2021 Grateful 50: Restorative power of reedbeds

A couple of years ago, I considered myself a rational, intelligent woman. I had a handle on what was going on. I didn’t overact. I took things in my stride. But the heady combination of menopause and COVID lockdowns and travel bans and curfews has taken its toll. The speed at which I lose it these days would be impressive if it wasn’t so scary. And in comparison to myriad others, I have it easy. Ye gods! Read more

Rock on, Don!

I can remember the days when my life was full of 21st birthday parties. Then it was engagement parties. Then it was weddings, followed by christenings, graduations, and more weddings. Sadly, nowadays, the milestones are more finite. Read more

Derelict building not far from the North Strand

North Strand to North Brunswick Street

I was in the North Strand in Dublin. I wanted to get to North Brunswick Street. I checked with Google and saw that taking public transport would save me less than 10 minutes, so I walked. And I rediscovered a part of the city I hadn’t been through in years. Read more

Blue Monday

Back in 2005, a publicity stunt by SkyTravel introduced the world to Blue Monday, the third Monday in January, apparently the most depressing day of the year. The chap behind it all, Cliff Arnall, used the following formula to come to this conclusion:

frac{[W + D-d] T^Q}{M N_a}

where W= weather, d= debt, T= time since Christmas, Q= time since failing our new year’s resolutions, M = low motivational levels, and Na= the feeling of a need to take action. I can’t find what D is and have no clue what the units of measurement are. But hey – it’s a formula.

I’ve never managed to remember that this is the day on which I’m supposed to be at my lowest, if I fit the parameters. But I don’t. It’s cold outside. Bitterly cold. But I’m a fan of cold weather as there’s no limit to the amount of clothes you can put on [compare this to hot weather]. As for debt, if I don’t have the money for it, I don’t buy it. Time since Christmas is a given. I didn’t make any resolutions this year so there’s none to fail. My motivational levels are low – that I’ll admit. But then I’ve been carrying bronchitis for 10 days now without any sign of abatement. As for feeling a need to take action? I did leave the house today so that’s covered. All in all, I’ve had worse Mondays.

But perhaps somewhere, deep in my subconscious, I have been preparing for today, Blue Monday. The lovely MI gave me a gift voucher for a Swedish massage for Christmas. Unlike most vouchers, with their 12-month expiry date, this had to be used by January 31st, which made it a lot more likely that I’d use it. It’s a busy month travel-wise and my days in the city are limited so while I might like to think that I deliberately kept this treat to mitigate the moroseness of Blue Monday, truth be told, it’s the about the only day I’m in town in this month with time to spare.

I hiked over to Szövetség u. 2c, in the VIIth district this afternoon. It’s a street I’ve not been on before so there was a certain sense of adventure. As I usually walk up the right-hand side of Rakoczi rather than the left, it was a whole new experience (remember, I’m delighting in the ordinary these days). My appointment was with a Kilencz Sándor. His business card said he was a gyógy- és sportmasszőr (medical and sports masseur). None of this frilly, easy-does-it, gentle rubdown … at least I hoped not. He asked me if I’d had a Swedish massage before. I had to think. I wasn’t sure. I’m bad with labels. He looked a little concerned and told me if it hurt, I was to say. And I said – but only once!

Those of you who followed my Thai exploits will have read about my Thai massage experiences and my eventual delight at getting through an hour without screaming. This was a different sort of pain, though. I couldn’t help wonder why the CIA and MI5 and those sorts of agencies who want to get people to talk didn’t simply employ a kneading of masseurs. The right pair of thumbs could be lethal. Swedish massages come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and I reckon the one I got fell into the deep tissue category. I think he used the full range of techniques from effleurage, petrissage, friction, and tapotement, to vibration/nerve strokes and Swedish gymnastics. And did it hurt? Hell yes. It’s been a while since my muscles have had such a workout. But was it worth it? Absolutely.

