Grateful 21

I had a birthday last week. Another one. They seem to come around with increasing regularity. But as I’m firmly stuck on 36, they’ve long since lost their hold on me. Gone are the days when I’d spend the weeks leading up to my birthday contemplating all I didn’t do that year, berating myself for not being more… well…  something, and bemoaning the fact that I was one year closer to maturity without the associated trappings: house, car, husband, kids.

These days, it’s more about chalking one up to success. A retrospective of this last year gets an 8/10 from my inner jury. On the plus side, I’ve travelled, been involved in interesting work projects, met some fascinating people, read some great books, discovered new corners of Budapest. I’ve entertained and been entertained. I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried. And I’ve finally put handles on my doors. On the minus side, I’ve put on a few pounds, been scammed, not been too healthy, and lost a very dear friend.

This year, I was in Palm Springs on my birthday with the lovely DL-W and VB. We’re three Chinese horses – not quite three generations but close enough. On the actual day, I gave a talk at D’s church. Another retrospective – this time of travel and tolerance. The community was open, friendly, and very welcoming. The discussion afterwards was insightful and thought-provoking. It gave me hope. Hope that we might actually learn to live with one another, without judging.

This week, I’m grateful for shared experiences, for having the chance to travel, and for having opportunities to meet new people. I’m grateful for simply being alive.

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

Grateful 22

Last Saturday, I was in Ireland at my oldest friend’s wedding. She’s not the oldest person I know, but aside from my family, she’s the friend I’ve known the longest. We’ve been friends for 40 years. I had a ball. It had been 20 years and more since I’d met a lot of her family and while I recognised most of them, few of them recognised me. I’d been keeping track of them over the years and had regular updates from Úna about what was going on in their lives, so I had the advantage. I took a perverse pleasure in chatting to them and watching them search frantically for a name to put to the face and the context … and then fail miserably. The excuses? I’d changed my hair and now wore glasses. Not once was time a factor.

This Saturday, I’m in San Francisco for what would have been my best friend’s 50th birthday. We’d been friends for 21 years. I’m catching up with people I met 10 years ago – recognising faces but having a hard time putting a name to them. They’ve been hearing about me over the years from Lori and so now the shoe is on the other foot. I’m the one at the disadvantage. Many tears have been shed and many more are still in the making. It’s a tough time for everyone.

These two women – both of whom have played an important role in my life – have never met. I think sometimes at how segrated my life is. Sometimes, my relationships remind me of a slice of pizza. The segments/chapters of my life are the slices and I’m the plastic piece in the middle that keeps the lid of the box from soaking up the cheese. I have a leg in every slice and yet most of the slices barely touch.

Numerous times in the past week, I’ve had to encapsulate the last 10 or 20 years of my life into a few sentences and in each retelling I find myself marvelling at what a truly blessed life I lead. As someone put it yesterday – I’m living the life that most people dream of.

Today, as we celebrate Lori’s birthday, I’m truly grateful for my pizza.

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

Grateful 23

Am happy, relieved, and dare I say it, optimistic. It’s finally been confirmed, again, that I don’t have MS (whew) and that my symptoms might simply be indicative of a vitamin D deficiency (how that is possible in the sun-blasted city, I don’t know, but I’m open to suggestions!). Wouldn’t that be nice? Will know more in a month or so.

I had some interesting meetings, a few new projects are fermenting in the pipeline, and life generally is as good as ever. The inimitable GM is back in town so I’ve had a roommate and I’ve had occasion to cook. So lots to be grateful for.

As I thought about what to focus on this week, one thing leaped to mind: clean sheets. English poet Rupert Brooke describes ‘the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon smooth away trouble’ and how right he is. There is nothing quite like getting into a freshly made bed with crisp cotton sheets that have been ironed and cooled. Were we not living in an environmentally challenged world, I’d have clean sheets on my bed every night. As it is, it’s the one thing I do if I’m not feeling well, am in a bad mood, or need to do some serious thinking: I change the sheets and then I crawl into my haven, the sanctuary that is my bed, and immediately feel better. I’m lucky –  I have a bed and I have spare linen and I can go to bed whenever I want to.

