An introduction is in order

Many, many years ago, in another life, an old friend came to visit me in Anchorage, Alaska. We spent a week or so travelling around, me showing him my world while catching up on what was going on in his. He left one day while I was at work. When I came home, there was a box on my kitchen table with a note thanking me for my hospitality. Read more

2014 Grateful 3

Standing on a mate’s balcony the other night, having an illicit cigarette, I was struck by the silence in the city. It was freezing cold, biting. A few lights on in neighbouring flats showed signs of life but not a peep escaped to the outside world. Such silence in a city the size of Budapest is rare, and in its rarity all the more wonderful.

One friend told a story about meeting a chap in Hong Kong who loved Simon and Garfunkel but couldn’t quite get to grips with their song, the Sound of Silence. So much got lost in that particular translation: the poor chap didn’t get how silence, by definition noiseless, could have a sound.

I recalled the loudest silence I’d ever heard. It was in Alaska. Out on Prince William Sound. In a boat. Not another human around for miles. Just me and my skipper, the inimitable JS. It was one of those beautiful, long Alaska evenings where if you looked closely enough at the skies you could see heaven. The sound of that particular silence is forever etched in my brain and it’s the place I go in my head when I want to get away from it all.

silence 3

Another place I go is to the forest in Gödöllő. A natural fence of trees envelopes the house in a silence that is almost surreal. Double doors leading out to the balcony provide a perfect vantage point from which to watch what few leaves remaining on the trees fall quietly to the ground. There’s something godlike in this simplicity. The air is cold and still. The sky grey. The evergreens provide a lushness that is unusual this time of year. And all around there is silence. The only noise I hear is the ticking of a clock and the sound of keys clacking on the keyboard.

My programme (can’t you tell I’ve been in Hungary for a while 🙂 ) for the next couple of weeks is filling up. Lunches, dinners, drinks, parties, catching up with old friends all part of the agenda. It’ll be a busy one and short of snow descending on Ireland and bringing the nation to a standstill, all should go ahead as planned.

But before it all kicks off, I’m grateful that I get to experience some quiet, to hear the silence, to revel in its restorative powers. For that I am truly thankful.


The uncomplicated joy of being

I was reintroduced recently to the joy of simple living and reminded that the value of simplicity is something we’re in danger of overlooking as we measure our lives in upgrades: the latest iPhone, a newer laptop, a bigger house, a fancier car, a more exotic holiday.

I was reminded, too, that entertainment, though plentiful in Budapest, is not limited to theatre, cinema, concerts, and exhibitions, or confined to bars, restaurants, galleries, and football stadiums.

This city has so much to offer. No matter your personal taste or choice of entertainment, there is something for everyone. I love it for that very reason. My diary is full of lunches, dinners, openings, events of all sorts that could fully occupy my time and can, admittedly, prove a tad stressful as I try to juggle my schedule with those of others.

And yet, just minutes from this metropolis that I call home, is another world entirely, one where people live a quieter life, a slower-paced existence that has none of the frantic fervour evidenced by the city’s morning commute. A world where gardens provide fruit to be preserved; produce vegetables to be cooked for dinner; and offer peace and quiet to still the inner workings of an overactive mind.

Many lifetimes ago, in Alaska, I had romantic notions of homesteading. I’d have a log cabin in the wilderness. I’d grow my own vegetables, hunt and fish for my food, and while away my evenings reading the library I’d bring with me, or penning my memoirs, or even trying my hand at quilting. My time would be my own. My life would be simple, uncomplicated. But I was dreaming.

So I compromised. I did have my log cabin, but in a town of 4000 people. I fished and cooked my catch. I failed miserably at hunting but was happy to cook what others brought home. And I did while away my evenings reading books borrowed from the local library or simply marvelling at the silence.

Fast-forward a couple of lives to Budapest where I was immediately caught up in the energy it exudes. My intention, on leaving the corporate world, was to have a slower pace of life, one that would give me time to visit museums; to have long, leisurely lunches; to have a life that wasn’t centred on work. This lasted six months. I was soon completely embroiled in the rat-race that is twenty-first-century living.

