Smiling Jack

Smiling Jack – a living legacy

Sometimes you don’t get quite what you ordered for breakfast. Sometimes you get a helluva lot more. I ordered pancakes and coffee and got Smiling Jack. Read more

Indian Fry Bread – positively orgasmic

I had a list of food I wanted to try during our California/Arizona road trip. At the top of it was a bacon cheeseburger from In’n’Out in LA.  The second was prime rib, which I managed twice – once in Phoenix and a second time in Maricopa. The third was a carne asada burrito which we managed in Torrance, CA. The fourth was a trip to the Olive Garden – that one I never made. But something I hadn’t expected and didn’t even know about was Indian Fry Bread. Read more

Made in America Buck Williams, Williams AZ

2019 Grateful 47: Made in America

Wandering around Williams AZ shortly after 8 am on a Friday morning, I spotted a rare sight. A man smoking. It was such a novelty that I went to join him. We’d been stateside a week and he was maybe the third person I’d seen with a cigarette. Ah no, you say, you’re not back smoking? I’m not, but I have the odd one when I feel like it. And sure amn’t I on my holidays. Anyway, this particular cigarette would prove to be the most interesting one I’ve ever had. Read more

Valentine's Day, London Brige, Lake Havasu

A Valentine’s Day to remember

Sad really. Neither of us could remember what we’d done for the last three years on Valentine’s Day. Nothing memorable obviously. Himself would rate himself as more of a romantic than not, but perhaps in thought rather than in deed. Pragmatic runs to my core – romance is the stuff movies are made of. That said, I always appreciate flowers, no matter the occasion, but having surreptitiously checked whether a dozen long-stemmed roses would fit in the console of the rental car, I nixed even voicing that wishpectation. Read more

2019 Grateful 48

It’s Sunday night. I’m sitting at the table in the Jungle Mansion. One of their 13 friendly local raccoons is messing around outside. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s an unseasonable California. The talented SRP is playing the piano. She’d asked what my favourite piece was. I didn’t have to think. Panis Angelicus. She’d not heard it before, but went online, downloaded the sheet music, and played it. Beautifully. Such unpretentious talent is humbling. Read more

2019 Grateful 48 – Fr Hilary Tagliaferro

January has been a busy month. I was in Hungary doing communications/public speaking workshops each Tuesday and then doing the same in Ireland each Thursday. My brain is addled. I’m now in Malta gearing up for more of the same. I’ve been preaching the importance of vocal variety, eye contact, body language, facial expressions, gestures, pauses, voice projection and the myriad other elements that go into good communication and watching participants improve week on week. All very rewarding. Read more

Swan in the road

Trash talk

We went looking for holly the other day, down by the lake. It was glorious – one of those magical brisk winter days when the sun plays hide-and-seek and the fields are half-planted, half-ploughed. The wind couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to do and for a few seconds, we were caught in a leaf storm as it whipped through the trees trying to tear the last of their leaves from them. They fought a good fight.

leaf storm

The colours were of the stuff no artist could capture. In one spot – a narrow neck of water between the fields and the island – Kányavári sziget – the water was trying to freeze. It was humbling to see the broad rough water in the distance to the right, the little ripples by the shore and then in between, the still, glass-like effect of ice in the making. Such is the multifaceted power of nature.

Kis-Balaton icing over

Kis-Balaton icing over

It’s recycling week in the village. On Thursday, we can leave out our paper and plastic for pick-up along with the regular rubbish, so I grabbed a yellow bag (plastics) just in case we happened across any litter on our walk and we set off. We decided to drive to Hídveg and then walk the bike path back to the island. But I missed the turn. And I’m glad I did, because there, in the middle of the road on the bridge, as brazen as you like, was a massive swan. He was busy cleaning his feathers, standing on one leg, neck turned under, oblivious to us. I crawled closer waiting for him to look up. And he did. And then he went back to what he was doing. I beeped the horn. He looked at me again, this time in disdain as if to say, get real, I’m busy. I drove slowly around him to the right and he did move, ever so slightly to the other side of the road. I turned around to come back and faced him again. But this time, he wasn’t going anywhere. No way. Not moving. It was a first for me. I’ve seen elephants, cows, chickens, monkeys, dogs, horses, donkeys, pheasants, deer, moose, pigs – you name it – but this was my first road-hogging swan.

Swan in the road

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

On our walk, we found the usual flurry of litter – plastic water bottles, beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and the remnants of black plastic bags. I had to concentrate on my breathing to avoid getting really pissed off at the people who’d so carelessly trashed the place. I’m really making an effort to reduce the stress in my life and to stay the anxiety, but it’s a struggle when inconsiderate, thoughtless people, make it so difficult. Seriously! I was blaming the cyclists who use this path until himself (a cyclist) reasoned that they’d be unlikely to carry 1.5L bottles. Okay, so not the MAMILs but the tourist pedallers then. But it doesn’t much matter who did it, it simply shouldn’t be done.