Walking the streets of Budapest, I see so many homeless, wrapped up in dirty sleeping bags or in this weather, just sleeping in their clothes on a patch of grass or a bench. I see them huddled in doorways, in the subways, at bus stations. It’s been a long time since many of them have known the joy of a clean bed and I’m once again reminded of how fortunate I am to live the life I do. Yes, it’s the simplest things in life that often afford the most pleasure.

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

Grateful 24

I checked my mailbox the other day and found a padded envelope, postmarked in the Netherlands. It was open and empty except for a cheese slice. I didn’t recognise the handwriting but had an aha moment when I recalled admiring MN’s slice last time I was in Dublin as it was so much stronger than the one in my kitchen drawer. So I emailed her and thanked her, assuming that she had been thoughtful enough to get me one the last time she was in Holland. She said she hadn’t sent it and suggested that perhaps LN had, as she had just been there. So I emailed LN to thank her for her kindness and she said she hadn’t sent it either, but that she had asked BN to send it to me from Haarlem. In any event, it arrived safely.

This happens to me quite regularly and has been happening on a regular basis for years. I comment on something or say I like something or ask someone where they got such and such and days, or weeks, or even months later, I end up with one too. This type of consideration, the paying attention to small details, the taking notice of wishes expressed and things said in passing is one of life’s greatest treasures.

Whether it’s making sure there’s milk and food in my fridge when I get back from a trip or sending flowers just because, or remembering that I’ve been looking for a good cheese slice, these random acts of kindness go a long way towards making me a better person. Because they are done unto me, I then try to do likewise for others. A virtuous circle.

This week was a difficult one and the appearance of that cheese slice made all the difference. I’m reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:  You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late. And I’m grateful for the reminder that I shouldn’t think twice about acts of kindness or consideration. I should just do it.

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

Grateful 25

CS Lewis is reputed to have said that we read to know that we are not alone. How lovely is that. I can’t remember when I first started reading and I have never really felt alone. My earliest childhood memories are of me curled up somewhere with a book. When I was old enough, and with the blessing of the village librarian, I enrolled both my parents in the local library so that I could get books on their tickets, too. That was six books a week.I progressed from the  Famous Five, the Five Findouters, and the Secret Seven to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. John Buchan’s The 39 Steps was a major leap for me from teen fiction to grown-up books and I’ve never looked back.

Given my druthers, I prefer translated fiction. Somehow what has been written in another language and then translated has an added element of something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s as if I’m getting an insight into a world that by rights I should not know about as I don’t speak that language. I’ve been particularly taken lately with Srdjan Valjarevic’s Lake Como and Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

I’m smitten with Mikey Spillane and his ilk. Raymond Chandler is, to my mind, one of the best crime novelists out there. He has a delicious turn of phrase.  James Lee Burke is one of the most descriptive. I can get lost in the bayous of Louisiana with Dave Robicheaux and feel like I know him personally. Travelling through Italy with Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano is almost as good as being there in person. Spending time with CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake had taught me at thing or two about the Reformation and what Cromwell got up to in his day.Add to this list Jasper Fforde and Christopher Moore, for a trip to the ridiculous through the sublime; Robert Olean Butler and Paul Watkins for a more sober take on reality; the wonderful South African Damon Galgut for his take on post-Apartheid life; and the inimitable Amistead Maupin and his wonderful tales of the city. Dick Francis and Ian Rankin have never let me down. Giovanni Guareschi is the one Italian I would most love to have to dinner. And had I my pick of characters I could meet in person, it would be Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

I have lost myself in all sorts of books. I can while away an afternoon, or an evening, and on occasion a whole day in the company of my fictional friends.  This week, as the temperatures finally dropped and my sanity returned to normal levels, I am truly grateful for my love of reading. I can’t imagine my life without books and the sanctuary they provide.

