Grateful 31

A dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must attend. So said Ward McAllister. Do you know him? No? I didn’t either. Apparently he was an American celebrity who lived from 1827 to 1895. He coined the phrase ‘the four hundred’ (am wondering now if that’s what Budapest’s bar 400 is called after?). In his mind, only 400 people in New York really mattered; those who felt at ease in the ballrooms of high society. (‘If you go outside that number’, he warned, ‘you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.’) Regardless of his snobbishness and his appearing to be something of a prat, I tend to agree with his view of a dinner invitation – once accepted, it is sacrosanct.

I like having people to dinner. I enjoy setting the table, bringing out the good cutlery and the crystal. I enjoy thinking about the menu, wondering how creative I can be with what’s in the fridge. I enjoy figuring out the guest list. Who will get on with whom? Who will have what in common? I like the idea of introducing people to people they might never otherwise meet. I like the camaraderie, the civility. Most of all, I like how it transports me in time to somewhere other than today.

That might sound a little odd. For me, dinner parties are a form of escapism. Not that I have anything in particular that I want to escape from – I have a grand life. But there’s something other-wordly today about bringing a group of people around a table for dinner – in your home. Yes, we all do it in restaurants and bars. But at home, it’s different. More personal. It requires more thought, more effort, more involvement. The very nature of our lives these days dictates that most of our public living is done in public spaces – on Facebook, in chatrooms, in bars – and although we may know many people very well, it’s interesting to stop and wonder how many of them have we visited at home.

At home in Ireland, this isn’t an issue – because it’s home. My friends know my friends; my parents know my friends; my friends know my parents. Here in Budapest, though, in expat life, it gives me pause for thought. Although we have extended social circles and know lots of people, although we connect regularly with our myriad acquaintances, how many of them know where we live? How many have been invited inside?

Earlier this week some friends left Budapest and others told me of their plans to leave. Both couples have been to dinner at mine. This weekend, I had another dinner party. And it ticked all the boxes. Good food, good company, good conversation. As this week draws to a close, I am grateful to those who humour me by joining me for dinner. I am grateful to those who give me a reason to cook and an opportunity to engage with another world.

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

Grateful 32

I was in Ireland last weekend for a First Communion. My nephew’s. The style was something to behold. Young girls dressed up to the nines, complete with parasols. Young lads in three-piece suits and flash ties, hands in pockets, doing great imitations of their dads. Mums in high heels, calves stretching under the strain. Dads in the open-necked casual Miami Vice look. A regular fashion show in which the First Communion took a meagre second place.

I’ve been told that I’m a ‘pick’n’mix’ Catholic – one who chooses which part of Roman Catholicism suits me – and which I’d sooner leave alone. I don’t agree with the Church’s stance on homosexuality. I don’t think that a Church, which was ultimately fashioned by man, should be so exclusive. My God doesn’t pick and choose who should be let in. I have similar problems with the Vatican having so much money when its people around the world are wondering where their next meal comes from. My God encourages sharing of wealth rather than hording. I am a practising Catholic insofar as I go to Mass every Sunday and on the few holy days that haven’t been moved to Sundays for the general convenience of a busy public. It doesn’t matter than I don’t understand the sermon – I know the prayers by heart – and it’s a rare priest these days that has something to say worth listening to. But my week is simply not the same if I miss Mass.

In the church, the kids were very well behaved. It was their big day. It was the parents who showed a complete lack of reverance, treating the occasion like a family reunion. In the line to receive Communion, two dads were laughing out loud discussing at full volume whether hands should go right over left or left over right. Then one said with some authority: right over left because everyone knows that Jesus was left-handed – it’s written in the bible. No silence. No solemnity. No sacrament. No clue what was going on. Most probably hadn’t been in a church since they were married.

My parents say the rosary every night. When I’m home, I say it, too. And I know that I am the last of that particular generation. I’ve been brought up in the Catholic church with a set a principles and values that have been instilled in me over the years – not by lecture but by example. Some I never really owned; others are very much a part of who I am.

