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Burnt hair and beans

Step off Stefan cel Mare into another world – the Piata Centralã – which opened its doors (or its gates) in 1994 and since then has been a veritable hive of activity. You can buy just about anything here  – from mohair shawls to plastic sheets and tweezers. And, while there’s a fair amount of genuine tat, there are plenty of good bargains to be found – if you have the time and the inclination to root around. Or, as in my case, you couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag on a good day and end up wandering for hours trying to find a way out.

I found this fruit – and have absolutely no idea what it is. Any ideas? The seeds taste a little like cranberries. Before you buy, they cut a hole in the skin so that you can see the seeds (I assume to see if they’re ripe) and then you can flower them to eat. Am not quite sure whether you eat the white pith or not, but so far, I’m alive. Really tasty stuff, if a little messy. Am glad that the carpet in my hotel room has a little bit of red running through it:-)

With acres and acres of the usual fruit and veg, there are also bags and bags of beans and pulses and seeds. Each neatly labelled … in Moldavan. Still sore at being snapped at in a market in Bonn for daring to take a photo, I asked permission to take this one and was treated to a tasting session and a detailed explanation of what everything was … in Moldovan. A woman trying to sell me a shawl pulled a thread and burned it and made me smell it. It smelt like burnt hair. Didn’t quite get that particular marketing trick. One stall had recylable shopping bags from Carrolls in Dublin. There’s been quite a lot of oddities in the last few days – I’ve spent two hours each evening this week glued to the TV watching a show set in Alaska. The congregation at Mass was mostly Hungarian and then the shopping bags from Dublin – seems as if my life is passing before my eyes.

The best of two seasons

If you’ve ever driven the Richardson Highway between Valdez and Anchorage, Alaska during the couple of weeks when the leaves turn, you will know what I mean when I say that the scenery is like a painter’s palette. I’ve heard of people going to New England for the Fall to see nature’s mesmerizing display and since Alaska, while I’ve seen nice autumns, I’ve not experienced anything quite like the drive through the forests of Tranyslvania.

For a thousand years, up until WWI, Transylvania was associated with Hungary. Back in the 10th century, the Hungarian Székely settled in what is still called Erdély (‘beyond the forest’ – the literal meaning of Transylvania). With two-lane roads wending their way through the mountains, the colours were breathtaking. Passing few cars and seeing no-one but a series of lone, chain-saw wielding men, it was as if we had the place to ourselves. The higher we went, the colder it got and then we crossed over – from autumn to winter – that wonderful moment when it is neither one nor the other but a bit of both.

Given the choice between hot and cold, I’d go for cold any day. There’s a limit to the amount of clothes you can take off and if you’re not near the sea or a substantial body of water, heat is miserable. But cold – especially contintental cold  – that’s more than doable.

We were trying to get to Saint Anna lake but as we dodged fallen, snow-laden branches, pragmatism won out. The lake will have to wait for another day but the legend, and its swans, reminded me of the Children of Lir.

Way back when, even before the 13th century, two brothers lived in the area. One day, a stranger, driving a beautiful chariot with six horses, called to one of the brother’s castles. They had a party and in a gambling game of some sort (probably dice), one of the brothers won the stranger’s chariot and horses. The other brother, not to be outdone, found a better chariot and went to the village to find the 12 most beautiful women, to pull it. [I wonder if this might be the source of that Irish saying – she’s a horse of a woman?] But the chariot was too heavy for them. They couldn’t move it. The brother became angry and started beating them to death. Before she died, the most beautiful of them all, Anna, cursed the castle. A terrible stormed brewed and the castle sank into the earth. A lake appeared in the crater and on it swam 12 swans. When the birds touched land, they changed back into girls and all but one went back to their village. Anna stayed and built a small chapel and stayed there til she died.

Pilgrims still come in their droves and many young people come in the hope of finding a partner. Again, I’m reminded of Ireland and that childhood prayer: Holy St Ann, holy St Ann, send me a man as fast as you can. Definitely worth a trip back in the spring.

 

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?

Walking amongst the dead in Zagreb

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I have what some might call a morbid fascination with cemeteries. And prisons.  I often wonder if I somehow see the two related. While others wander through the art galleries and museums of this world, I spend my time in graveyards reading epitaphs wondering about the lives of those who’ve gone before me and those they’ve left behind. Dean Martin’s tombstone reads: Everybody loves somebody sometime. Bette Davis’s: She did it the hard way. But my favourite has to be Spike Milligan’s: Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill). Way back in the good old days of the Wild West, when death was completely random and a sense of humour prevailed to the last, some classic epitaphs can still be found. Lawyer John E. Goembel: The defense rests. Auctioneer Jedediah Goodwin : Going, going, gone.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I’ve often wondered at a particular choice of gravestone and have given some consideration to what I’d like mine to be and what I’d like it to say – if I’m not cremated. I’m undecided.