I’ve been missing the ministrations of physio RO’D, who moved back to Ireland a couple of years ago and in my world held the title of hardest hands. It’s hard to find a decent massage if you’re after deep-tissue work and need a pair of strong hands that know what they’re doing, Kilencz Sándor is your man.  Namaste is surprisingly bright for a cellar salon. Decked out in turquoise and white, it’s got a sub-oceanic feel to it. Prices are reasonable with a 90-minute massage setting you back 8000 ft (~€25). And you really need 90 minutes to do him justice. There are various deals to be had with a bundle of 5 massages for 35 000 ft and a bundle of 10 for 58 000 ft. He’s definitely worth checking out.

I’ve just made my first resolution of 2019: To make it my business to see him at least once a month. And no, it’s not spoiling myself – it’s a healthy option. From all I’ve been reading, regular massage reduces tension and anxiety and can help relieve depression. And it improves blood circulation and stimulates the lymphatic system. I have a regular lass down the village, but she’s not quite there when it comes to deep tissue stuff. And that’s what I really need. Had I been feeling the effects of Blue Monday, this would have cured me. I’m already feeling better.


NOTE: 21 October – new location – Nagymező u. 60, 1065




Ko Yao Noi bungalows

2018 Grateful 12

We’re more than half-way through our four weeks in Thailand and I’m missing home, just a tad. It’s a peculiar feeling, not one I’m used to. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly I’m missing though. It’s not as if I’m completely disconnected from the world or even travelling solo. I’ve had lots of train time to think and I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’m missing is stuff I do routinely and take completely for granted.

Today is the third successive Sunday that I’ve not been to mass. I’m what others refer to as a pick-and-mix Catholic and perhaps disagree more than agree with the Church’s teachings. But I’m fully aware that it’s a man-made institution and therefore don’t feel bad at all about not subscribing blindly to all its tenets. But going to mass breaks up my week. It marks the end of one and the beginning of another. For a freelancer who doesn’t have a set Monday to Friday workweek, that’s more important than I’d imagined. For the last few weeks, I’ve never been quite sure of what day it is. And mostly, it didn’t matter. But on occasion, when that loss of centre comes to ground, it’s important.

I’m still working. I’m never completely off the clock.  I’m keeping an eye on stuff from regular clients and doing what I can when the Internet allows. Yet I find myself missing it. Wow. That’s definitely something that would never have happened when I was working in the corporate world. I must like what I do to be missing it.

Right now, we’re on the island of Ko Yao Noi having made our way from Bangkok to Ayutthaya by train. Then north to Chiang Mai by train. Then to Chiang Rai by bus, Kanchanaburi by plane and car, and here finally by songthaew, local bus, train, car, and boat. We’re clocking up the miles.  And the experiences.

Today, himself is off exploring the island by motorbike. I’ve opted to stay back and do some work. Sometimes difference needs to be metered by sameness. Sometimes the familiar is more appealing than the new. Sometimes reality is a welcome intrusion.

This week, I’m grateful that I enjoy what I do and get to do it pretty much wherever I am in the world, as long as I have an Internet connection. And while both my offices in Hungary are in the smallest and darkest rooms in the flat/house, I’m getting a kick out of working outdoors, by the water, with a view. Wouldn’t want to do it every day, but today, it’s good.

Catch up on my travel stories on www.anyexcusetotravel.com

Julian – thanks for ruining my weekend

I have a fleeting interest in Internet governance. I’ve read Jovan Kurbalija’s book An Introduction to Internet Governance, a free resource that pretty much explains it all in terms I can understand without being in the slightest bit condescending. I have what I’d call a reasonable understanding of what’s going on in the realm, but I try hard to ignore it all. Because, if I stop to think about it, I start to panic. Not a full-blown panic attack that’s visible to whomever is around, but the more insidious kind that wallows in the pit of my stomach and induces a nervousness that can make me think terrible things.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog for DiploFoundation asking Google to stop doing my thinking for me. That was back in 2012. I’d accepted that this was simply the way the world was headed and I’d better get used to it or emigrate to Eritrea, the world’s least-connected country, apparently – but it does have a dictator. The whole Wikileaks thing annoyed me. I thought it a tad irresponsible of Mr Assange to wantonly damage the fibre of diplomacy, particularly that of a country, which at the time had a president who was doing his damnedest to defer to diplomacy whenever possible. Back in 2013, as one of many telephone conversations were leaked, I worried for a while that the threat of exposure on social media might be enough to influence behavior. Diplomacy, by its very nature, requires discretion and while I’m all for blowing the whistle on corruption, I think some modicum of sense needs to be exercised before taking that deep breath.