IMG_4633 (800x600)IMG_4650 (800x600)

And then last week, I went foraging for mushrooms in the Pilis Forest. A 30-minute bus ride from Budapest and I was in the wilderness. We’d had heavy rain the night before and all morning, too. The trees were wet, the ground was soggy, and there was evidence everywhere that wild boars had been out before us. Within minutes, I was drenched. But it didn’t matter.

IMG_4666 (800x600)


We found mushrooms you can extract ink from but if you drink alcohol 24 hours before or after eating them, you’ll get alcohol poisoning. We found mushrooms that looked and felt like pieces of raw liver and others that looked like slivers of chocolate. We found mushrooms of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colours, living happily together without issue. Some were edible, some were poisonous. All looked safe. Each find came with a sense of achievement and was followed by seconds of quiet appreciation. Time seemed to stand still. It was glorious. No phones. No Internet. No people, save one man and his dog.

It was a much-needed reminder that life is only as complicated as I choose to make it.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 September 2014

IMG_4698 (800x600)

Security threat or simple inanity?

Many years ago, in a previous lifetime, I had arranged to meet some friends in a bar in Alaska to play darts. I showed up to find them all hanging around outside. Apparently a customer who had had too much to drink (a customer who also had a Northern Irish accent), had made some obscure threat involving explosions and ashtrays. The building was evacuated and the cops were called. It was a bomb scare of sorts in a small town at the edge 1990s America.

The first thing that struck me was my friends’ complacency. I pointed out that if there was a bomb and it did go off, the door to the pub wouldn’t be much protection. I suggested moving across the street, preferably behind some parked cars. It all came to nothing in the end but the inane idea that by simply removing yourself from the premises you’d not be affected by the blast stayed with me.

Earlier this week, I landed in Budapest airport. I came through customs into the arrival hall at Terminal 2B. There were police everywhere, shepherding those waiting to one side, clearing a pathway between me and the door. Had I any illusions about my own importance, I might have been flattered. Instead I simply assumed that someone who was important in the Hungarian grand scheme of things was coming behind me.

I went outside to see more of the same. People were being corralled to the right when I wanted to go left to catch the 200E bus. I could see people waiting at the bus stop so I knew I had time. But progress was halted by two policemen who told me I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t walk the 40 metres to the bus stop because the area had to be cleared. There was a security alert.

I ran through a mental list of security threats. If it were a dangerous criminal, surely they would be handcuffed and escorted. If it were a pending arrest, the arrestee would hardly be armed, having navigated airport security before take-off. If it were a bomb, surely the whole area would be evacuated. Then I remembered that night in Alaska.

But no. These were trained policemen, not dart players on a night out. Surely they’d have more cop than that (pun intended). The bus was idling and I was anxious. I’d already had an unscheduled night’s stopover in Belgrade and I wanted to get home. I argued some more, pointing at the bus and the people and the empty 40 metres that separated us. And then they caved.

They said that if I crossed the road, and walked down the pathway on the opposite side, I could get to the bus. That would put three car widths between me and whatever security threat I was being guarded against. I didn’t need a gilt-edged invitation. I ran. I made the bus. And then I spent the entire journey to Kobanya Kispest marvelling at the folly of human nature.

Today I read that Russian intelligence agents are increasingly active in Hungary, because of what’s going on in Ukraine. Apparently they’re working in ‘semi-secret and clandestine operations’. This comes as no great surprise really. Hungary is the EU’s last post before hitting the Ukraine border and is now a buffer zone where Eastern and Western powers are attempting to get to know each other a little better.

And then I remembered … a flight from Moscow had landed just before mine. But then a flight from Ireland had landed just after. I wondered which one posed the bigger threat.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 May 2104

Nobody’s home

I’ve done just about every personality test going and one of the constants is that I’m an introvert. Yep. An introvert. Me. I don’t have a problem with what many see as an anomaly. On stage. Out there front and centre. Love to party. Would talk to prince or pauper. And an introvert? Doesn’t figure.

