Grateful 41

Malawi and Namibia

One of the best things about working in Diplomacy (however, tangentially) is that delegates get to wear their national dress for formal dinners. We had one such dinner (actually, a simulated dinner in honour of a departing ambassador) as part of the workshop on Modern Diplomacy for Small States this week in Malta and it was simply amazing to see how people turned out.

St Lucia and Montserra

It was a far cry from the usual Black Tie events that see slinkly spangled numbers and pant suits. This was a blaze of colour and feminity and made me truly envious of those who take such pride in their countries and their heritage. I couldn’t help but wonder what Irish diplomats turn up in when they have the opportunity to wear their national dress – or is this a phenomen restricting to the African, Caribbean and Pacific region? Surely not. But then, I did say I was only involved tangentially in Diplomacy, so I can’t say for sure. Is there a practicing diplomat out there who could answer the question for me?



This week, I am grateful for my work and for the fact  that it exposes me to people I would otherwise never meet; to cultures I would otherwise never experience; and to perspectives that I would otherwise never share. It was a pleasure to spend ten days at this workshop and to meet such fascinating, fun-loving, fine people, each of whom shares a pride in their country and a willingness to share this with the rest of the world. Who would have thought that good humour and smiles could be so infectious.

Grateful 42

It’s been a long week and so many things happened to be grateful for. The success of the Gift of the Gab  and the money that was raised for the orphanage. The wonderful rendition of Marie Jones Stones in his pockets by the boys from Madhouse. The fantastic turnout for the St Patrick’s Day parade, a day that culminated in the Gala Dinner. It all wrapped up with the Irish Film Festival’s showing of the Irish SciFi 100 mornings. I had two friends in for the week and saw many’s the sunrise over the course of those few days, staying up till the wee hours sitting around my kitchen table putting the world to rights over a pot of tea and a few cosmopolitans. And for all the friendship and the craic, I am grateful indeed.

But what struck me most over the past week, a week where the Irish were out en masse and the masses were on form, is the sheer versatility of the English language – when it’s in our hands!

The English language brings out the best in the Irish. They court it like a beautiful woman. They make it bray with donkey laughter. They hurl it at the sky like a paint pot full of rainbows, and then make it chant a dirge for man’s fate and man’s follies that is as mournful as misty spring rain crying over the fallow earth. ~ T E Kalem – On Brendan Behan’s 1958 play Borstal Boy, quoted in a Time advertisement, NY Times 17 Mar 1979

There were some classics:
On nervousness: It’s not as if we’re putting hearts in babies – or taking them out! On preaching: You’re not on your high horse now; you’re just on a tall donkey! On Lent: I can’t have sex – it’s lent. Okay so. Let me know when you get it back. On death: He’d gotten very small but he looked very well in the coffin.
On fashion: Sure their skirts are higher than their handbags.
On drink: The weakness in me is very strong.
On meanness: He’d mind mice at a crossroads.
On inquistiveness: She asked it all – breed, creed, and generation.
On beauty: She had calves only a cow could love.
On nerve: He’s not at all backward in coming forward.
On weight: She’s the full of his arms of Irish love.

Note to self: start carrying a notebook.

Grateful 43

It was February 2002. I had just returned from the States and was living in Ireland. It was Six Nations time and Scotland was travelling to play Ireland in Dublin. For those who have experienced this weekend firsthand, there is nothing quite like it. All over the city, after the match, hoards of kilted Scotsmen make their merry way through the gauntlets of jersey-clad Irish women. In dark corners of pubs, you’ll see a gorgeous Scot, eyes shut as he listens to a homely Irish girl blather on about the match, or a gorgeous Irish girl, eyes similarly shut, as she listens to the Scot with a face like the back of a bus, give his opinion of what his lads should or should not have done during the 80-minute on-pitch battle. You see, there is a unique mutual fascination with accents, with each thinking the other’s accent to be one of the sexiest on Earth.