It was in Macugnaga, in the Italian Alps, that  I first saw a photograph encased in glass on a gravestone. I thought it rather strange that someone would want their photo displayed, but as I walked around the small cemetery, the idea grew on me. It was like visiting a place where people, though dead, were still very much alive in spirit…you could put a face to the bones buried beneath.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

In Warsaw some years later, in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, I was struck by the notion of adding a person’s occupation the gravestone – but is this so strange? In life, some of us become our profession and lose sight of who we are as people, so why not carry this identity with us and go the grave proclaiming what we were.

In a Russian Orthodox graveyard in Eklutna, Alaska, each grave has a spirit house, built as a new home for the soul of the deceased. In Manchester, UK, some Irish traveller families have erected huge, gigantic marble monstrosities that seem be in some strange posthumous competition with each other – keeping up with the Joneses well after all the Joneses are dead.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

Until a recent visit to Zagreb, I’d never been to a non-denominational cemetery  – or at least, I am not aware of ever having been in one. The cemeteries with which I am familiar tend to be strictly segregated – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Russian Orthodox. The idea of mixing religions in death strikes me as ironic considering the trouble various religions have living side by side.  Mirogoj cemetry has been very much inclusive since it first opened its gates in 1876. The work of Hermann Bollé, it’s a beautiful spot, with a series of ivy-clad cupola’d arcades running along the inside walls. It’s home to Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, communist Partisans and the German dead from WW2. Crescent moons, Jewish stars, and RC crosses adorn the gravestones. Rows and rows of grave-lined paths diverge from the main gate. There’s a computer kiosk where you can key in the name of the person you are looking for and it’ll tell you where go to. Without this, it would be practically impossible, or, take days to find it for yourself.A couple of years go, on Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland, I visited a famine graveyard. Simple, overgrown, and wild, it was a stark reminder of an Ireland that is in danger of being forgotten.  A story book of life and death, a living testimonyof times gone by. In South Africa earlier this year, I stumbled across a cemetry from the Boer War. I’d never realised how many nations were involved in this particular fight. But it too, like the famine, seems so very long ago. Mirogoj cemetery is different. It is home to row after row of men my age who died in the Yugoslav wars. My age. My age. In another life they might have been my brother, my husband, my best friend. And while they were dying for the promise of a better tomorrow, I was living in Alaska, in my own little world, completely unaware of what was going on Europe. We speak of living in a global village but in truth, we are worlds apart. Einstein nailed it when he said: the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.

All eyes on me

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa recently, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm). Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chamelon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of waterbuck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves.Whether their stripes are for camoflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.

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Butterflies, tigers and Budapest bars

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it… or so said the legendary Frank Zappa…and I think he said it after one of his trips to Budapest. Whether it be the light features made from empty wine bottles in Köleves, the seats made from old bathtubs in Szimpla kert, or the complete interior remake from someone else’s trash in Csendes, the Hungarian ability to make something from nothing is artistic simplicity at its best.

I had the (mis)fortune to be in Alaska when the Celtic Tiger took up residence in Ireland. Happily ensconced in my log cabin, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, I was quite oblivious to its antics. Ireland had practically full employment; GDP was growing in double digits on a yearly basis; and for the first time in living memory, emigrants were returning in their droves. And I missed it all. While I was living off Copper River reds, frying up moose-burgers and chewing my way through last-season’s caribou jerky, Ireland was wining and dining in Michelin-starred restaurants, gorging herself on oysters and caviar, and becoming all too familiar with Dom Perignon and Ms Bollinger. And I was happy for her. Her day had come.

Pubs with soul

Before the Celtic Tiger was born, you could find pubs in Dublin where floors were covered in sawdust and used as ashtrays; where granny’s hand-crocheted anti-macassars decorated flea-ridden sofas whose patterns had long since faded into oblivion; where grandfather clocks signaled closing time. Pubs where musicians on their fiddles and tin whistles and bodhráns lulled us merry punters into a happy melancholy, providing a soundtrack for the heady Guinness-fuelled opinionating on everything from the state of world politics to the odds of Dublin winning yet another All-Ireland final. Pubs where elderly couples sat in companionable silence, having said all there was to say and the boys in the back played the odd hand or two of cards for a few quid to carry them over till payday. Back in the day, before the Celtic Tiger, pubs in Ireland’s capital had soul.

