2013 Grateful 27

It’s been a long time since I’ve driven so far. It’s been years since I used to drive 306 miles to play 36 holes of golf and then drive home again. Distances such as America has on offer make the longest road in Ireland look like a walk in the park.

IMG_5345 (800x599)I like to drive.

I like the meditative space it gives me. And the adrenaline rush when I spot a cop car, partially concealed behind a bush in the median. Will I get a ticket in the post or not? I wonder.

I like the weird and wonderful things I pass – odd places that I would never travel to but am happy to stop and see, now that I’ve happened across them.

I like the personal chats in roadside restaurants and cafés – conversations with people I will never meet again. Yet for a few brief moments in time, we’re present, together, talking. Sharing experiences in a way that is both intimate and remote.

I like the way my mind wanders, with one random thought fuelling an internal debate on something that could be either inconsequential or the preparatory work for a major, life-changing decision.

I like that time takes on a whole new meaning. There is no clocking in or signing out. I drive until I’m tired – some days three hours, some days eight. There is a plan  for the day but that plan is flexible, dependent on detours and distractions. I like that.

As this sweltering week draws to a close on temperatures over 45 degrees Celsius (115 F), I’m hot, I’m tired, and I’m missing my own bed. I’m grateful that as I’ve travelled and discovered new places, new people, I’ve also had the drive-time to appreciate what I’m missing. In essence – I have the best of both worlds – here and there.

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

From the inside out

For the first time in a long time I’m enjoying how I look. I still don’t have that hourglass figure I’ve craved for what seems like an eternity. I haven’t managed to grow a decent pair of ankles. And I have resigned myself to never, ever having legs that stretch to my earlobes. But as far as the face goes, I like what’s looking back at me when I get into the elevator to descend to the ground floor and have one last look in the mirror before I step out into the world. And no, I haven’t started wearing make-up but I have given the nod to a dash of lippie and the occasional swish of the mascara wand.

I noticed the change earlier this year. Deep in conversation with a couple of Hungarian friends at Gozsdu Manó, one turned to me and commented that it was great to see how women my size seemed to enjoy life so much more. I ask you! Women my size? I’d long since grown accustomed to the refrain of ‘a woman your age should/shouldn’t do whatever’ but this size thing was a new one. I put it down to yet another morsel of wisdom that got lost somewhere in translation and I took it on the back of the sincerity with which it was delivered … I took it as a compliment.

No tact, no sale

I had a brief flashback to my first visit to Budapest. It was unnaturally cold and I hadn’t packed anything with long sleeves. I went into a boutique on the Korut in search of something warm and woolly. My bright and breezy hello was greeted with a little disdain. The assistant looked me up and down and then pronounced with some authority that they didn’t stock anything in my size. And before you go off on a tangent about Hungarian customer service, this form of clothing commentary is not unique to Budapest.

Rewind even further, to Los Angeles. In the dressing room of TJ Maxx, the ever-so-helpful assistant asked me if I was European. I smiled and asked whether it was my accent that had given me away. She laughed at my stupidity and said no… of course not. It’s just that while American’s tend to be fat in one place, Europeans tend to be fat all over! But these trifling comments on my size had been made by strangers and so were discounted. Granted, they’ve been milked for their amusement quotient over the years but they were never taken personally.

No smiles, no energy

In Bonn last weekend at the Toastmasters International District 59 Conference, I used the bones of this piece as the basis for a humorous speech. It ended up being too heavy on message and too light on humour and so didn’t make the final cut.  But the judges liked how I smiled all the way through. Afterwards, a very pretty young girl in her mid-20s, stylishly dressed with a great figure, came up to me and offered to trade her size for my self-esteem. For once I was lost for words. And not for the first time, I cursed the society we have created, with its innate insecurities and impossible expectations. The opening lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman came to mind: Pretty women wonder where my secret lies / I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size / But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies.

In Malta this week at DiploFoundation’s conference on Innovation in Diplomacy, two people complimented me on my moderation style – a little taken aback, I asked each of them to be more specific. Both independently said the same thing – smiles and energy. I started to wonder if the two are interlinked – whether smiles beget energy and vice versa. And I wondered some more about whether a mass-smiling campaign could help re-energise Hungary and unite the opposition.

No harm, no foul

When people look at me and say with some element of surprise that I’m looking great, I can’t help wondering how I looked before. Or if they’ve not seen me for a while and the initial once-over takes a few seconds longer than usual, I can’t help wondering what they think is different. It must make me smile because they comment on that, too.

There’s a curious sense of peace that comes with accepting who I am and what I look like. There’s a wonderful sense of release that comes with giving up the fight against nature and simply making the best of what she’s dealt me. And there’s a lovely sense of calm that comes with finally realising that anonymous got it right: pretty is something you’re born with, but beautiful … that’s an equal opportunity adjective.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 November 2012

PS Photo courtesy of Art Provost (thanks Art!)

Grateful 44

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. So said the inimitable CS Lewis and until this week, I would have had to admit to paying lip service to the word ‘miracle’ which for me, was 80% cliché and 20% faith. And to use a term that has been bandied around a lot this week with the death of Davy Jones (RIP), I’m a believer.

Sometime in January I had a phone call from a mate of mine in America to say she was going to come to Budapest to visit and wanted to see Prague, Vienna, and anywhere else I might fancy taking her. We agreed on February 11 – 29 and I booked hotels, trains, and restaurants, mapping out an itinerary that would keep her busy! I hadn’t seen her since we last met up in Hawaii and was really looking forward to it. We go way back. We’v been through all sorts of trouble and adventures in California and have lived to tell the tale. I’ve grown with her and learned so much from her – she taught me to say the words ‘I love you’ without embarassment. We mightn’t see each other from one end of the year to the next or even talk on the phone that often, but ours is a friendship that just picks up from where it left off without need for apologies or explanations.  She is one of my truest friends.

On February 9, she called to say that she couldn’t come. Her doctor had advised her not to travel. She wasn’t feeling well and needed some tests done but she was still hoping to travel to North Carolina for her step-dad’s retirement in a couple of weeks. We spoke daily. Then she was in hospital. Her liver had failed. They were hoping for a transplant and had a possibility lined up when two hours later, her body gave way. Her kidneys failed, her liver stopped working and she flatlined. We were supposed to be in Prague and instead she was dead and I was on the other side of the world.

They resuscitated her and brought her back, wondering all the while if they’d made the right decision. She spent a week or more in an induced coma, living through machines. The outlook was bleak. Even were a liver to be found, she wouldn’t qualify. She’d always said she’d be the last one standing and part of me just couldn’t accept that she’d give in but I had to be pragmatic. I told friends about her and asked for them to pray to whatever or whomever they had as their god. From Venezuela to Malta, from Brussels to Hawaii, from California to all corners of Ireland, friends of mine who had met her and those who’d just heard the stories, sent their invocations to their gods, made their intercessions, all the time cautioning that a miracle was needed.

I thought about going to see her, talking myself in and out of it a dozen times. Selfishly, I didn’t want my last memory of her to be on her deathbed. She couldn’t hear me – I couldn’t talk to her – and vain as she is, I knew she wouldn’t want me to see her like that. We’d agreed when she first went into hospital that I wouldn’t go until she asked me to come. I had to respect that. Last Thursday, when we were supposed to be in Vienna, I went anyway. With the lovely MI, we lit candles in what churches we could find and said our prayers to our respective gods. And hoped for that miracle.

At the weekend, I spoke to her husband. She was awake. She’d had her third successful dialysis, and while she still had difficulty talking, she was able to communicate with facial gestures. She’s gotten stronger day by day and tonight I finally get to talk to her – to see when I can go visit.

It’s been a manic three weeks of up and downs. That elusive thing we call hope has ebbed and flowed. Oceans of tears were shed around the world as thousands of forints were spent on phone calls that turned into trips down memory lane. The general consensus about the lesson to be learned is that you truly never know the day nor the hour…

This week, I am grateful for the power of friendship – that ephemeral thing that brings people together and unites them in a cause. It is with the power of collective consciousness (call it prayer or whatever) that miracles are wrought.

Thank you all. You know who you are.