I had been to a rugby match years before when I was dating a chap from the Southside. I wasn’t overly impressed to see these Dublin 4 women painting their nails in the stands as their boys gave their all on the pitch. It was way too poseurish, way too posh for me who had thrown her heart at Jack Charlton and his soccer eleven. But that was 1990. This was 2002. I didn’t have a ticket for the match so I watched it in Northbrook, all the while being coached by my mates so that later I’d be able to hold my own in the pub post-mortems.

We were in Dublin’s smallest pub – the Dawson Lounge – and got into conversation with some Irish lads – D4 heads who had been to the ‘Rock (Blackrock college). I was doing alright, nodding in agreement as they commented on the tries and the whatnots and making all the right noises as they picked the match apart and the players likewise. Then it came time for me to show my colours and ask a question. (To those who say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, I say: you’re wrong!) So, says I, what’s the stringer’s name?

I actually heard a pin drop in the ensuing – shocked – silence. I had thought a ‘stringer’ was some sort of position  – like a hooker, a prop, a flanker.  I hope Peter Stringer never gets to hear of my mistake. It’s haunted me ever since and is regularly pulled out in company to show just how stupid I can really be.

As I said, that was in 2002. Since then, I’ve looked forward to spring time when the Six Nations starts again. I’ve waited anxiously for the Autumn Internationals. I’ve drank manys a sodawater and cranberry or bottle of Bulmers/Magners while shouting at the screen urging my lads on. I’ve drooled over Keith Wood and cried the day he announced his retirement. (To my mind, he’s one of the sexiest men ever to come out of Ireland.) I still don’t know all the rules and I still blag my way through a lot of the half-time and post-match commentary but I enjoy it immensely. I enjoy the escapasim, the patriotism, the unionism (is there such a word?) that comes with a nation united for a couple of hours with one shared aspiration – to do their best on the day. Unlike soccer, it’s not the final score that matters so much; rather it’s the quality of the game, the standard of the players, and the heart that they show.

I’ve been to some memorable matches; I’ve met some great people while bellied up to the bar in pubs  in various corners of the world. I’ve even had a pub open especially for me (in Transylvania) just so that I wouldn’t miss a World Cup match). Some great friendships are rooted in a rubgy match: every year I swap anniversary greetings with a mate of mine that I met during an Ireland/France game in a pub in Budapest and ten years after the Ireland/Scotland game of 2002, I’m still talking rugby with a Welsh mate in Scotland (bloody Wales!!!).

This week, having just seen Ireland give their all against Scotland, I’m grateful for the game of rugby – for the teams, the players, the fans, and the pubs that open around the world to make sure everyone gets a chance to see their boys in action. Whether it came from the Irish tradition of Caid  or the Welsh tradition of Cnapan or the French La Soule, there’s something special about its universality.

Grateful 44

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. So said the inimitable CS Lewis and until this week, I would have had to admit to paying lip service to the word ‘miracle’ which for me, was 80% cliché and 20% faith. And to use a term that has been bandied around a lot this week with the death of Davy Jones (RIP), I’m a believer.

Sometime in January I had a phone call from a mate of mine in America to say she was going to come to Budapest to visit and wanted to see Prague, Vienna, and anywhere else I might fancy taking her. We agreed on February 11 – 29 and I booked hotels, trains, and restaurants, mapping out an itinerary that would keep her busy! I hadn’t seen her since we last met up in Hawaii and was really looking forward to it. We go way back. We’v been through all sorts of trouble and adventures in California and have lived to tell the tale. I’ve grown with her and learned so much from her – she taught me to say the words ‘I love you’ without embarassment. We mightn’t see each other from one end of the year to the next or even talk on the phone that often, but ours is a friendship that just picks up from where it left off without need for apologies or explanations.  She is one of my truest friends.

On February 9, she called to say that she couldn’t come. Her doctor had advised her not to travel. She wasn’t feeling well and needed some tests done but she was still hoping to travel to North Carolina for her step-dad’s retirement in a couple of weeks. We spoke daily. Then she was in hospital. Her liver had failed. They were hoping for a transplant and had a possibility lined up when two hours later, her body gave way. Her kidneys failed, her liver stopped working and she flatlined. We were supposed to be in Prague and instead she was dead and I was on the other side of the world.