But I’m reliably informed (if you think the Urban Dictionary reliable) that an introvert  is a person who is energized by spending time alone. Often found in their homes, libraries, quiet parks that not many people know about, or other secluded places, introverts like to think and be alone.

I’m often found at home (yes… it could well be that I’m just not answering the door), and until I began raiding the Book Swap Shelf at Jack Doyle’s, was a regular visitor to the library. I know a few quiet parks in Budapest and have frequented my fair share of secluded places. I like to think (and might even be guilty of thinking too much on occasion) and I have no problem being alone. So all good there.

Contrary to popular belief, not all introverts are shy. Some may have great social lives and love talking to their friends but just need some time to be alone to ‘recharge’ afterwards.

This is me, in a nutshell. I can be social for a whole day or even two consecutive days (at a push) but then need a day off to recover. My nightmare situation involves a three-day conference crammed full of talks and workshops, social chats and networking…and other people. Or worse still, a seven-day cruise, sharing a cabin with a compulsive talker, with no land in sight. Ye gods…it doesn’t bear thinking about.

The word ‘Introvert’ has negative connotations that need to be destroyed. Introverts are simply misunderstood because the majority of the population consists of extroverts.

Now, isn’t that telling…

I’ve a fondness for open spaces. I grew up near the Curragh in Kildare  (a flat open plain of almost 5000 acres (20 km²) of common land) and spent a chapter or three of my life in Alaska – a state reputedly two and half times the size of Texas with a population of just over half a million (no counting the animals). One of my best ever holidays was spent in Kruger Park in South Africa and one of the most heavenly experiences I’ve had has been to witness vastness of the great African sky. I’ve gone days, and sometimes more than a week, without talking to anyone other than myself; it’s good for my soul.

IMG_9529 (800x589)Where better to recuperate from the excesses of holiday revelry and the associated socialising than on a winter’s beach, miles from anywhere. Could you hire Silver Strand in Co. Mayo for a few hours and keep it to yourself? I doubt it. But toddle out there on a brisk winter’s day and you might well have the place to yourself, apart from a few sheep lunching on a nearby island.

IMG_9534 (800x595)IMG_9552 (800x598)IMG_9535 (800x597) (2)Go there in the late afternoon sun and watch how the light changes wherever you turn.  The absence of human sound is deafening. You can walk for miles and not see another soul. And it’s all free. No charge.What a treasure.

Even if others come and invade your space, there’s so much of it that you’d hardly notice. And when they, too, are quiet, the place takes on the semblance of a huge, open-air church; somewhere for quiet reflection, to make amends to that inner self that has been subjected to all sorts of abuse in terms of over indulgence in recent weeks. What better antidote to the stresses of everyday living could you possibly find? Heavenly. Simply heavenly.

IMG_9547 (800x600)


Seeking cold

I went in search of cold weather. It was 16 degrees when I booked my flight but by the time I got there, temperatures had soared. I landed in Oslo to 27 degrees and wasn’t at all impressed. Then I discovered that beer (which I don’t usually drink) was about €10 a pint and that a glass of wine could be more expensive than a meal. And that’s where the disappointment ended and the infatuation began.  Oslo – I’m sold.

IMG_6520 (800x599)What is not to like about a country where, every June, you get 12.5% of last year’s annual salary as fun money – for your summer holidays. And where each December, you pay half the normal income tax. And where if your bus is more than 20 minutes late, you can get a taxi and reclaim the fare. Imagine a country where the minimum wage is €15 per hour, you work 35.5 hours a week and get 5 weeks paid vacation. Not to mention free education and health (ok, so if you’re paying taxes it’s not exactly free). And yes, Oslo, as the country’s capital, has its fair share of problems – rape and murder being the two that come to mind. And yes, there were parts of the city where I didn’t feel comfortable. But that said, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

IMG_6510 (800x598)That Oslo is on the water is a huge plus in my book. Anywhere that has a promenade or a boardwalk automatically rates high marks. That everyone speaks English and Norwegian and the Lord only knows how many other languages makes life as a tourist so much easier. And that the people are so hospitable, friendly and helpful… well, it made me wonder if I’d stumbled onto the set of some utopian dream.

