m quite partial to a good speech and regularly complain about those who preside over religious ceremonies and fail to deliver, fail to captivate, fail to engage their congregations. And it’s not just in churches and temples that we see podiums. Politicians, too, have their moments – and their speeches get far more playtime than your average orator. One of my all time favourites is a speech given by Daniel Hannan MEP in 2009 when he calls Gordon Browne the devalued prime minister of a devalued government. I don’t know the man from Adam, and know even less about his politics, but I like the way he talks.

On the movie screen, my vote goes to Jack Nicholson’s 1992 speech in a Few Good Men. My young orator award goes to  12-year-old  Severn Suzuki’s 1992 speech to the United Nations. And for those that will stand the test of time, there’s Vaclav Havel’s New Year’s address in 1990 or  one I’ve interpreted myself (and enjoyed doing so immensely) – Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1868 speech The Destructive Male.

In Hungary this week, speakers of all sorts took to their podiums to commemorate the 56th anniversary of the 1956 uprising. While all were in Hungarian and I’m relying on translations, my vote goes to Gordon Bajnai. His speech is one that I hope will mark a change in direction: he frankly admitted that he had said before he was not a politician – but times have changed. He used the familiar with the people, and he recognised from the outset the key element of any country’s future – its young people: we don’t want a country to which our emigrated children will perhaps be willing to return one day – instead, we want a country they will have no reason to leave in the first place.

I’m used to politics where there is no discernible difference between the parties – every one of them being slightly left or right of centre. In Hungary, there are extremes – extremes that have me worried. This week, the Alliance of European National Movements (AENM) met in Hédervár. Jobbik, the British National Party (BNP), Italy’s Tricolour Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats, Belgium’s National Front and others sat around a table. Speaking (rather poorly) at the conference, Jack Buckby outlined his plans to rebrand nationalism as national culturism (opposite to multiculturalism) –  and thereby to defy accusations from the Left of being racist. This speech won’t be making my list of favourites any time soon.

In a week which saw the Israeli flag  burned outside the synagogue on Dohány utca; a week that heard Jobbik repeating its call for a special ‘gendarmerie’ to keep order in the countryside (i.e. police the Roma); and a week where party activists allegedly bussed in supporters from other countries to swell the ranks of the PM’s audience, I am grateful that at least one voice of reason could be heard. 2014 and the general election are a long way away – it’s good to see some opposition finally mobilising and the helm being taken by someone who seems to have at least an element of nous and the ability to relate to the people. Methinks that Gordan Bajnai’s speech of 23 October 2012 will mark the turning point in this country’s history. Fundamentally, we must ascertain that patriotism and progress – upholding national traditions and rejuvenating the country – are not contradictory, nor mutually exclusive terms.

Eva Balogh, in her blog post, notes that a politician was born… and I, for one, am grateful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Save