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

Grateful 26

Week 26. Half-way through the year. It’s hotter than hades here in Budapest and I’m finding very little to be grateful for this week. The blasted heat. Yes, I know Ireland is cold and wet but what I wouldn’t swap for some of that coldness and wetness. Forty-two degrees yesterday. It is any wonder that I’m slowly losing my will to live.

I was in Szombathely last weekend and who did I run into but the bould Mr Joyce. I’d heard tell that there was a town/city in Budapest that translated into ‘bloom’ and was home to some severe Joycean celebrations each June. But, not for the first time, I got the story a little addled and it turns out that it was Leopold Bloom’s fictional father (him being fictional himself) that supposedly hailed from Hungary – Szombathely – and it’s his name – Virag that translates in to flower or bloom. In his novel, Ulysses, Joyce gives Leopold Bloom’s ancestry as Bloom, only born male transubstantial heir of Rudolf Virag (subsequently Rudolph Bloom) of Szombathely . . .

Bridget Hourican writes in the Irish Times that:

Virag means flower in Hungarian, hence Bloom, but it’s a conceit of Joyce’s that Leopold’s father began life as Rudolf Virag. There were Jews in Szombathely called Blum, but never Virag. Laszlo Najmanyi, writer, musician and organiser of the Hungarian Bloomsday, says: “The Blums were big textile traders in Szombathely and members of the family were posted in Trieste. It’s likely that Joyce met them there.” Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Joyce certainly met Hungarians, including Teodoro Mayer, owner of Irredentist newspapers, and one of the models for Bloom. A motif in Ulysses is Arthur Griffith’s Resurrection of Hungary – the history of the struggle for independence from Austria, presented as a model for the Irish. The United Irishman serialised the book from January to June 1904, so of course characters in Ulysses are busy reading it.

Someone took the time to trace the Blum’s old house and erect a plaque over the door that further confuses the Blum/Virág/Bloom issue. I have to keep reminding myself that Leopold Bloom was a figment of Joyce’s imagination and neither he, nor his creator, is likely to be turning in his grave at the apparent inconsistencies. I have no one with whom to share my pain.

This week, as the barometers soar and the heat makes irrationality normal, I am grateful for being Irish. I am grateful that our reach is broad and our influence wide. I am grateful that we have left, and continue to leave, our mark on the world. As the lovely Colin Farrell supposedly said: Being Irish is very much a part of who I am. I take it everywhere with me.

PS – a nice gesture from the Mayor of Poznan after the Irish fans’ performance during Euro2012.

Grateful 27

I have what borders on a mild phobia when it comes to having my photo taken. Fine if I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat – suitably disguised – but if I’m remotely recognisable, no way. Now, depending on which way you look at it, this could be indicative of a general unhappiness with how I look. It could allude to a deepseated belief that being photographed robs my soul of some light (and might explain also why I rarely photograph people). Or it could simply be that I’m contrary and if this is the most extreme example of my contariness, then live with it, people – you’re getting off lightly.

I find myself avoiding large events where photographers are present. If I am there and see an official photographer, I make sure to tell them that I’d rather my photo wasn’t taken. I joke that I’m in the witness protection programme and can’t risk being identified. Many photos taken of me at parties and events show my hand, outstretched in front of my face – like a celebrity fending off the paparatzi. Do I suffer from delusions of grandeur?

Many, many years ago, my cousin was visiting from the UK with some mates. At dinner at home, one of his friends asked who the girl  in the photo on the piano was. When my mother told them it was me, they all looked at me in disbelief. The photo did not match reality. Later, when I was in Anchorage and my passport expired, I needed a new photo. The photographer stood up on a chair and looked down on me, telling me to stick out my chin so that only one of them would show. I did and that photo, too, didn’t match reality.

That I am extremely critical of my appearance, there is little doubt. That I have an image of how I should look I can’t deny. But am I prepared to do something to manifest that image? No way. And I can’t for the life of me understand it. I want to get there. I know what I need to do to get there. But, no. Where is Freud when I need him?

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes to photos of me, be they self-portraits or otherwise, I prefer black and white to colour. I can’t explain it – but I could have fun trying.