IMG_6765 (800x600)When I can navigate a city within a day without fear of getting lost, that’s a miracle. When I can plan to leave at 7.53 and arrive at 8.07 and know those times to be exact, that feeds my OCD. And when I can eat fresh fish, all day, every day, with a mayonnaise that (dare I say it) is as good as Hellmans, that makes me stop and wonder whether I’ve died and gone to heaven.

IMG_6527 (800x600)I’ve been missing Alaska a lot lately. Perhaps it something to do with catching up with my Alaskan mates on this recent US road trip. Perhaps it has something to do with craving some decent cold weather. Or perhaps it’s the remoteness of it all that I long for. Although I didn’t venture further than Oslo, and by all accounts it only gets better once you cross the city limits, I felt an immediate affinity with Oslo that transported me temporarily back to Anchorage.

To be fair, had I not had a well-read, well-informed, and multi-talented guide in FC, I might be thinking differently. Seeing a city from the perspective of someone who lives and works there is so much better than leaving it in the hands of a travel-guide writer who may never have physically set foot in the place themselves but relies instead on what others have written.

IMG_6509 (600x800)IMG_6504 (600x800)Like my intrepid guide, Oslo has attitude. Even its street sculpture has something to say. Around every corner, there’s something new. It reminded me a little of Bratislava in that sense. Some might say that there’s not much to see – a few main attractions and that’s it – but once you start looking, really looking, the city is like one big box of assorted chocolates there to be savoured or devoured, depending on the mood. It’s certainly not cheap, but if you do it right, get the weekly travel pass, visit the supermarkets, and watch for the lunch specials, it’s doable.


Grateful 28

Yuk. Raw fish! How could you? Back in the days when I was living in Valdez, Alaska, I would fly to Anchorage for meetings and dental appointments. I’d fly up in the morning, rent a car, and fly back that evening. Inevitably, I’d have a shopping list that included tuna fish – to make sushi. One of my first dates with TW,  the man with an insatiable appetite for sushi, was to a chinese restaurant in Valdez that also did…sushi. I still remember my reaction. Yuk. Raw fish! How could you?As for the perfumed ginger and the gullet-wrenching wasabi sauce…

When I worked with AP in London, she would always eat sushi before a flight. And once, again in London, I found myself with a Polish couple making sushi for a dinner party. I didn’t stay to eat. I’ve never understood the fascination with it.

Yet the art of sushi (and I now believe it is an art) dates back to the 7th century, when in Southeast Asia, pickling was discovered and passed on to the Japanese. In a nutshell: pickling=packing fish with rice. As the fish fermented the rice produced a lactic acid which in turn caused the pickling of the pressed fish. Nare-Sushi is 1300 years old and refers to the finished edible product resulting from this early method.

It found a new popularity in the States in the 1970s and became a regular feature in restaurants world-wide. The most common forms are: Nigiri sushi (hand shaped sushi), Oshi-sushi (pressed sushi), Maki-Sushi (rolled sushi) and Chirashi-sushi (scattered sushi).

Last time I was in Malta, I noticed that there are now three restaurants within walking distance of my hotel offering sushi on the menu. So I went to the first – the one that has been there the longest. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and asked the girl behind me in the queue to choose for me. She did. And I stopped by for a takeaway every night that week.

In addition to really enjoying it, I also convinced myself that it was low-fat and healthy and that the weight would simple drop off me. I was wrong there. But as food goes, it is good for you. There are, of course, health risks and there is also a whole etiquette attached to eating sushi. I reckon that, like wine, some aficionados can be awful bores. Me? I simply know what I like.