They resuscitated her and brought her back, wondering all the while if they’d made the right decision. She spent a week or more in an induced coma, living through machines. The outlook was bleak. Even were a liver to be found, she wouldn’t qualify. She’d always said she’d be the last one standing and part of me just couldn’t accept that she’d give in but I had to be pragmatic. I told friends about her and asked for them to pray to whatever or whomever they had as their god. From Venezuela to Malta, from Brussels to Hawaii, from California to all corners of Ireland, friends of mine who had met her and those who’d just heard the stories, sent their invocations to their gods, made their intercessions, all the time cautioning that a miracle was needed.

I thought about going to see her, talking myself in and out of it a dozen times. Selfishly, I didn’t want my last memory of her to be on her deathbed. She couldn’t hear me – I couldn’t talk to her – and vain as she is, I knew she wouldn’t want me to see her like that. We’d agreed when she first went into hospital that I wouldn’t go until she asked me to come. I had to respect that. Last Thursday, when we were supposed to be in Vienna, I went anyway. With the lovely MI, we lit candles in what churches we could find and said our prayers to our respective gods. And hoped for that miracle.

At the weekend, I spoke to her husband. She was awake. She’d had her third successful dialysis, and while she still had difficulty talking, she was able to communicate with facial gestures. She’s gotten stronger day by day and tonight I finally get to talk to her – to see when I can go visit.

It’s been a manic three weeks of up and downs. That elusive thing we call hope has ebbed and flowed. Oceans of tears were shed around the world as thousands of forints were spent on phone calls that turned into trips down memory lane. The general consensus about the lesson to be learned is that you truly never know the day nor the hour…

This week, I am grateful for the power of friendship – that ephemeral thing that brings people together and unites them in a cause. It is with the power of collective consciousness (call it prayer or whatever) that miracles are wrought.

Thank you all. You know who you are.

Grateful 45

I find myself looking a lot at reflections lately. I know I am prone to minor obsessions but they ususally work themselves out after a couple of weeks. This one, though, has been around for a while. I find the subtle changes that the medium makes fascinating: the wavering introduced to a straight line, the barely noticeable change in colour, the different perspective offered by looking sideways.

I was reminded recently of a fellah who used to come into the bank I worked in years ago in Dublin. His name was Joe Caulfield and he was from Dundalk. He had dirty-blonde hair and always looked like he’d been dragged through a ditch backwards. One particular day, I was really upset about something I’d done (or not done – I can’t quite remember). He asked me if I’d been able to look at myself in the mirror that morning without squirming. I had. He told me then that I’d nothing to worry about – we are our harshest critics. I’ve no idea where he is now or what he’s doing and doubt very much that he knows how those words affected me. That conversation has stayed with me for nearly 30 years. And then, during the week, when I read this verse, I had reason to remember Joe and his words of wisdom.

‘When you get what you want in the struggle for self, and the world makes you king for a day; just go to the mirror and look at yourself, and see what that man has to say. For it isn’t your father or mother or wife, whose judgment upon you must pass; the fellow whose verdict counts most in your life, is the one staring back from the glass. He’s the fellow to please; never mind all the rest, for he’s with you clear to the end. And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test, if the man in the glass is your friend. You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years, and get pats on the back as you pass. But your final reward will be heartache and tears, if you’ve cheated the man in the glass.’

After a week of ups and downs, chaos and quiet, I’m grateful that me and yer woman in the glass are still on good terms.

Grateful 46

I’m in the witness protection programme – or, at least that’s what I tell anyone with a camera within snapping distance. ‘Please don’t take my photograph or videotape my speech or even include me in a crowd shot.’ I can’t lay claim to any native American ancestry so that whole capturing of the soul thing doesn’t ring true. But I simply detest having my photograph taken. I detest seeing myself on film or on video. And I wish that people would respect that. The me that I see in the photo is not the me I see in the mirror. Somewhere between glass and celluloid, I seems to gain three chins and forty kilos.