This week, I am grateful for how my parents reared me – for their example, their respect, and their unfailing faith in God and in me.

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

Grateful 33

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. So said Robert Louis Stevenson light years ago and methinks the man has a point. I like to drive. My hand is first up when volunteers are sought to drive from A to B. I have fond memories of driving over 300 miles to play 36 holes of golf while living in Valdez, Alaska. When I’m in Ireland and have access to a car, I’d happily spend the time chauffeuring just about anyone. No reason necessary. I had high ambitions as a teen to be a long-distance trucker and crossing the States on Route 66 is on my bucket list.

I like to travel by train.  I can get up, move around, choose whether or not to engage in conversation. Looking out the window is like watching a giant movie screen – no better example of life imitating art. I like to travel by plane, too, and would like it even more if it wasn’t for the baggage-related angst and the heightened sense of loneliness that occasionaly hits when it seems that everyone else is being met off the plane but me.

I wonder though, if the best bit about travel is coming home. Putting my key in the front door. Dumping my bags. Hoping the fridge fairy has been to stock up. Checking on my girls and being glad that they’re all still alive. Making a cuppa. And looking forward to getting between the sheets of my bed.

This week, as so many people the world over face another night on a cardboard mattress wondering when and if they’ll see another cup of coffee,  I give silent and fervent thanks for having some place to come home to. I realise that home is a state of mind  and that part of me still qualifies Ireland as ‘home home’… yet this is serious: I’m actually thinking of a Hungarian Christmas tree this year (and it’s only May!)

(Note: to read the concept behind the Grateful Series – check out Grateful 52)

Grateful 34

Mention Six degrees of separation and many of us will think Kevin Bacon and his claim that he has worked with everyone in Hollywood. The game,  Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, is based on the hypothesis that anyone, anywhere, can find a connection with another person through a chain of acquaintances with no more than five links. Few people realise though, that this idea was first proposed back in in 1929 by Hungarian writer, Karinthy Frigyes. In his short story Láncszemek (Chains), one of the characters suggests conducting an experiment in the form of a game to prove that the notion is  true. Revitalised by the Kevin Bacon Game, this notion of six degrees of separation has led to other interesting studies such as one in 2008 dealing with artists in residence in Budapest and the Balaton. Another spin-off is the ABC programme The Karinthy Connection.

I was asked recently how I knew someone and as I traced back the connection (which reads something like: Pat knew Paul who knew Peter who married Paula who worked with Patricia who live in the flat downstairs), I stopped to think of the many good friendships I have today that have their origins in random chance. I’m going to dinner tonight with P&B, good friends of mine here in Budapest. I met P because M suggested I might be able to help him out with a project. I met M because K suggested we should have a coffee (we’re both Irish). I met K because E wanted a second opinion on a project. I met E because I happened to sit beside B in a pub one day in Budapest.  And I was in Budapest that particular time because of J.

When I think of the myriad tiny, seemingly insignificant things I’ve done, and how they’ve affected my life, it makes me wonder  for instance, what, life would be like today had I not made that trip to Budapest. Where would I be now? What would I be doing? Who would I be with? One thing’s for certain, I wouldn’t be going to dinner this evening at P&B’s.

At the end of what’s been a rather hectic week work-wise, one with lots of challenges, opportunities, and appointments, I am grateful that, back in 2007,  I took the time to say ‘hello’ to J. Who would have thought that it would lead where it’s led.

[Note: Curious to know the origins of the Grateful series? See Grateful 52]

Grateful 35

Punctuation, public speaking, and the use of the English language are three topics that will get me on my soap box any day of the week. This weekend, in Valtice, I saw something that would put a lot of English-speaking expats to shame, myself included. As I struggle to master the basics of conversational Hungarian, these seven competitors gave speeches in a second language – (for some it may even have been a third or fourth language). And we’re not talking elementary here, dear Watson. Far from it, in fact. They spoke on topics ranging from how our garbage is a mirror of ourselves, to the importance of motivation when it comes to leadership, to a future where kids might wonder where the little star Twinkle Twinkle has disappeared to.  They reminded us not to think of ourselves as failures but to show those those have labelled us as such how wrong they are. They challenged us not to listen to our inner naysayer but instead to give full volume to our positive inner voice. They urged us to break the rules – to be different. And they showed us how one moment of carelessness can change the lives of many.