I spent the last week in Belgrade where it got up to 40 degrees in the shade. I went back to visit the Supermarket and had a great night out with the ladies… oiled by Aperol spritzers and sated by sushi.

On reflection, this week I’m grateful that life is still throwing up new experiences; that I still haven’t done ‘everything’; and that my horizons are continually expanding. I have a good life, I know some great people, and while I might have come to the whole sushi experience rather late in life, I know there are many more new experiences out there just waiting to be savoured.

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

A snail by any other name…

I’ve eaten rattlesnake in Arizona, alligator in Missipippi, buffalo, moose, caribou, whale, and bear in Alaska, frog’s legs, sheep’s brains, kidneys, liver and and hearts of all sorts in Ireland but I’d never eaten snail. I’ve  had duck’s tongue and chicken’s feet and have even eaten a fly or two, but more by accident than design. I’ve eaten shellfish so it wasn’t the forcible eviction that was bothering me. It was that I’d seen too many of them crawling up walls and slithering their slimy way across a footpath. I simply could not imagine myself eating one. But when in Malta…

Getting them out of the shell was a little problematic. The tines of the fork were too big so I had to resort to using a toothpick (thank you, Charles Forster). That quiet, wrenching sound they made as the shell finally ceded way was a little disturbing but I soon got used to it. When I first ate frog’s legs, I was rather taken aback to see that they actually looked like frog’s legs (and some people think I’m intelligent!) The same with snails. I wasn’t thinking snails – I was thinking escargot. As if poshing up the name could change the substance (Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest comes to mind). A little like the metamorphosis that leeks and potatoes undergo when they’re renamed vichyssoise.

Ever wondered how some foods got their name? Check this site out. Beef Stroganoff was the prize-winning recipe created for a cooking competition held in the 1890s in St. Petersburg, Russia. The chef who devised the recipe worked for the Russian diplomat Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov, a member of one of Russia’s grandest noble families.

Anyway, I digress. Suffice to say that I can now cross snails off my bucket list and doubt very much that I’ll ever feel the need to eat them again.

Eat your hearts out, ladies

Without Valentine’s Day, February would be… well, January. Such an insight could only come from a comedian like Jim Gaffigan and yet, he might well have a point. In much of the western world, February and Valentine’s Day are synonymous. Growing up in Ireland, I used to live in dread that I would be the only one in my class not to receive a Valentine’s card. The one and only time I was ever thrown out of class was on St Valentine’s Day when I was caught red-handed reading a big, red, heart-shaped card. That one blemish on an otherwise pristine school career still haunts me.

The real St Valentine

St Valentine is one of the oldest, most successful, brand names in history. I wonder if he’s turning in his grave at how commercialized his feast day has become? I only discovered recently that in the Catholic Church’s martyrology (what you read when you’re stuck for a book, eh?), there are no fewer than three St Valentines listed under the date of February 14.  One was a priest in Rome, and another a bishop in central Italy, both of whom lived in the third century. Of the third, not much is known other than he lived and died in Africa. Of the three, one the two Italians are most likely to be the St Valentine who has lent his name to an industry that generates millions in hard cash each year.

The pick of the pair

Some sources say February 14 is the anniversary of the Roman’s death in 269 AD. Jailed for refusing to give up Christianity, he left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter with whom he had fallen in love, signing it from your Valentine. That explains the cards. Other sources say it’s the anniversary of the bishop’s death. He was jailed for defying the emperor Claudius the Cruel, who had outlawed marriage – married soldiers were apparently reluctant to leave their wives and go to war. Valentine defied his ruling and married couples in secret. For this he lost his head; is this linked to how we often lose our head (reason) when in love.