Then this morning, I get an email saying that the attached article might be of interest to me, as I have some interest in Internet governance. Curiosity got the better of me. And I read it. And I wish I hadn’t.

Caitlin Johnstone writes of how Julian Assange keeps warning us about AI censorship, and we’re not listening. I’m no great fan of Assange, but he seems to know what he’s talking about. And he has a point about Wikileaks being the equivalent of the Alexandra library – but I still wonder if we really need to know everything…  Anyway, the article linked to this video – and that winded me.

A Daily Mail run by AI? Some might argue that this would be an improvement. But the thoughts of being manipulated without being aware of it, is scary. And yet I’m not stupid. I know I’m being manipulated. But what do I do with that knowledge? Some days, it’s just easier to go along with it. According to Assange:

When you have AI programs harvesting all the search queries and YouTube videos someone uploads, it starts to lay out perceptual influence campaigns, twenty to thirty moves ahead. This starts to become totally beneath the level of human perception.

The idea of Google and Facebook and their ilk as superstates is quite worrying. The idea of them using AI to control the masses is even more troubling. Johnstone summarises it thus:

What this means is that using increasingly more advanced forms of artificial intelligence, power structures are becoming more and more capable of controlling the ideas and information that people are able to access and share with one another, hide information which goes against the interests of those power structures and elevate narratives which support those interests, all of course while maintaining the illusion of freedom and lively debate.

The danger is lurking. It’s out there. I know I should be responsible and give it due thought, but some things just don’t bear thinking about – not on a Friday.

2017 Gratefuls 17 and 16

I was awake every other hour last night having a nightmare of the sort I thought I’d left behind 10 years ago when I signed off from my last corporate job. In my dream, I was working for a large tech company. I’d been assigned to two projects. With two bosses. And both needed work done by Thursday at 5pm. It was Wednesday at 4.30pm in my dream. I had plans that evening (freelance work). There was no way I was going to get everything done for both of them or much of anything done for either. I woke in a cold sweat but fell back to sleep almost immediately.

The next dream chapter had me waking early in my flat and heading into work to see if I could get something done. But the company was on lock-down. It had turned into a prison and I didn’t have a pass. I spent an age trying to figure out how to break into the prison to get to my desk. I woke in a cold sweat but again fell back to sleep almost immediately.

The final dream chapter was me trying to sneak past the wardens (my bosses) and out of the prison. I hitched a lift in an army tank and took off cross-country, barrelling through everything in our path, heading for the airport. Then the church bells went and I woke up. Finally.

It’s been a manic two weeks. Friends from Alaska, the lovely S&LM, were in Budapest for just  couple of days. Plans to go see the Balaton were shafted as their trip was cut short because of a technical issue that grounded their plane in Anchorage. We had one evening and another full day /evening to catch up and see the city. The years melded into minutes. We figured it had been 16 years since we’d spoken in person but that didn’t matter a whit. It was great catching up on who was doing what and taking a step back into a life I’d long since left behind. Old friends, good friends, great times.

That was followed by a weekend of visitors down at the house. The front door revolved; as one party left the next arrived. Taking the time to sit and enjoy the garden, to relax in good company, that’s something I’ve not been doing enough of late. The lovelies V&K brought their dog, Sophie, and while I’m nowhere near ready to take on such responsibility, I’d happily dog sit her any day. That pure, unconditional love and joyous abandon are quite something. And we discovered that the farm track at the end of our garden can be followed clear over to the island. Nice.