A new addition to the litany of litter is the wet wipe. Duh, people, these don’t disintegrate in the rain. They’re not biodegradable. You shouldn’t even flush the ones that say they’re flushable. Remember back when plastic bags were free and the world’s collective environmental consciousness was comatose? You’d see bags hanging on trees like ornaments. So plentiful were there that at times it looked as if they were a fruit. Well, now that we’re doing better with our bags, the latest foliage is the wet wipe. Don’t worry – I had my litter gloves on. We almost filled our large plastic bag – I stopped counting at 20 bottles and as many wet wipes and am still wondering where the second sandal is and why I found just one sleeve of a faux-leather jacket. At one stage I wondered what number I’d call if I found a body.

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

As we walked towards the lake, I saw this big piece of pipe, just sitting there. That nearly set me off completely. Whatever about thoughtlessly casting aside a water bottle or answering nature’s call and leaving the wet wipe behind, carrying stuff into the woods to deliberately dispose of it – that’s a hanging offence in my world. But himself, ever rational, pointed to the end of the pipe that was buried underground and suggested it was part of some irrigation system using water from the lake. Alright, I suppose, but it looked ugly and out of place and upset my sense of being.

If you’re out and about walking round the Kis-Balaton, or anywhere really, think about taking a rubbish bag with you. Picking up after others isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but don’t think of them, think the critters who could do without eating or getting ensnared in our waste.

Years ago, Mother Patrick, a nun who taught us in primary school, asked us how long it would take to sweep the streets of Paris. We guessed days, weeks, months even. She said 10 minutes – 10 minutes if everyone swept outside their own doorstep. The countryside doesn’t have doorsteps. It has visitors. Be a sweeper. Make a difference.

Thai food

2018 Grateful 9

I like to eat out, to go out for dinner, to have a long lazy lunch. I am a great fan of early morning breakfast meetings. I like my food. I like the occasion of it all. But eating out day after day? After a month away, the novelty soon wore off. The menus all looked the same. Rice. Noodles. Coconut. Chicken. Beef. Shrimp. When JS told us we were going for pizza on a Friday in Chiang Rai, I baulked. It was early days. We weren’t even two weeks into our four-week stay and I was still appreciating the difference in Thai food. Pizza? How bloody American! But I went. And I enjoyed. Immensely.

Yes, you can find your French and your Italian, even on small islands like Koh Yao Noi. You can find pizza joints and steak hangouts in the bigger cities, too. But you have to look for them. And look hard. I’m sure if you had a kitchen you could get creative with the local market offer and turn out some nice dishes sans rice or noodles. But after a month of sameness, I began to appreciate what I regularly take for granted.

I live in a diverse part of the world. Ireland more so than Hungary, perhaps. Yet in both countries, I can find pretty much any kind of ethnic food I crave. Supermarkets offer all sorts of ingredients from all over. I’m not restricted to rice and noodles. I don’t think I’ve really ever appreciated the breadth of choice that’s on my doorstep and the contributions that migrants have made to the culinary offer here and beyond. When they move, they bring with them part of their home country. Speciality shops open to serve the growing communities and the local fan base eager to try their dishes benefits.

When we landed in Budapest on a Friday afternoon, my first port of call was to KFC. Yep. Fine dining it ain’t but there’s a comfort that comes in a bucket of wings that far outweighs their nutritional value. It’s my go-to food when I need to be wrapped in a hug of familiarity. For the next few days, I was all about Hungarian stalwarts, thanks to some lovely chicken and bean dishes cooked up by the inimitable ZsG. The first day back in the village, it was pork ribs from the travelling butcher, something I’d been craving on my travels. I was back to normal. All was good.

But then, oddly, when it came to inviting friends to dinner, I wanted to cook Thai. I’d been to the Asian shop near Fővám tér and stocked up on the myriad ingredients needed to do the recipes justice. I had my notes from my time with P in Chiang Rai and the cookbook from the class I took in Chiang Mai. I was set. And while I didn’t think my Lad Na tasted quite the same as P’s, they liked it. In deference to their tastes, I’d substituted sweet Thai basil for spicy Thai basil in my Pad Kra Prao (making it something else entirely) and it was delish. Thai cooking is all about flavours. A teaspoon of this, a tablespoon of that, and more of the other. Sugar is used to temper the spice. Sweet and sour work well together. There’s a balance to it all. 

I’m grateful this week that I could have a taste of Thailand at home in a small Hungarian village with four people, from four different countries sitting to the table. That’s my world.

motorbike in Thailand

2018 Grateful 11

I’ve never been so grateful to have faith, to believe in my God. I needed Him this week more than I have in a long time.

Sitting on the back of our Thai motorbike, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago, when living in California: God on a Harley. High literature it ain’t. The hunking-up of Jesus (just call me Joe) didn’t sit too well with me. But I remember that for all its kitschiness, it repeated the basic tenets of good living.