This week,  I am grateful that I am still fascinated by how I think and by what I do and by why I do it; that I have not lost my penchant for flights of fancy; and that some of the most interesting conversations I have are those I have with myself.

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

Grateful 28

Yuk. Raw fish! How could you? Back in the days when I was living in Valdez, Alaska, I would fly to Anchorage for meetings and dental appointments. I’d fly up in the morning, rent a car, and fly back that evening. Inevitably, I’d have a shopping list that included tuna fish – to make sushi. One of my first dates with TW,  the man with an insatiable appetite for sushi, was to a chinese restaurant in Valdez that also did…sushi. I still remember my reaction. Yuk. Raw fish! How could you?As for the perfumed ginger and the gullet-wrenching wasabi sauce…

When I worked with AP in London, she would always eat sushi before a flight. And once, again in London, I found myself with a Polish couple making sushi for a dinner party. I didn’t stay to eat. I’ve never understood the fascination with it.

Yet the art of sushi (and I now believe it is an art) dates back to the 7th century, when in Southeast Asia, pickling was discovered and passed on to the Japanese. In a nutshell: pickling=packing fish with rice. As the fish fermented the rice produced a lactic acid which in turn caused the pickling of the pressed fish. Nare-Sushi is 1300 years old and refers to the finished edible product resulting from this early method.

It found a new popularity in the States in the 1970s and became a regular feature in restaurants world-wide. The most common forms are: Nigiri sushi (hand shaped sushi), Oshi-sushi (pressed sushi), Maki-Sushi (rolled sushi) and Chirashi-sushi (scattered sushi).

Last time I was in Malta, I noticed that there are now three restaurants within walking distance of my hotel offering sushi on the menu. So I went to the first – the one that has been there the longest. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and asked the girl behind me in the queue to choose for me. She did. And I stopped by for a takeaway every night that week.

In addition to really enjoying it, I also convinced myself that it was low-fat and healthy and that the weight would simple drop off me. I was wrong there. But as food goes, it is good for you. There are, of course, health risks and there is also a whole etiquette attached to eating sushi. I reckon that, like wine, some aficionados can be awful bores. Me? I simply know what I like.

I spent the last week in Belgrade where it got up to 40 degrees in the shade. I went back to visit the Supermarket and had a great night out with the ladies… oiled by Aperol spritzers and sated by sushi.

On reflection, this week I’m grateful that life is still throwing up new experiences; that I still haven’t done ‘everything’; and that my horizons are continually expanding. I have a good life, I know some great people, and while I might have come to the whole sushi experience rather late in life, I know there are many more new experiences out there just waiting to be savoured.

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

Grateful 29

I have been having the strangest dreams lately. One night, I was trapped in a huge old building and the only way out was through what I thought was a morgue. I panicked as I’d never seen a dead body but was happy to discover that the old people inside were all alive – barely. They were all priests and nuns, though, and to get out, I had to talk to each one of them about their lives. Some had very odd stories – like the priest who used to be a scientist and then changed to hairdressing when he burned his hair in a bunsen burner.

In another dream, I was working for four generations of a very rich family. As I’d talk to prince or pauper and generally like to interact with people, this was okay for  a while. The family had two labrador pups. Animals and me get on – to a point. They don’t bother me and I don’t bother them. I’m not a cat person or a dog person – they’re grand but since losing a succession of pets as a child I’ve remained completely detached. Yet as this dream progressed, I got more and more annoyed with the adults, to the point that I practically despised them and more and more attached to the pups to the point that when one went missing, I walked the streets in the pouring rain to find him and when I did, he was dead and I was devastated.

In yet another dream this week, the cops called to the house to do a routine search for a missing person. In my car they found a letter from a mate in Orkney telling me that I’d have to live with a certain knowledge for the rest of my life – and another card suggesting that I get rid of the knife. Naturally they were curious – but  I was more concerned with them not finding the charcoaled remains of yet another body my mates had given me to dispose of. That one scared me senseless. It was most uncomfortable to be accused of something I didn’t do and very difficult indeed to convince these so-called mates that they had to ‘fess up or else I’d rat them out.

Another night, I was a nurse. I was black, in my 20s, with short bobbed wavy hair. And I had ankles. I didn’t want to work with people, just machines. I was about to x-ray this old man Henry for pneumonia when he fell off his crutches and collapsed. My supervisor (a nasty old cow) told to pick him up by putting my index fingers under his chin. When this didn’t work, I hooked my legs around him and then stood up. He began to walk without his crutches…and then everyone wanted a piece of me.

The night before last, I dreamt that it was around Valentine’s Day and I’d been asked out by two lads, each of whom wanted us to double date with some very odd couples. One was quite young, the other my age. The one my age was very pale and blonde and seemingly harmless. He was being grilled by a concerned mate of mine. My mate was some kind of former South African policeman who asked yer man whether a white card had been taped to his passport. It had. He then proceeded to tell the blonde chap that this meant he was black. There’s nothing quite like a throwaway comment to change someone’s life.

Last night, I was living in this huge old country house, at a crossroads. A bunch of itinerants drove in and set up outside the local pub/garage. The gardai were called and there was bedlam. The sea came out of nowhere and the itinerants turned into pirates. Two chased me inside the house and I was frantically trying to lock doors with no keys, gates with no locks. I ended up in a room full of china with one of them pointing a gun at me.

This week, I’m grateful for my dreams, for whatever insight they’re trying to give me, and for the entertainment value they offer. I’d take my dreams any day over the reality of the Irish boys in Poland and that 4-0 defeat against Spain.

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

Grateful 30

I was born Irish and I’ll die Irish. My nationality is something I used to take for granted. Being Irish wasn’t an issue. It simply was what I was. It didn’t become an issue until I first went to the States. Living as an expat in California was akin to wearing your Irishness on your sleeve – literally. It seemed that the Irish abroad were a lot more patriotic and a lot more… well… Irish… than the Irish at home. Some took up Irish-language lessons. Others joined Irish drama groups. More still started playing hurling or camogie. It was as if moving away from home and being in the minority instead of being in the majority had tilted that patriotic fulcrum to the extreme.

I used to resent people claiming Irish heritage. Why couldn’t they be happy with being American, or English, or whatever… why did they have to be three-quarters this and an eighth that? In my innocence, an innocence bred under the umbrella of a solid uprearing and fixed values, I never really appreciated what it was to be Irish until I started travelling in earnest.Then I saw how universally liked we are. Perhaps it’s our self-deprecation, or our conviviality, or our ability to talk to prince or pauper. Perhaps it’s our humour, or our melancholy, or our sheer pig-headedness. Perhaps it has nothing to do with us at all and more to do with the celluloid image immortalised by the forty shades of green, the Quiet Man, or the infamous Jack Doyle. Who knows.

Last Monday evening, I sat with hundreds of others in the stands of Ferenc Puskas stadion to see Ireland play Hungary in their last soccer international before Euro2012. The match was delayed because of the thunder and lightning. But that didn’t matter. Some say it was the best part of the evening! We were in the only covered stand in the stadium and I had a back row seat so the weather didn’t bother me. I barely knew anyone on the team. I have little interest in soccer but had come out to support the home side. I’m Irish. That’s what we do.  In the pub afterwards, I managed to disagree with most of the post-mortems, quite happy to have a scoreless draw and no injuries. A classic case of very little knowledge being a very dangerous thing. The craic was good – so good that for a while, it felt like being at home. And then it hit me. Irishness – being Irish – is a state of mind. It travels with you and is not tied to any one place.

Brendan Behan, a favourite author of mine, reckons that other people have a nationality but that the Irish and the Jews have a psychosis. And perhaps our sense of reality is a little distorted and perhaps the sky is a little too green in our world – but it is a lovely world in which to live – and a lovely identity with which to travel.

This week, as the temperatures rocket and the heat brings out my bad humour, as I watch my list of things to do grow longer, as I start scheduling lunches in July, I am grateful that here, in Budapest, there are people (Hungarians as well) who know  what it is to be Irish – and I am grateful that I know them, too.

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