After a quick trip to Ireland (work) it was back to Budapest for the Minnesotans, MB&JG, who began their three-week European holiday in Budapest. Deluged by deadlines, I’ve been working during the day and catching up with them in the evenings and it’s been wonderful. Burning the candle at both ends, though, is something I was well able to do twenty years ago, but alas, no longer. Two consecutive nights on the town were enough to dampen my wick. I’ve fizzled out. But we got a lot in – some great dinners, good wines, the Budafok wine festival, Ian Siegal playing in the pouring rain at Kobuci… They’ve left for the Balaton. I head to Ireland again tomorrow – in and out – and then will join them Wednesday to head to Croatia from where I’ll fly to the UK on Sunday for a quick lunch before heading on to Ireland again. In the meantime, every available minute will be spent working. I’m in the middle of a feast, workwise, and just at the point where a famine looks very appealing. But I’m reminded of something SR said to me a few weeks ago – make time for people – they’re not always around. I heard of three deaths in one day this week – and it was a sober reminder that life is fleeting.

It’s a matter of priorities, they say. But prioritising is easier said than done when the projects I’m working on are like babies to their owners who want to be kept abreast of every development and are waiting anxiously to view the finished product. Responsibility to deliver weighs heavily. And the load is exhausting. Am pretty much booked up till late November and then I plan to hole up somewhere and recuperate. Till then, I’ll continue to be grateful for the friends who visit, the work that’s waiting to be done, and the dreams that keep me grounded.


Bled – simply bled

The Slovenian town of Bled is the stuff chocolate boxes were made for. I’d been hearing about it for years as it popped up on other people’s top places to see and having been, I think I’ve been the victim of over hype. Yes, it is gorgeous. And, yes, it does have a history. But it’s a victim of its own popularity.

At one stage in its chequered past, it was taken over by a bank:

From 1809 to 1813, it was included in Napoleon’s Empire as part of the Illyrian provinces, then it came once again into the hands of the Austrian Emperor who returned Bled to the bishops of Brixen for the last time in 1838. With the abolishment of the feudal system ten years later, the estate lost its character of a feudal economic and social unit. In the second half of the 19th century, Bled changed considerably. The characteristic villages of Gorenjska, which had been autonomous units ever since the Middle Ages, were united. Income decreased, and in 1858 Brixen sold the Bled estate to Viktor Ruard, the owner of the Jesenice Ironworks. He kept the castle, the lake and the usable land around it, and sold the rest to the Kranj Industrial Company. In 1882 Ruard sold the estate to a Viennese wholesale merchant named Adolf Muhr, and in 1919 Bled hotelier Ivan Kenda bought the castle with the lake – for the first time the property passed into Slovenian hands. In 1937 it was taken over by the Associated Commercial Bank and finally bought by the Drava Province. During World War II, Bled was used to house the German military and civil headquarters, and in 1960 it acquired the status of a town.

But it is tourism that it has to thank for its recent prominence. And kudos for that goes to a Swiss guy by the name of  Arnold Rikli. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, he recognised the benefit of the climate and the long swimming season. Rikli was one of the avante-garde for natural healing  and it’s to his industriousness that the town owes its stronghold as a tourist attraction.


The island on the lake, with its chocolate-box church is stunning. The castle, perched atop a near cliff is breathtaking. And at night, when the lights come on around lake, it’s fairy-tale material. We ate out both evenings. Once in Ostarija Peglez’n  – a gem of place with a seafood platter so big we both winced at the thoughts of doing it justice. But we did. It’s busy so reserve at table if you plan to eat between 8 and 9pm. The following night, we went for meat – at Grajska Plaza. It’s a little more relaxed and the waiter was in fine form. We had to wait for about half an hour for food as it was all cooked to order and the reasonably priced cocktail menu made it worth the wait. A lovely spot right by the boat dock. They don’t take reservations but there’s a fairly quick turnaround. To get a lake-view table, best leave it till 9-ish.