  • Live in the moment
  • Take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others
  • Don’t build walls
  • Be real
  • Everything is possible
  • Keep it flowing – if you get/have then give

This week, in Thailand, I read Barry Dunning’s account of how religion is waning in the west and waxing in the east. From my experience over the past month or so, Thailand has a very active religious population. Compared to the half-empty pews of Irish churches, temples and mosques are relatively full. One argument in the comments section noted that the richer we become, the less need we have of religion. I wonder.

Surveys and census tell us that an increasing number of young people say they have no religion. I find that incredibly sad. If I had no faith, no god, to whom would I turn in times of crisis? In whom would I trust? I need to believe and while I recognise that this isn’t for everyone, it is very much the case for me. Call it what you will. Disparage me. Think me mad. But I’d be lost without my faith.

On Koh Yao Noi, the only feasible way to get around is by motorbike. Each day, we’d take off, somewhere. Himself would drive. It’s been on his bucket list for a while. I’d ride pillion, hanging on for dear life, repeating my mantra – Oh most Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in Thee. I mantra’d myself into a fugue and thanked the good lord every time we arrived at our destination unscathed. We only ditched it once. No harm done.

Other drivers. Other bikes. Flash rains. Potholes. Muddy patches. Ruts in the road. Old machines. Old-lady racers. None of these made for a relaxing journey. Relinquishing control didn’t help either. But then, I’ve been so scatty lately that I didn’t have much faith in my hand-eye coordination and I didn’t want to drive myself.

Although helmets are mandated by law, few locals wear them. Few tourists, either. But I insisted. We might be puttering along way under the speed limit being overtaken by 10-year-old veterans, often three or four on the one bike, but I had to have a helmet. Last month’s concussion is too recent to have been forgotten.

I know I was being selfish. Himself wanted to release his inner ‘Easy Rider’. It can’t have been easy for him to see the kids whizz by but thankfully, he’s not one to care much about what others think of him. So each day, for a couple of hours, I’d stay home and let him away, to go as fast as he liked, to lay flat turning those corners, and be lighter on the brakes going down those steep hills. I’d stay home, praying that he’d come back in one piece and trying to decide if I’d bring back his body or just cremate him if he didn’t.

He felt better. I felt better. And I’m sure God was having a right laugh, used as He is to riding a Harley.

Santiburi, Chiang Rai, visitor or tourist

2018 Grateful 13

I’ve been trying to figure out how long it’s been, he said. Seventeen years, I replied. Almost to the week, I added. Mad really.

Having bumbled around Bangkok, assimilated Ayutthaya, and cooked in Chiang Mai, we arrived in Chiang Rai earlier this week as visitors rather than tourists. And there’s a difference.

Visitor or tourist?

As tourists, we’re at the mercy of guidebooks, search engines, and guest reviews. We read other peoples thoughts on what to do and where to go not knowing if we share similar tastes or ideals or are complete opposites. We make educated guesses as to what we’d like to do and see based on the experiences of others. Perhaps we’re guided by a Top 10 list of things to do or Top 10 list of things to avoid. Perhaps we’re simply into ticking boxes, taking photographs, and then tweeting the world to let them know what we’ve been up to.

Our meals are usually taken with our fellow tourist(s). Our conversations revolve around what we’ve done today and what we’d like to do tomorrow. We become each other’s world. Our phones, giving us audible directions, betray us as strangers. The maps that we fold and unfold mark us as tourists. We’re on a mission of sorts, a mission to see and do and record that same seeing and the doing.

But when we visit friends, even friends we haven’t seen in 17 years, we’re visitors, not tourists. We share their days, their routines. We see places not on the tourist route, places locals go, like a tiny Thai restaurant that only opens on Fridays to serve fresh pizza until they run out. Or a local pub owned by an ex-copper, where you bring your own whisky and buy your soda there. Or a small shop, packed with handmade traditional skirts and shirts and teas and all sorts, where fair trade is a fair deal. We get the inside scoop on protocols and preferences. We get to hear about life and living and how cultures mix and mingle. We get to relax, knowing that if we don’t get to see it this time, we have a bigger reason to return.

So much has changed in both our lives in the years since we last met in Valdez, Alaska. There’s a constant catch-up going on that involves rather than excludes our partners. Backstories become part of the explanations. A mutual appreciation grows. I came to meet one friend and will leave with two. Evening meals have turned into cooking lessons for me. I’ve Pad Thai down, and Lad Ka, too. We will, of course, reciprocate their hospitality when they visit Europe. I’ll need to brush up on my pörkölt and my csirke paprikás and learn a little more about Hungary’s history so that I do the country justice. I’m already looking forward to having them stay.  

So, visitor or tourist? Well, I enjoy travelling. And I enjoy being a tourist. But I prefer being a visitor. This week, I’m incredibly grateful to J&P for being so generous with their home, their time, and their knowledge of all things Thai. Kapun ka.