While the pedant in me quivered a little at the sometimes less-than-perfect construct of the language, I was impressed with both the confidence and the competence of these speakers. While I might take issue with semantics that tell me what I should do rather than show me why I might consider doing it, I was humbled by their ability to communicate with such passion. While I loathe the narrow constricts of an international judging system that rewards a formulaic approach to public speaking restricted to inspiration and motivation, I was pleasantly surprised by the intelligent and sophisticated use of humour.

I make myself understood in Hungarian by miming – miming punctuated by short phrases and lone words; this stage of seven made themselves understood by using complete sentences – fluidly, fluently, and frequently faultlessly.  I pat myself on the back if I can get through a two-minute phone call with my társasház; this stage of seven spoke from 5 to 7 minutes with pride, purpose, and conviction. I spend too much time bemoaning the faltering standards of today’s English language amongst its native speakers; perhaps I should spend more time recognising the huge strides being made by non-native speakers instead. Their colourful contributions in terms of their creative and innovative use of English would enrich the basic vocabularly used by many who speak it as a mother tongue.

In a week that was fraught with fear, frustration, and feelings of fragility, I am grateful to all seven speakers for reminding me of the beauty of the language I love and inspiring me to try a little harder with my Hungarian.

[Note: Post Grateful 52 explains the Grateful concept]

Grateful 36

One of the nicest things in life is home-cooking. And of all the home-cooking there is, Sunday lunch is probably the most special. That time when two, three or four generations come to the table and stay a little longer than usual, talking about the week just gone and the one about to unfold. In Ireland, when I’m home, we have roast lamb (my mother spoils me). In Hungary, when I cook Sunday lunch, I, too, have roast lamb (if I’ve been lucky enough to find some). Last Sunday, for the first time, I ate rooster.

The poor thing can rest in peace knowing that his every last morsel  was cooked and eaten – from his comb to his feet to his balls – nothing was wasted. Many moons ago, an eco-friendly cook urged me to buy whole poultry and not just legs and breasts and thighs – she pointed out the wanton waste involved in piecemealing chickens and geese and ducks. And it never really hit home to me until I saw this rooster, in his entirety, sitting atop a bed of boiled carrots, parsnips, celariac, and swede. He was the basis for the soup, which we put together ourselves by adding some noodles, some veg, some meat, and then covering it all with broth and a tiny piece of hot paprika.

Next up was the pörkölt – with yet some more of our friendly rooster, served with homemade noodles and pickled vegetables, cucumber salads, and beets. Everything from the garden – including the homemade horseradish (the best I’ve ever tasted).  I’ve seen the effort that goes into making these noodles and I’ve suffered the resultant pains from trying (once!) to make them myself. Respect Mrs Sz. Respect. I bet if I’d sneaked a look in the kitchen bin last Sunday, there’d have been nothing much to see in the way of packaging. I could literally taste the freshness.

At this stage I was wondering where it would all fit. I toyed with the idea of a quick jog up the street to make room for more, but it was raining. So I suffered blissfully through the rántott hús (breaded meat) flattened to within a centimetre of its life (poor chicken). Served alongside delicious shredded potato cakes and a gorgeous salad with eggs straight from the chickens in the yard – possibly even from the same chicken! Look at how yellow those yolks are.  I could have quite contentedly plopped myself on the couch with this bowl on my lap and whiled away the afternoon idly contemplating the meaning of life between scoops. But I’d seen the heaped plates covered in tinfoil that Annus néni had brought with her and I had a sneaking suspicion that dessert lay just ahead.