Known as Bálint Nap in Hungary, the commercial side of St Valentine’s Day is relatively recent here (1989). Local folklore still suggests that it is a good day to have geese, ducks, and hens sit on their eggs and hatch. Bird enthusiasts will tell you that half-way through February (a normal February, that is) birds begin to pair off and choose their mates. In his Parliament of Foules Chaucer talks about: For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate. In the village of Szil in Hungary, people believe that St Valentine is the patron saint of sparrows as this is when sparrows begin to mate. Perhaps this is why the date is so auspicious for lovers – the most favorable day in the year for them to declare their love by writing letters and sending gifts. (I wonder if anywhere in Budapest delivers heart-shaped langós complete with tejföl, sajt, és hagyma?)

Far from conventional

For most of my adult life, I have had the (mis)fortune to date men who have eschewed the whole idea of St Valentine’s Day. My memorable moments are therefore few and far between. My most unusual Valentine’s Day present was from a very married man. He called me late on the evening of February 13 to say that he had a Valentine’s present for me and asked if he could drive round to deliver it. I was already in bed and hoped it might wait until the next day – at work. But no, it couldn’t.

Curiosity will always get the better of me and amid assurances that his wife knew what he was doing and was fine with it, I agreed. I’m a trusting soul. I was to be dressed and ready and waiting outside my cabin in 10 minutes. It was winter. It was Alaska. It was snowing and it was cold. So I donned my parka and my boots and went outside just as he pulled up in his pick-up truck. He’d been hunting. The tailgate was down and I could see the huge, inert form of a dead buffalo lying in the bed. My friend reached inside the carcass and pulled out my present – the buffalo’s heart.

The next day, as girlfriends of mine around the world found vases for flowers, ate their chocolates, read their cards, examined their new jewelry, and looked forward to romantic dinners for two, I was stuffing and cooking a massive buffalo heart for six technicians at the Valdez Marine Terminal – all male, all married. That was February 14, 1999. The heart has been eaten but the story lives on.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2012

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

What would it be like if everyone was completely honest? If we all told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, all the time? Some years ago, I told a boy that the only thing I would ask of him was that he be completely honest with me. All the time. If he screwed around on me, I wanted to hear it from him. He countered by saying that there was no such thing as the absolute truth. That we all make our own truth and shape it to be what we want it to be.  I should have gotten out then. Chalk one up to stupidity, but even in that stupidity I learned a lot.

They say that once you’ve lived in Alaska for two years, you’re not fit to live anywhere else. I lived there for seven. And when I went ‘outside’ again, I found it hard to leave my brand of truth behind. You see, up there, you called it as you saw it. Does this make me look fat? Hell yeah! Do you think he’s having an affair on me? Why else would he be coming out of so and so’s apartment at 2 in the afternoon? You know, you think you’re so much better than everyone else! Me? No. I know I am. There was no limit to this straightforwardness – rows were plentiful but quietened down as soon as they rose up. Nothing was left to fester.

Coming back to the real world, it was hard to make the adjustment. What was that famous Jack Nicholson lineYou can’t handle the truth. No one really wants to hear the truth. If we stop to think about it, most of the time we ask people questions with the expectation that they will tell us exactly what we want to hear – not what we need to hear. A few months ago, I toyed with the idea of applying for a creative writing MA in the UK. I asked a good friend to help me with my application. She pointed out that the writing samples I had chosen weren’t what the university would want. In fact, my writing style wasn’t that creative – it was more documentary. I was gutted. Then.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that she was so right. I don’t have a novel in me – I don’t have that sort of style – I can observe, account, tell a story, but I was confusing creative writing with using English creatively – two completely different birds. Having someone who will tell you the truth – who will be honest with you – who will be direct to the point that it feel as if they’re cutting away a sliver of your soul – that’s a richness money can’t buy. And it’s those true friends to whom we turn when we need to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I was reminded of this recently, when the inimitable RN posted a link to Swedish designer Viktor Hertz and his project called HONEST LOGOs. Hertz re-appropriates well known logos and redoes them to show what he thinks is the actual content and truth behind the company. Worth checking out…