Not that I’m vain or anything. Well, no more than  might be expected being female and of a certain vintage. I rarely look in the mirror unless it serves a purpose. And there is a skinny woman inside me trying desperately to get out. But despite knowing what I need to do to set her free (eat less, exercise more) and despite desperately wanting to be that person I saw in the skinny mirror at the contemproary art exhibition in Dublin last year, I can’t seem to do anything about it.The last time I remember feeling good about how I looked was in 1994, picking PC up at Seattle airport. That’s a while ago now. And I still have those jeans – this Murphy is definitely an optimist.

I went to my kinesiologist to see what’s up – to see if she could figure out what’s blocking me – why I am so desperate to lose weight on the one hand, and blatanty refusing to do what it takes on the other. We’re slowly making progress in getting to the bottom of it and I’m tentatively scheduling my transformation to start mid-April. You’ve been warned.

So what, you might ask, has all this to do with being grateful? Well, in the grand scheme of things, when my good friends are losing livers, grandkids, jobs, and partners – if all I have to worry about is why I can’t lose a few pounds, then I need to quit my bitchin’ and be grateful that I had the wherewithal to gain those few pounds in the first place.

Grateful 47

Airports are a wonderful laboratory in which to study the human mind and make-up. I am convinced that some people pack their frustrations  alongside their socks and then spend their two hours at the airport before boarding trying to dump those frustrations on someone else. At Malta airport this week, my flight to Munich was delayed by a whopping 26 minutes. It was due to board at 9.05 and when nothing had happened by 9.20, some people were getting a tad anxious. Three men  – one German, one British, and one Maltese – were in particularly irritable moods. They seemed to be travelling individually but were drawn together by a shared frustration. They had connections to make in Munich – that was obvious – but hey – sometimes connections are missed.

The Maltese guy was having it out with the airline staff – he had a business meeting he needed to get to and why was the plane late. Technical difficulties. What kind of technical difficulties (as if that mattered!). Technical difficulties. Then the British guy adds his two pennies worth of a rant and explained that technical difficulties meant that there was no plane and we wouldn’t be flying at all. Then the German, for good measure, starts on about airlines having no respect for schedules and the importance of people.

In the meantime, on the TV in the nearby café, reporters in Syria were telling the world about two explosions in Aleppo that had killed 28 people. I sat between the TV and the trio, as if watching a tennis match. I thought briefly about pointing out to them that all the complaining in the world wouldn’t make the plane appear. I thought about mentioning that the people they were yelling at had absolutely no control over the situation. I thought about showing them the idiocy of their ways: so their plane would be late and they might miss a connection but at the end of the day, they would be alive.

But I didn’t do anything. Instead, I sat back and gave silent thanks that somewhere along the line I’ve learned to put things into perspective. As  Alice Caldwell Rice so famously said: It ain’t no use putting up your umbrella till it rains.

Grateful 48

I spent many, many, years, too many to bear thinking about, wandering the cologne-scented, suited hallways of the corporate world. My contact was limited to those who worked in the same field and very often to those who worked in the same town or city. Opportunities to travel on business were few and far between. Yes, I had the occasional conference but those were usually limited to company employees, mainly European and North American.

In recent years, the scope and variety of my work has changed and now more than compensates for the sizable reduction in income experienced since starting to work for myself. I meet people from all walks of life, living in all corners of the world, doing all sorts of different things with their lives. And it’s an education.

This week, I had the good fortune to hear a presentation delivered partly in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s official languages spoken by nearly 8 million people, mainly in the Eastern Cape but also in Botswana and Lesotho. I’d heard tell of this clicking language but had never actually heard it before and, at the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept. Having now heard it for myself, in person, I’m suitably impressed.

Apparently, there are three types of clicks: dental clicks, alveolar clicks, and lateral clicks. Dental clicks are made touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth all along one side as when saying the l in ‘love’. I was very surprised to learn that I’ve used lateral clicks: that clicking noise I make to get a horse to trot (back in the day…). The alveolar clicks are made by touching the tip of the tongue to the centre of the roof of the mouth, as when saying the t in ‘tap’.