We rented a boat to get out to the island – €20 for an hour but if you go about 6.30, they’re not too pushed about time, as long as you’re back by 8pm when they close. I felt a little cheated though, as once out there, it was a €6 admission fee into the church. And as a practicing Catholic, I hate paying into churches. Am happy to leave a donation towards the upkeep but don’t make me pay to light a candle. Anyway, we’d left it too late so I had to settle for an ice-cream, which was worth the trip itself, even if I did have to take on a dozen loud hyperactive seniors from China to keep my place in the queue.

As you row out to the island, you get to see some rather fabulous houses that have an unrestricted views of the boatloads of tourists being ferried back and forth in a new take on the Venetian gondola – the pletna boat.  

Bled is lovely. Beautiful. Quaint But it’s way too populated for my liking. We turfed up about 4.30pm on a Wednesday and didn’t have any traffic delays but when we left about 10.30 am on Friday, there was a 3 km tailback coming in to the town, and when we’d arrived back the previous evening about 5.30, there was an even longer tailback leaving. A popular spot. Time your comings and goings to avoid the frustration. And be warned, hotels charge per person not per room – so do the math.

Next time, I’ll do my homework. I can’t believe I missed these cemeteries, assuming, of course, I’m taking gravesite to mean graveyard… perhaps it’s a lot more subtle – the kind you have to trip over to see.

A number of gravesites are well known: Žale – the site of the modern day cemetery (archeologically excavated in 1894), the park at the current Vila Bled (1929), the necropolis in Želeče (1937), the large necropolis at Pristava pod Gradom (1948 to 1951), the gravesites next to the current parking area below the entrance to the castle (1960, 1968) and the necropolis on Bled island (1962 to 1966).

It’s a lovely spot, Bled, but be prepared to share.


2017 Grateful 41

My, my, my. What a week that was. I’d say there are a lot of sore heads in Budapest this morning and a lot of bods draggin’ ass at work. The St Patrick’s festivities kicked off on Thursday evening with the annual National Day celebrations with the Irish Embassy. I was on best behaviour because I was doing a TV interview on Hungarian telly later than night and I had to be enunciating clearly. Nerves being what they were, I decided to do the make-up thing. The lovely BS came by and put my face on before I went out. It was hilarious. People were fascinated by my glasses: at least five men asked me if they were new. (They’re three years old this week.) They knew something was different but couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

The embassy gig is a good place for catching up with people you’ve not seen for a while and meeting someone you’ve never met before. Like the lovely Fr Mike, a priest from Louth who has been here for 12 years. His is the second Mass in English I’ve heard of this week. There’s also a new 5pm one on Sundays in the side chapel of the Basilica. From there it was down to the studios for the big interview.  I could get used to having my hair and make-up done! All went well. I enunciated and this time, actually answered the questions I was asked.  It was a live interview from Akvárium, from what was being billed as the First St Patrick’s Festival in Budapest. Something obviously got lost in translation over the years as this was the 7th St Patrick’s Day Parade and the 11th Gala dinner. The festival has been going on for years. Someone’s invitation obviously got lost in the post. Hungarian Irish Celtic Rock band Firkin were on stage and raising the roof but the outer bars and rooms were remarkably tame. Not a patch on the real event on Sunday.

We strolled over to Jack Doyle’s afterwards for a nightcap, as you do, and proceeded to put the world to rights. With all things Irish looming for the weekend, we took a breather and headed to Barba Negra for the first time to see PASO in action. The Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra are brilliant. Mad. And exhausting to watch. These ska guys bring fitness to a whole new level.

Saturday evening came early. Dolled up in long dresses and tuxedos, we headed to the Mariott for 6pm to watch Ireland break England’s winning streak in the final of the Six Nations. The 11th IHBC St Patrick’s Gala dinner really brought out the glam. More than 200 sat to a dinner of smoked salmon and rack of lamb and were entertained by the inimitable John Murphy (no relation) and another Hungarian traditional Irish music band – Green Spirit. I was on the mic – MC’ing. And I got to make a plea for my charity of choice these days: Mamasotthon. I was blown away. In make-up again, I managed to hold back the tears because I didn’t have the wherewithal to go about fixing runny mascara. Half the tombolo (raffle) proceeds were going towards buying an industrial washing machine for mums and kids taking refuge from domestic violence in the shelter. After my speech, a couple I know well, the Ps, came over and told me to pick out a machine and they’d pay for it. Another chap wrote an IOU for 5ook. A local artist donated the proceeds from the sale of some of his work. and the tombolo itself raised 477 000 huf. It was a fantastic result that will change the lives of many for the better. And this is how we make lasting change. One step at a time. Kudos to Duncan, Andrea, & Co., for making it all happen.