And I was right. Coconut squares and apple tart.  Coconut is somewhat of a novelty here in the pastry business (as in this is only the second time I’ve come across it: there’s a pastry shop in District VIII that is quite famous for its coconut somethings). But it was the apple pie that made me think I’d died and gone to heaven. For once I was glad that Hungarians add tejföl to everything. Now, my pidgeon Hungarian meant that my direct questioning of the cooks was limited to listing out the ingredients I recognised, and then adding a stray és (and) and looking quizzical when I needed some blanks filling in. It worked. I have the recipes. What I don’t have is access to their back yard and garden.

This week, I’m grateful for the fact that even though I’m 1894 kilometres from my mother’s Sunday lunch table, there are those in Hungary willing to open their homes and invite me to pull up a seat to join them at theirs. Ezer köszönöm.

[Note: Post Grateful 52 explains the Grateful concept]

Grateful 37

For the last ten days, I have shared my space with one, two, at times three men who were attempting to revive my aging woodwork and repair the damage I did to my walls when Feng Shui demanded that I rehang my pictures. For the most part, we got along just grand. I turned a blind eye to the dust and the dirt and gave thanks that they at least covered the furniture before starting work. I played musical beds as they moved from room to room and I got used to stepping over chairs and books and bags to get to my kettle. I told myself repeatedly that it would soon be over.

The work that I do to pay for this painting is rarely accomplished in one day. There are few finite tasks that I can start, work through, and finish in a day. Most are part of a continuous chain of events, just one link in what will develop into something tangible months down the road. It’s rare that I get that sense of satisfaction from completing something. So when I was presented with a mound of door handles and key plates to shine and polish, I was ecstatic. Completely engrossed in my work, I didn’t notice the hours go by. The satisfaction I got from seeing my face reflected in the surface was positively orgasmic (well, not quite, but nearly!)

So, instead of looking at the inches of dust that have accumulated over the last few days and screaming silently at the thoughts of making them disappear; instead of looking at tiles and parquet that need to be resusscitated and groaning at the back-breaking work that will involve; instead of dreading the loads and loads of laundry that lie ahead of me and the accompanying ironing, I’m actually looking forward to it all.

Now that might well say something about the state of my social life – but hand on my heart, this week, I’m grateful that my flat is a tip. I’m grateful that I will have two solid days of the kind of work that offers immense satisfaction. A begining, a middle, and an end. And no, I wouldn’t want to do this for a living – but every now and then it’s good to do something concrete – something where you can see the difference your work has made.

[Note: Post Grateful 52 explains the Grateful concept]

Grateful 38

I woke up on Monday morning with a feeling of disquiet that I just can’t shake. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m confused. I don’t know my arse from my elbow. I’m two month’s behind schedule with my dissertation which is due at the end of June. I’ve yet to start it. I have workmen in the flat so the place is covered in dust. I’m covered in dust.  I would sleep for Ireland – and for Hungary – if I didn’t have to be up at sparrowfart each morning to let the lads in. I’m sick to the back teeth of politics. I’m sick to my stomach of rude, petty-minded people who can’t punctuate. And I’m just plain sick from all the chocolate I’ve eaten this week.

I’m annoyed that I haven’t yet managed to learn Hungarian. I’m annoyed that I can’t read my mail with any degree of accuracy. I’m annoyed that I can’t find artichokes in water in this city. I’m sad that I lost my best mate. I’m sad that some people use the adjectives formidable and intimidating to describe me. I’m sad that Rory McIlroy didn’t feature in the Masters even though I picked Bubba Watson to win.

I’m angry that Orban is nationalising all recycling companies in Hungary come January 2013. I’m angry that petrol is so damn expensive. I’m angry that I can’t find my black onyx ring. I’m upset that I keep crying and keep crying because I’m  upset. I’m frustrated that I can’t finish anything I start and so have stopped starting anything at all. I’m pissed off, fed up, and mad at the world. And it’s Friday.

And right in the middle of a major hissy fit today brought on by something as serious as me breaking a fingernail, I remembered a poem by Rod McKuen that I memorised many moons ago:

It’s nice sometimes
to open up the heart a little
and let some hurt come in.
It proves you’re still alive.

If nothing else
it says to you–
clear as high hill air,
uncomfortable
as diving through
cold water–

I’m here.
However wretchedly I feel,
I feel.