Everything measured, everything matched

But as the Celtic Tiger grew into an all consuming monster, the slow death of tradition began. I know we welcomed it with open arms…and who could blame us? After so many years of playing second fiddle to other EU states, it was time we had our turn on the world’s stage, and we relished it. But at what cost? Old pub interiors were gutted and replaced with shiny new wood and brass fittings. Quirkiness was replaced with more of the same. Designer candles took centre table. Cocktail menus offered screaming orgasms, sex on the beach and long slow comfortable screws up against the wall. Everything was measured; everything matched. Yes, the price of a pint had gone through the roof but sadder still, that witty deconstruction of the week’s events had been replaced by a dreary discourse on the price of property. With the smoking ban in place, smirting (smoking and flirting) outside in the freezing cold was nonetheless much better craic than staying indoors to be browbeaten by loud piped music and tales of killings made on the stock exchange.

A Magyar tigris

I moved to Budapest for many reasons and for no particular reason at all. Perhaps I was hoping to get in on the földszint of what I was sure was going to become another European success story. To see first-hand what happens when EU money swells the coffers of a relatively impoverished nation; when foreign investment wipes out unemployment; when talented emigrants return to the fold bringing with them a new perspective; when non-nationals flood to the country, armed with exotic languages and spicy foods. But now, two years later, there’s ne’er a sniff of a Magyar tigris. The only black and orange creature I’ve seen here is a butterfly. And when I sit in one of the many ruin pubs in Budapest, I give silent thanks.

I dare not say aloud what I am thinking. Selfishly, I want the bars in Budapest to stay as they are. The collection of random furniture; the smoke-filled rooms alive with animated, intelligent conversation where music accompanies thought rather than drowns it out; long tables scattered with half-smoked boxes of cigarettes and novels in many languages; people moving effortlessly from Hungarian to English to German so that everyone is included in the conversation, the toe-tapping beat of gypsy jazz. Nothing matching; nothing measured; everything unique.

And then I look across the road and see the shiny modern interior of a new pub through huge, brightly lit windows…and the smudge on the glass looks remarkably like a paw print.

This article was first published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2009

Real Madrid

IMG_2555And, no, I’ve not gone over the other side. But even I had to respect the greatness that is Real Madrid and pay homage when living practically next door, albeit for 48 hours, to what some consider to be sacred ground. And it was quite the experience. Somehow, I’d never equated a soccer stadium with clubbing, or ever imagined a soccer crowd clad in Prada, Ralph Lauren and D&G… and that’s not even going near the girls. Madrid truly is home to some beautiful people; never once did I see an inch of scruff on a Spanish-speaking  bod. Bright colours, up-to-the-minute fashion, perfectly coiffed and manicured, these lads are gorgeous. And lovely. Chatty, intelligent, and lots of fun. And what profiles!!! Even their graffiti is a cut above the ordinary. Heads are round to allow thoughts to flow in all directions.

The first thing that struck me about Madrid is the greenery. I had to keep reminding myself I was in  city. Magnolia trees everywhere. Long, wide avenues lined with green; huge parks with water fountains, lakes and more trees. It is beautifully sculpted. It, too, has its old parts, its grand squares, and its narrow, cobblestoned streets. It also has its ultramodern skyline with every brand name you can think of dotting the horizon. It’s a strange mix, this old and new and had it not been 38 degrees in the shade, I might have given it a little more thought. It’s definitely out of my time zone – the afternoon siesta I can deal with; going out to eat at 10 or 11 at night would take a complete reprogramming of my body clock. Staying out until 6am is what I used to do…perhaps that’s it. In Madrid, I felt old.  IMG_2673

After seven years in Alaska, I find it difficult to cope with heat if I’m not near water (and yes, I too ask myself what I’m doing in Budapest… ) Sitting in the shadow of the palace having coffee, I saw three older women, dolled up to the nines, gilt edged and gorgeous enjoying an animated chat over an aperitif or three. One in particular struck me and I found myself hoping that I would be just like her when I got to her age. Eccentrically gorgeous, gossiping with my girlfriends and setting the world to rights over a glass of wine. The sheer energy of the Madridites is exhausting.

The lovely KB, my guide, and her gorgeous fellah R_G, crammed as much as possible into two days. I saw lots and more. I discovered Clara – lager with lemon; ate tapas until they came out my ears; and even had my cards read. Another story entirely.