Through my involvement in the Gift of the Gab, Budapest Toastmasters, and TEDxDanubia, I’ve come across all sorts of speeches and speakers. Some leave their mark, some are filed away for future contemplation, some motivate and inspire, and some serve as a reminder of how not to do it. This speech though, was different, serving as it did as a trigger for reflection. It dawned on me that here I was, Irish, living in Budapest, working in Malta, listening to a South African, working in Geneva, giving a talk in Xhosa. How far have I come from the days when guacamole was the most exotic food I’d eaten, Edinburgh the most exotic place I’d visited,  and a Lebanese neighbour of a mate in London, the most exotic foreigner I knew.

This week I am grateful for the choices I have made in my life and pray that I will continue to be able to afford to priortise time and experience over the accumulation of wealth and money in the bank.

Grateful 49

How true the old adage is – you never really appreciate anything until it’s gone. So much is taken for granted and it’s only when something goes wrong that we fully realise how lucky and blessed we actually are.

Shortly before Christmas I discovered that I had a BRVO – a branch retinal vein occlusion – in my right eye (my good eye). The world became cloudy and every time I cried at a Christmas movie, I half expected to find blood pouring down my face. The photographs are amazing – modern medicine is amazing. It is amazing how far we have come and also how far we have yet to go. None of the doctors/specialists I’ve seen can tell me why it happened. The cause remains a mystery. Nor can they tell me if it is likely to happen again.

My vision acuity is 125%. I can see what I focus on – but everything around it is blurred. Reading text is like being followed by a moving wave… and the scary thing is that I’m getting used to it. The treatment is new – legalised last year – an IV injection of something that costs in the region of €1000 per ml. My specialist is reluctant to give it to me as technically I can see very well. Most frustrating but then, at that price, perhaps I’m just as well off.

I need to wait about two months and hope that the blood is reabsorbed into my system and the bruising disappears. It could take as long as a year. My initial fear on diagnosis gave way to irritation and frustration at seeing the world through a foggy lens, and is now settling down to the stark realisation that I have little other choice but to adapt. And it could be a lot worse – at least I can still see. On the days that it doesn’t bother me as much, I have a new appreciation for my sight. And on the days when I can’t see very well at all, I have a new appreciation for my sight.

This week, out of all the things I’m grateful for, I’m grateful that I can still see.

Grateful 50

High up there on my list of New Year’s resolutions is to stop being so preoccupied with age … and in particular, my age. For too many years now, I’ve been using it as some sort of yardstick – a measurement of how I should be, when really all I want to be is who I am. One of the beauties of moving around so much and re-inventing my life over and over again was the mental process of rebirth I went through each time I moved to a new city or country.

Those I count amongst my friends range in age from 23 to 95 and yet, although I have no problem with other people’s age, I find myself regularly joking about my own: about increasing the average age in the room when I enter or pointing out that I’m old enough to be someone’s mother. What have I been missing? A recent (and extremely painful) visit to my accupuncturist fixed some loose wiring in my psyche to the point that I no longer ask someone’s age and no longer offer mine unless directly challenged.

Out for drinks this week after a very successful Gift of the Gab, that broad hunk of British, KF, stated in no uncertain terms that he was older than me. I can’t quite remember how it came up in conversation but I sensed that he, like me, is regularly thought to be younger than we actually are. He had that tell-tale certainty about his assertion. Not one to resist a challenge, I asked him how much he cared to wager that he was not. Others around the table told me I’d lose – they said he was older than he looked – way older. I handed over my driver’s licence and suffice to say that my favourite charity is now 10,000 huf richer. I was highly amused at people’s idea of old and how relative that is. And I was gratified that everyone showed just the right amount of shock and horror at their poor judgment.

As this week draws to a close and I struggle to decipher the mess that Hungary finds itself in and get a handle on the work that’s been piling up all week, I’m grateful to those who keep me out until the small hours of the morning and make me laugh and keep me young. I could be run over by a bus tomorrow… and then it wouldn’t matter how old I was.

And as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: The age of a woman doesn’t mean a thing. The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles.