I don’t spend nearly enough time on rooftops

Venetian pavement 2009

A man walks up Krúdy Gyula utca carrying a pair of chopsticks… No joke. I was stting outside Fictiv enjoying a Saturday evening constitutional, and had his progress in full view. Eyes down, he would stop very so often and use the chopsticks to prise coins from the pavement joints. What a way to make a living. Two memories came to mind: one of this footpath in Venice and another of the start of the old Mary Tyler Moore show.  In stark contrast, she always walked with her head held high. Her view of the world was slightly different to most.

(C) Steve Fareham

Back when I was living in London, S&P came to visit. We were wandering around Piccadilly as S wanted to see the Piccadilly divers. I was convinced she was raving. I have a thing about statues, and couldn’t believe I’d missed something that obvious. I was sure she had the wrong address. But there they were. My problem? I’d never taken the time to look up.

While in Zagreb last year, I spent an amazing afternoon at the cemetery and took lots of carefully chosen photographs. And yet, just last week, when looking for photos, I came across one I don’t remember. I remember taking it, but I don’t remember seeing it.  I don’t remember it being so deep.

Looking at another of Kerényi Zoltán’s photo albums, perspective comes to mind, yet again. Taken from the rooftops of Budapest, they give a completely different focus to the city. I though I knew the city well, but there are some vantage points that I cannot place. I’ve probably passed them a hundred times but have never seen them from this particular angle. I don’t spend nearly enough time on rooftops.

As Ani Difranco said When I look down, I miss all the good stuff. When I look up I just trip over things. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Over before it began

Two memories collided last week to bring a slight halt to my gallop and give air to a peculiar vulnerability that I share with Stephen Fry.

Many, many years ago, when working with the Bank of Ireland in Dublin, one of the lads in the office made a throwaway comment to the effect that my death would make the headlines. It was simply not in my nature to ‘go gentle into that good night’. Every now and then something happens to remind me of this.

A few years ago, Dublin Bus found its sense of humour and introduced some signage onto night buses that gave tourists cause to think that pole dancing was the new  fetish among Irish women. That, too, stuck in my mind. I have a distinct memory of trying to convince the inimitable Mr Evans to have an ‘open pole’ night at his Club here in Budapest. I’d even gone so far as to suggest Tuesday nights at 10pm. I figured that there had to be some other women my age who harboured fantasies of performing on stage – just once. A bucket list thing.

Sadly, Mr Evans has moved back to the UK so that avenue has closed. However, the lovely MI, remembered hearing of this dream and signed me up for pole-dancing classes here in the city, in the shadow of the Synagogue. No special clothes needed. So, other than the initial cost of the classes, no further financial outlay was required. I was curious, and, dare I say, a little excited, about giving this a go. Apart from anything else, it’s supposed to be great exercise – a blessing in a somewhat unusal disguise. Apparently I would learn techniques that require muscle strength, balance, flexibility, and  strong body coordination. And half of Hollywood’s A list has had poles installed at home.

I turned up. On time. The first shock to my system was the bevvy of beauties waiting in the rather cosy reception dressed in briefer-than-briefs briefs and shorter-than-short shorts. And tanned. All of them. All over. No special clothes….mmmm…  my spaghetti-strapped top and my tracksuit bottoms would render me decidedly overdressed. But I had made it this far. I was attracting some curious side-long glances but put this down to the fact that I wasn’t a native, tanned, twentysomething…

We changed. And after a few self-conscious minutes where I failed miserably to fade into the background and was trying instead to adapt the nonchalance I’d recently come to associate with Stephen Fry [I’ve just finished his latest autobiog], the class began. The room was walled in mirrors. There was no escaping me. For the warm-up exercises, I focused directly on the instructor, watching her every move as my limited Hungarian wasn’t up to following her spoken instructions. So closely did I watch that I’m sure I could have been had for static stalking. But I did ok. Not the most graceful swan on the river by any means, but I held my own and did just fine.

Then came the poles. You could circle them easily with your thumb and index finger. About 4 metres high, each one was secured by four bolts into the floor and another four bolts into the ceiling. One was a little loose. The instructor, all 40kg of her showed us the first series of moves  – she reached up and caught hold of the pole, arm fully extended and then, feet off the floor, swung herself around and around until she landed. All her weight was suspended by her wrist as she floated through the air like a ribbon on a maypole. It was then that I started to flashback to those headlines. I had 25kg on the person closest to me in size and was overwhelmed with a vision of the roof falling in as my pole collapsed under my weight, killing all and sundry. When they cleared the rubble, they would find my hand still attached, and my father would know what I’d been up to.

Now, were I less self-confident, I’d have stayed in the class and tried to muddle through. Instead, I excused myself, and left. I’d lasted twenty minutes; long enough for me to draw a pencilled line through that particular bucket list entry.

In a fashion that is a little like cleaning the flat before the cleaner arrives, I figure I need to lose 20 kg before I next attempt to hang out of a pole – be it on the Night bus to Swords or wherever. So, I did what I’ve been threatening to do for years – I bought some gym shoes. One step at a time.

Violent milk

Just 30 km from the Balaton in the direction of Kaposvár lies the little town of Somogyvámos where  Krishna Völgy (Krishna Valley) sits. Its 260 hectares houses a cultural centre, an eco farm, a village (complete with temple and school) and 150 Krishna devotees committed to living in accordance with the ancient Vedic scriptures. When I mentioned to  Foodie friend of mine in the UK that I was going to visit the Haré Krishnas at home in Eco Valley, she immediately started talking about milk. Here in Hungary, as at George Harrison’s old mansion in Hertfordshire in the UK, cows enjoy a sacred life. There is a strict no-kill policy. No matter how old, how decrepit, how useless, the animals live out their natural lives…and do so quite happily, it would seem.

Each animal has its own name. I was personally introduced to Radhika and fell madly in love. (Don’t tell me you’re surprised?) Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Haré Krishna movement, set up farm communities almost from the git go [and there I was thinking they simply danced in the streets]. His idea of ‘simple living, high thinking’ is realised by the community in Krishna Völgy who are striving, in so far as practically possible, to be self-sufficient. Srila Prabhupada, like all persons so inspired, apparently had a stock of quotable quotes – morsels of wisdom that might, on first hearing, seem somewhat inane, but on deeper reflection, capture huge concepts in tiny phrases. You can’t eat nuts and bolts. No, you can’t. A simple statement – but think of what it implies: by being dependant on  bulls and cows, by working the land in order to be self-sustainable, and by protecting these animals in harmony with the natural laws of God, Haré Krishnas utilize this life in a conscious fashion [the keyword for me in all of this is ‘conscious’].

But back to the happy cows and their gifts of milk, butter, curd, yogurt, and cheese. And don’t forget the urine and the dung, both of which are used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Dung is also used as fuel for cooking and many believe it to be a powerful antiseptic [others disagree]. Late last year, the Guardian ran an article on two extremes – a proposed new 8000-head dairy farm and a small farm of just 44 cows and oxen (on the aforementioned former home of Beatle George Harrison). And, having discovered ahimsa [slaughter-free] milk, they asked a panel of experts to do a taste test between it and supermarket milk. No surprise which won.

So, I met the cows here in Hungary (one even gave birth the day I was there) and they are beautiful. And with each one having its own name, they’re very real. My granny had a farm and I’m well used to cows and calves and cows calving. Some had names but as kids, we were never encouraged to get attached to them as one day, we’d most likely be meeting them at the kitchen table. Talking to cows as if they were, well,  human, seemed a tad peculiar. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering at the innate human kindness that has been subversed to a greater or lesser degree in many of us, all in the name of progress.

I started reading up on ahimsa milk [according to the website: no bulls or cows were slaughtered or exploited to produce it] and discovered that this isn’t quite what it says. Ahimsa (Sanskrit: Devanagari; अहिंसा; IAST ahiṃsā, Pāli: avihiṃsā) is a term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violencehimsa). And can there really be such a thing as ahimsa milk? According to Dusyanta dasa, picking a carrot and feeding it to a cow who is producing milk is violence by the human and the cow… ergo the milk cannot be non-violent (ahimsa).

Oh yes… I can see eyes being rolled to heaven and can hear vague murmurings of ‘she’s lost the plot’. But no, I haven’t stopped drinking supermarket milk – it’s not practical for me to do so. But I do think of Radhika as I drink it. And I am convinced that if we were all just a tad more aware of what we do and a tad more willing to accept responsibility for our actions, the world would be a creamier place. mmmm….might milk have become my metaphor?

When rugs were rugs

Ah – do ye remember when a rug was a rug and not a hair piece? When the back seat of every car in Ireland was covered in a rug or, at the very least, every car boot in Ireland had one tucked away for emergencies. When picnic rugs were part and parcel of a day at the beach or a walk in the fields or an afternoon by the river. Back in the days when simplicity was king, attention spans were longer, and people had interesting things to say. Back before we needed to be plugged in to function. Remember those classic old tartan rugs with the fringes that you could plait and unplait? Or the fancier herringbone ones that lived on the back of couches or over the arm of an easy chair, just begging for a cold winter’s evening? Or the rugs than seemed to come free with every wheelchair and stick like a second skin to very old person you knew?  [Sweet mother of Divine Jesus, when did I get so old?]

And then rugs were cast aside, unceremoniously, in favor of the fancier-sounding ‘throws’ or the ubiquitous duvets. Fashion crept in and things had to coordinate. We started to value things for how they looked rather than for what they accomplished. Tough, sturdy wool was relegated to the back of wardrobes or the attic in favour of softer, synthetic materials. Fashion won out and the only rugs being sold were made of human hair and came with a free pot of Brylcream. But now, as we find ourselves dusting the cobwebs off sensible words like frugal, hard-wearing and solid, rugs are making a comeback. At Bath Farmers Market recently, Amanda Bell from Featherbed Trading was doing great business where tradition and fashion merge using bright colours and contemporary design. Had I not been travelling with RyanAir…

An aunt of mine, God rest her, the proud owner of a selection of tartan squares, was very fond of wrapping me up and proclaiming me ‘snug as a bug in a rug’. Apparently, this originated with Benjamin Franklin in 1769 and he later went onto use the same phrase in a letter to a female friend whose squirrel (which he called Skuggs) had died, suggesting the following epitath (1772):

Here Skugg
Lies snug
As a bug
In a rug.

I think it’s now official. Am losing my mind. If I can get this nostalgic about a squirrell and a rug, think of what a stick of rock would do for me…

On being a Murphy

Murphy, apparently, was an optimist. Murphy’s Law has been translated into every language known to man – even Hungarian. The fact that Murphy is generally taken to be a fellah probably stands in my favour and reduces the pressure on me, a mere woman, to follow in his inglorious footsteps. Yes, yes, I know all about the positive psychology angle. Think positive thoughts. Choose your reaction. Smile and the whole world (even that cranky cow in the Lehel tér csarnok) will smile with you. But sometimes, a good, old-fashioned wallow is in order.

GB Shaw, one of my favourite dead Irish men, reckons that the secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation. To which I say, ‘load of crap, George’.  I have no problem occupying myself but yet I seem to be hurtling towards a mid-life mope of gigantic proportions and find myself unable to apply the brakes.

Manly Hall reckons that it is only a step from boredom to disillusionment, which leads naturally to self-pity, which in turn ends in chaos. I’m not bored. I am a little disillusioned, which may explain the self-pity and make the chaos a refreshing antidote for what ails me. Truth be told, I’ve sod all to complain about and, in the grand scheme of things, live a blessed life. I mean, when I meet the likes of Patrick head on outside Bath train station….

…I have to stop and think.

My red-headed Scotsman

I’ve just spent the most glorious couple of days in Co Clare with a tall, red-headed Scotsman who goes by the name of Hamish Macbeth. (Did you know that Hamish = James in English and Séamus in Irish?)  We spent hours sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Diamond Rocks in Kilkee. And he gave me a lot to think about. Hamish lives in Lochdubh, a tiny village in the highlands where he’s the local policeman. And quite refreshingly, he’s completely devoid of any ambition and has passed up promotion on numerous occasions to avoid moving to the city. And no, this isn’t just an excuse for laziness or lack of perceived success. He’s one of the few truly content people  I’ve come across and my reaction was quite interesting. We have a lot in common, even if I don’t understand half what he says when he’s wound up – that sibilant Scots-English sounds like a foreign language. He’s a romantic at heart and like myself, goes through a rapid  fast-forward framing of all possible scenarios on first meeting – and I think we both do this subconsciously. Tall. Check. Nice chin. Check. Well read. Check. Sense of humour. Check. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. Check. Honest. Check. Considerate. Check. Doesn’t slurp. Check. Doesn’t have to have his shoes invite his trousers down for tea. Check. Finds Terry Pratchett funny? Couldn’t possibly spend the rest of my life with him.

So as we sat contemplating the rocks, I got to thinking about life in the highlands. I’ve always had a hankering to live in Scotland and have been known to fall for a red-headed Scotsman before. But would living in the wild purple yonder do my head in?  The village has Internet so I could work there. It sounds idyllic. Long cold winters, just like Alaska. Reasonably mild summers so none of the August heat of Budapest or Malta. Plenty of fishing. Just a few tourists. Mind you, I’d probably live there for 20 years and still be an outsider but at least I’d be an Irish blow-in and there’s already an Irish recluse living in a croft just outside the village so I’d be in good company. I’d have lots of time to write and I might even take up baking. Inverness is not far away so I’d always have a flight out.

Would life married to the local copper in a small village be a little like living in a fishbowl? Yes. Most likely everyone would know my business but as Oscar Wilde once said – the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. What about the animals? A dog, a cat, and a flock of sheep… with some chickens. Not quite a farmer’s wife but am sure I could adjust. There’s something very appealing about collecting fresh eggs for breakfast. And something even more appealing about the highpoint of the social calendar being the village fete. Would I go mad? Probably.

As I closed the last of the four MC Beaton books that I’d read in quick succession, and said a temporary goodbye to Hamish Macbeth, I found myself wanting to stop the world and get off. I’m too young to feel so old. There has to be places left in the world like Lochdubh and people like Hamish Macbeth who know what it is to enjoy the simple things in life, to be happy with what they have. MC Beaton isn’t an award-winning crime novelist. Her plots are far from tightly knit. Her continuity editor does a poor job of catching her inconsistencies. And yet for all that, the pictures she paints of Hamish and his village are wonderfully simple. Perhaps too simple. And yet it is so tempting. Where’s that stop button?

Who the f!*$ is Basil?

Like a lot of things in Malta, the graffiti is contained… contained mainly to underpasses and skate parks. The island is not awash with colourful murals, insightful snippets, and entreaties to vote this way or that. And like so many other things, its absence here underscores its presence in , say, Budapest, or Subotica, or Belgrade.

I quite like graffiti and the liberal concept of the external walls of our built environment providing a ready-made canvas for urban artists. Admittedly, just as paper will take any print, walls will take any paint, and a lot of what is written should have been left in the spraycan. Declarations of undying love and affection alongside racist and derogatory comments have no place on our public walls – but colourful murals, invocations of hope, morsels of wisdom… by all means.

Somewhere in Malta there’s someone with some large stencils and a spray can. They sign themselves off as Basil and write not just on walls, but on pavements, like this one, beside the Church of our Lady of Mount Carmel in Balluta. It gives little in the way of clues as to Basil’s identity. Sadly, the minds of many generations have been destroyed by madness. I wonder what, if anything, can be read into its proximity to the Catholic church.

Closer to the university, Basil strikes again. A little more personal this time. And again, I have to wonder if Basil just happened by one day with the spraycan and stencils and decided to pick on this particular wall, or if its location, right by the University, says more about the message than the message itself? Now some might argue that the artistic merit in these messages is minimal, if it exists at all. How hard is it to use a stencil. But then how difficult was it for Marcel Duchamp to put a urinal in a room and call it a fountain and thereby make it art.

Right now, I can’t get the Smokie song out of my head – Living next door to Alice – Basil, Basil, who the f*&! is Basil?

Flowers behind bars

The older I get, the more I realise how many obsessions I have. Minor ones, admittedly. Perhaps more fixative than obsessive. And the peculiar thing is that although I’ve had them for years, I’m only now noticing them. Take my thing about flowers behind bars.

 

Subotica, Serbia

In Subotica the other day, I found myself taking the long way around to pass a bunch of lilies behind an iron railing. The sun was doing weird things to the petals, creating a ghost-like shimmer that seemed quite fitting, given that the flowers were growing next door to the church.  I was having a particularly ‘fat’ day. I’ve been off off the cigarettes since 1 May (and yes, I meant to put two offs there). I’ve been off them before but not seriously. It’s as if my body knows it too, because, true to fact and form, I’m piling on the pounds and wondering why I’ve given up something I like to become something I loathe.That old story of a skinny girl trapped in a fat body comes to mind – and perhaps that’s what the bars spoke of.

Modica, Sicily

If you want to join the ranks of pedantry, you’d point out that these are lemons, not flowers, but a fence is a fence is a fence. I remember once measuring a three-day hike in terms of the number of lemons I’d need given that I was carrying a litre bottle of gin and an ample supply of tonic. When did I grow up and get sensible? When did I become so serious? When, I wonder, did I start measuring life in terms of deadlines and meetings, airports and airplanes, invoices and reports? How difficult would it be to turn back the clock, rip down that fence and set those lemons free?

I’ve never been a great one for roses. Perhaps I overdosed on fairy tales as a child and had my fill of Rose Red and Rose White. Maybe their association with Valentine’s day has morphed into my subconsciousness and manifested itself as a synonym for commercialism, materialism, and all the bad -isms associated with money. There was a time, back in those wonderful days when I had time, that I would go regularly to Bratislava. I was looking in some silly, romantic way, to get a sense of what it was like to live  during the Cold War and Communism. For me, walking out of that train station is as close as it gets, off-celluloid. I want somehow to get a sense of a time I was never party to; to get a glimpse of what like was like from behind the bars. And yet, quite laughably, we build our prisons. The fences we erect around our little patch of life, fences that keep us in once place (perhaps figuratively rather than literally), doing one thing; fences that somehow shape our vision of who we are. And inside these fences we grow, regardless of those self-imposed limitations. Others looking in see the beauty that we ourselves have long-since disregarded and when they point it out, we dismiss them and their opinions as inessential.

Pliskovica, Slovenija

Perhaps it’s open roses I don’t care for. Ones that have yet to bloom still have that sense of what might be. That sense of wonderment. Something to look forward to. They’re not jaded by life and work and that ever growing list of have-tos. That increasing sense of obligation that comes with so-called maturity. That weight of responsibility augmented by dependency. For them, anything is possible. Youth is on their side and life is rolling out ahead of them, ready to be shaped and molded to their liking. Not for them the daily battle of wills, the fruitless fight against the establishment, the struggle just to start what will fast become just another day.

Budapest, Hungary

I wonder when this fascination started? What triggered this strange collection in my subconsciousness? Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness – the ugliness of captivity. Or even scarier, the representation of having given up – of somehow having decided to settle for life as it is, with all its limitations. Or worse again, the recognition that I’ve bought into the mass mania that values the external manifestation of beauty above anything else. Or maybe I just want a cigarette.

Behind closed doors

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – or so said Aldous Huxley, a man who died before I was born and a man I’d very much like to meet, if for no other reason than for him to explain my fascination with doors.

Someone commented quite recently that I never take photos of people. I don’t like posed portraits and I feel that taking someone’s photo without asking them first is quite invasive. And if you ask them, they invariably pose and we’re back to the portrait thing. This comment prompted to me to take a look at what I see when I have my camera; if I’m not shooting people, then what I am shooting? What are my obsessions? One is flowers behind bars and another, oddly enough, is doors. Judging by the number of photos of doors (sometimes half a dozen of the same one from different angles, and in different light) I would seem to have a bit of a door obsession going on.

Zagreb, Croatia

I have vague memories from my TV days of quiz shows where you could pick what was behind one of three doors, so perhaps my preoccupation has something to do with the endless possibilities that lie behind a closed door. Maybe it’s something to do with that feeling of exclusion – of being on the outside – waiting for a knock to be answered or waiting for the key to get in. And then the ensuing feeling of inclusion and belonging when you do manage to get behind it all. Or perhaps it’s the secrecy. My parents’ generation wisely cautions that one never knows what goes on behind closed doors. What might seem enviable from the outside looking in, could be light years removed from reality.

Wakkerstroom, South Africa

Until you actually open the door, you’ll never know for sure what’s behind it. Until you take that blind leap of faith and open that door, you’ll always wonder what might have been. And even if what’s behind the door is not what you’re looking for, or anything close to what you expected to find, the adrenaline rush alone is worth it! That deep breath before the ‘here goes nothing… and everything’ is probably the sweetest one you’ll ever take.

Then again, maybe it’s not the doors I’m obsessing about at all… maybe it’s just the colours!

Cat owners more intelligent than dog owners?

Cats provide countless hours of entertainment. Look at this fella. One of the resident cats at my local Botanical Gardens. He was locked out of the building but bound and determined to get inside. It was hilarious to watch. We all know cats are very intelligent. Just watch that old B&W movie about the old woman with a house full of cats. Her relatives kill her to get her money and then her cats take their revenge. I remember one of her sons/grandsons in the bath and the cat pushing the radio into the water. It was the scariest movie I ever saw which is why I’ve blanked the name. Anyone any ideas?

Anyway, it gave me a healthy respect for cats. And research published in February 2010 shows that cat owners are more intelligent than dog owners… honestly. That’s what it says!