It was a late night. A very late night. The next day, Sunday, began with a full-Irish breakfast for 8 and then the parade. The 7th in Budapest. Seems like only yesterday that this whole thing kicked off.

It’s a tremendous feat of organisation. Kudos to Mark, Anna & Co., for pulling it off. The venue was brilliant – the new Instant location on Akácfa utca. Some of the musicians I saw were fab. [Did anyone catch the name of the bank with the female lead singer/guitarist (Melinda???) that played around 7.45 in the inside courtyard?]. Unfortunately, by this stage, the bug I’d picked up in Cuba had morphed into a full-blown head-cold and I was dying. There’s only so much green lemonade I can put away when I can’t hear myself suck through the straw so I called it a night and was home by 9pm.

So much to be grateful for this week. A visit from an old friend (and a new ambassador for Budapest – how can you not love this city?). The generosity of good people that will make such a difference to the lives of others. Surviving a packed social calendar that would push a younger me to the pin of her collar. All good. Knackering. But good.

It is with fond memories, too, that we remember Ronnie Thompson, for so many years a regular at the parade and now joining us from heaven. Here’s too you!



Caution – scissors and artists at work

Pick an airport. Spot a passenger with a home-fashioned cardboard tube. Chances are, they’ve been to Cuba. Artists and their artwork are alive and well and covering the canvases. And the tourists are eating them up. Us included.

To the left of the Prado as you walk up towards Parque Central from the Malecón, you can see the back of the beautiful Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio. It was here that the Cuban writer José Martí was christened in 1853. Plazuela de Santo Ángel, and its surrounds, is a lovely little neighbourhood, quite European in feel with lots of cafés and restaurants spilling out on to the cobblestone streets. Wander up and down Compostela and take a peek into the myriad galleries and you might just see an artist or three at work.

This warren of streets are easy to get lost in. Ditch the map and enjoy. It’s quite spectacular. I particularly liked Barber’s Alley, with its wall art and what appeared to be a homage to hairdressers! It involved a large sculpture of a scissors. Further investigation revealed just that. Thank goodness for Google.

Papito (known in Havana as the Daddy of hairdressing) turned his house into a hairdressing school. The idea? To teach young people in the neighbourhood a skill they could use. And he did it for free. He wanted to change the street in which he lived, rejuvenate it – and he did. Another amazing man making a difference. 2016/2017 is the year of a global appeal to collect old, used hairdressing scissors which will be attached to a massive sculpture of a scissors to make unity among stylists around the world. That was the scissors I saw… Check the video. Am kicking myself that I hadn’t known this when I was there – I’d have visited Papito’s.

And when wandering the streets, don’t forget to look up. There’s another world going on up there, too. I got so caught up in the whole artist thing that I began to convince myself that I’d read about a Cuban artist called Taller. I saw loads of signs showing studios where I fancied he’d lived. I even made a note to check him out when I got back online. But a search revealed nothing but a Guatemalan architect. And then the paintbrush dropped and splattered my ignorance all over the show. Duh. Taller is Spanish for workshop. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I got this far without making a complete hames of life.

This part of Havana is definitely worth a visit. And if you’re fed up of rice and beans and chicken and pork and fish and want to ditch the Spanish and have some Italian, 5 Esquinas is worth a visit. (Habana #104, esq Cuarteles, +53 7 8606295, facebook.com/trattoria5esquinas). But as I said, ditch the guidebook and simply wander. So much to see in this part of town.