This week, I am grateful for the simple fact that I feel.

[Note: Post Grateful 52 explains the Grateful concept]

Grateful 39

Some years ago, I was considering moving to Haarlem in the Netherlands. High up on the list of reasons why I should was the abundance and year-round availability of inexpensive cut flowers.  I had visions of an airy house, with a garden, lots of windows, shallow-stepped stairs, and every room sporting its own vase of fresh flowers. Instead I moved to Budapest where fresh flowers cost a small fortune. My favourites, white gladiolas, can cost as much as €4 per stem and by the time they get to Budapest, they’re well open and I’m lucky if they last three days.

Mam got these flowers for Easter – 30 yellow tulips. And they’ve opened beautifully. If I could paint, I’d have the easel up and the watercolours out. But I can’t, so I had to make do with a photo. They’ve given me pause for thought though.

Many years ago, I dated an Australian whose weekly grocery list included a bunch of flowers. When I first discovered this curiosity, I was rather surpised as my boyo was a bit of a man’s man doing manly work. But I had no trouble getting used to it. A good mate of mine in Scotland sends me flowers on occasion – much to the amusement of my neighbours, who are at their wits end to discover where these flowers come from and who the mysterious P is (I’m sure they’re human enough to have peeked into the little message envelope).

In today’s world everything seems to be disposable. It is getting harder and harder to find that perfect gift for people who seem to have everything they need and are clueless as to what they want. Flowers are the answer. Is there anything more cheerful than a dash of colour in a vase, be they a simple bunch of wild flowers or a designer bunch of carefully chosen stems put together by a trained hand?

This week, although my head is all over the place and I’m questioning the very essence of life, it was this bunch of flowers that reminded me that life can be over analysed. While everything happens for a reason, sometimes it’s not necessary that we know why. Sometimes, simplicity is everything. While we might need to make decisions that will change the very nature of how we live, we don’t have to do it this very minute. Today, I took time to smell the tulips and give thanks for everyone in my life who has, a some stage, shared some flowers with me.

Grateful 40

Last night I heard that my best friend had died. She’d been trying to get hold of me all week but my phone wasn’t answering. I had been trying to get hold of her, too, and kept leaving messages on her voicemail that she never received. The last conversation we had was to plan my visit to the States to see her next month, once her mom had left. I’ll never see her again and that saddens me. It hurts so much to think that she’s no longer in my life – and I know if she could speak to me, she’d tell me to get a grip and stop crying and go do something constructive.

Lori's cherry tree

So today, I went to the orphange to see Norbert and while we were there, we planted some fruit trees and some shrubs in the garden. I named one of the cherry trees ‘Lori’ and know she’d approve.  She always was fond of cherries – particulary if they were floating on a cocktail. It was a wild and windy day. The sun struggled to come out and didn’t make an appearance until we’d finished. It was bloody cold at times, too. But everyone was in fine form. Just over three hours of back-breaking work (damn, these cameras are heavy) and all the trees and shrubs were planted. We met a few of the locals and one chap, bless him, said something to me in Hungarian that was unintelligble, walked up to me and gave me a big smacking kiss on each cheek – how did he know it was just what I needed.

We went inside to see Norbert and to look at the bed we will be replacing from the money we raised at the Gift of the Gab. When I looked at him in his cot, everything settled and I got some perspective. Things happens for a reason and while I can’t make sense of why Lori died, when our lives have run their course, that’s it. I was very fortunate to have known her, to have loved her, to have been her friend. My life is all the richer because of it. I’ll miss her dreadfully and although she’s no longer at the other end of a phone, part of her will still live inside me.

Some of those good people

That there are those less fortunate than me, I have no doubt. That there are good people in the world who are willing to devote their time and resources to make the world a better place, I am certain. That life is for living and every moment could be our last, I am mindful. Today I am grateful for having something constructive to do. For being able to make a difference, however small. For the company of good people (and a great dog). And to Lori – I will be forever grateful for the memories. May you rest in peace.