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2018 Grateful 46

Up until last Saturday, my knowledge of pigeons was minimal: birds that gather in main squares in old cities to wow the tourists; birds that poop on statues; birds that some people call sky rats. From my banking days in Dublin, I knew of homing pigeons. Some of the customers raced pigeons and Monday mornings always came with stories of how they’d done. I didn’t know that many people of all ages have an irrational fear of pigeons (peristerophobia) or that the term New Jersey pigeon meant anything other than a pigeon from New Jersey (sometimes you can know too much).

So, what happened last Saturday?

The village ain’t exactly hoppin’ when it comes to scheduled entertainment. That’s why I like it. We’re pretty much left to our own devices. But occasionally, when something is put on, everyone turns out. Last weekend it was the annual pigeon, birds, and small animal exhibition. Bird enthusiasts and pet-owners from the nearby villages brought their birds and beasts and set them up in the village hall where, for the princely sum of 500 ft ($1.80/€1.60), you could ooh and aah to your heart’s content. For us, it was a language lesson to see if we’d recognise the names in English. Money well spent.

The first room was full of colourful canaries and parakeets and all sorts. Oranges and blues and pinks and greens all chirped away adding up to a nearly deafening roar. Maya Angelou’s The the Caged Bird Sings came to mind. A long-departed friend of mine in London, the inimitable Sheila José (RIP), kept a parrot, Napoleon. I liked him. He was big and he talked. The little ‘uns didn’t do much for me.

The second room was quieter, but ooh the smell, the smell. Watching an episode of Doc Martin recently, I’d first heard of Pigeon lung – a disease you get from inhaling pigeon poop. I wasn’t about to hang around, but then it got interesting – and I realised that pigeons have been getting a bum rap. They’re gorgeous.

First up was the Páva (the peacock pigeon). Cuter than all git out. If it wasn’t for the neighbour’s cats, these would look lovely picking their way through my mole hills.

Next up was the Fodros galamb (or frillback pigeon). You know the effect you get when you take a potato peeler and peel some hard chocolate? Well, think of this on legs – with a head and a tail and a beak and two beady eyes. Fabulous.

My favourite had to be the magyar óriás galamb (the Hungarian giant pigeon – or the Red Capuchin). This is the Queen of pigeons apparently. She has haughtiness down to a fine art. Think little old ladies with spindly legs in high heels wrapped in mink coats.

The Debreceni Pergő (the Debrecen vulture pigeon) is a classic. I tried to see the vulture in him but failed. And, if you’re curious as to why the vulture pigeon from Debrecen has the city name attached to it, there’s also a vulture pigeon from Birmingham. Who knew. There were lots more, too many to take pictures of (did I mention the smell!) but these were the interesting ones. 

You know those ceramic figures that some people collect, the ones that look like fat chickens? Well, they could be pigeons. I think this is a French Mondain – one step up the evolutionary ladder from the Rock pigeon. I could be wrong. I was so sure it was a fat chicken that I didn’t pay any attention to the name tag.

 

I’d have gone for fat chickens for these, too, except for the fancy slippers. Now I’m not so sure.

These are definitely roosters, though – I heard them crow.

A little reading tells me that pigeons go as far back as 3000 BC. Apparently archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) found some images of the birds dating back that far. I didn’t know that the words pigeon and dove are used interchangeably: pigeon is used for the bigger birds and dove for the smaller but they’re all part of the same family. And as for pigeon poop, far from the irritant it is today, it used to be very valuable stuff, a prized fertiliser and the only source of saltpetre – the key ingredient in gun powder.

There are famous pigeons, war heroes like Cher Ami, who saved the lives of 200 American soldiers in WWI. Stories abound of pigeons like Ariel in New Zealand who carried a record-making 5 sheets of paper over a 90-minute trip back in the 1880s between Great Barrier Island and Auckland. Or a pigeon called Velocity who holds the record for that run (50 minutes) averaging 125 kmph (only 40% slower than a modern aircraft!). That’s some going.

It’s a fascinating world, the pigeon world. They’re private, they co-parent, and they mate for life. And they’re supposedly very intelligent.

Laboratory PIGEONS learned to recognize each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. It seemed odd to the researchers that the birds made the same kinds of initial mistakes as elementary school students.

I had a lovely couple of weeks in the village – even if some of that time was spent without heat or hot water. And yet again I’m grateful, ever-so grateful, for my retreat, and for the curiosities of village life. It’s amazing what you can learn when you have no distractions.

A lesson for POTUS

Donald T? Are you listening? I’ve news for you. Walls make places smaller. Honestly. I know what I’m talking about here. Yesterday, I had a grand room. Plenty of light. Even the part sectioned off for the new bathroom seemed spacious. I’d have plenty of space, I thought, to try the minimalist look. Plenty of space to wander around. I even began double thinking the decision not to plumb in the washing machine. There’d be so much empty space. It was all about space. Now I’m second-guessing (too late) the distance between sink and wall and sink and shower and shower and loo and I’m just a tad worried that I got it all wrong. That I should have paid attention to the raised eyebrows as I wantonly added centimeters here and there is niggling at me.

And yes, it was all measured out on paper and I saw the plans. But I’m missing that part of the brain needed to translate numbers into images. Just like I thought I could fit a hope chest measuring 120 cm x 80 x 90 into the boot of the car because hey, they were only centimeters and centimeters are small things. Now, had he said it was 1 m 20, I’d have known better. Because meters are big things. Welcome to my world.

Walls really do make a difference. The room has shrunk. It’s darkened. It feels closed in. Even the office space looks smaller, as it should, but it seems smaller than it should. At least it’s bright, though. I’m glad I didn’t opt to build a full wall and have a hallway. The place would be like a cave, as we can’t add windows to the back wall because it looks out onto the neighbour and there’s some rule in Hungary preventing that. Windows in facing walls have to be above eye level and no larger than a certain size. What a novel approach to privacy. And while I prefer to work in semi-darkness than bright light, himself doesn’t. We’re wired differently.

When they removed the layers of horrible lino, they uncovered the traditional, old cement tiles on what will be the bathroom floor. I was tempted, fleetingly, to try to save them, but seeing as I’ve yet to find a way to clean the ones in the hallway and bring them to something close to a shine, I decided to let go of the past, to let it be buried beneath a new layer of something designed to look old. Hey, it’s all the rage. I read a post on a FB site for used furniture this week that said – and I kid you not – We’re selling our vintage furniture as it no longer fits the decor. We had it made four years ago.

But I’ve been doubting my English recently and while I think of vintage as being old, I thought I’d double check:

adjective
  1. 1.
    relating to or denoting wine of high quality.
    “vintage claret”
    synonyms: high-quality, quality, prime, choice, select, superior, best

    “vintage French wine”
  2. 2.
    denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind.
    “a vintage Sherlock Holmes adventure”
    synonyms: high-quality, quality, prime, choice, select, superior, best

There you go – vintage doesn’t mean old. Just look at those synonyms. What else have I been wrong about? Oh, yes. Centimetres.

Anyway, the ceiling is up. The lights are wired. The radiators are plumbed, as are the sink, loo, and shower. Tomorrow the rest of the insulation goes in and the concrete floor is laid. And then the tiler comes to do the floor tiles at the weekend. Seems like we’re on track. They’re all still smiling and I’ve heard no Basmegs! as yet.

Donald, take heed. If you insist on putting up that wall, America will look smaller. Trust me.

 

Mystery solved

I mentioned before that our new garden is full of surprises. As the trees, plants, and bushes bloom, we’re gradually getting to know what we’re living with. We’re still undecided whether we have apricots or peaches, but time will tell.

Our new domain, the Kis Balaton, has its own surprises. I’m not great at naming the various crops planted and unless they’re potatoes flowering or are already in bloom (like oil seed rape), I’m wrong more times than I’m right. And that, my friends, is taking some getting used to.

Right outside the village, I’ve watched a field of somethings grow taller and tried though I might, I was unable to put a name to what was growing there. This week, the mystery was solved. And I’m delira and excira to see a field of glorious sunflowers.

Many years ago, on one of my first forays out of Budapest, I saw fields and fields of these yellow beauties in all their glory. No matter how bad my mood, they’re guaranteed to make me smile. With temperatures soaring, and storms turning the power feed into a staccato-like chorus of on-again, off-again, bad humor is not infrequent, but not nearly as long-lasting as it might be in the city. I think I may becoming a nicer person. #lovinglifeinthevillage 🙂

I went in search of  a poem by William Blake that I vaguely remembered, and it says it all for me…

Ah! Sunflower

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

Like Blake, I, too, am a little tired of the if onlys, and wish that more people (of all ages) would seize life by the petals and feel it, and live it, and be it. Sunflowers are planted, striving to reach a place they’ll never get to. Humans are not. We can move. We can follow the sun. We can turn our faces sunward and be positive. If we are fortunate enough to have a choice and not live under regimes who make our choices for us, we can choose where we go, what we do, and how we want to spend the short time we have on this Earth. By all means sunflower it – look at the sun and aspire to where and what you might want to be. But for Blake’s sake – move!

 

2017 Grateful 34

If memory serves me correctly, something it rarely does these days, it was this weekend two years ago that I took a bus trip out of Budapest, a trip that would have life-changing consequences. When I bought my ticket to visit friends in Zala county, little did I know that I’d end falling in love with the village and buying in to their idyllic way of life.

When they first upped sticks, selling their flat in the city to move into and renovate a ramshackle country manse, I thought they were mad. Although just 10 minutes off the motorway, Balatonmagyaród isn’t exactly a hive of activity. There are two shops (of a sort) serving a population of about 430. One, opposite the church, seems to trade in bread and UHT milk with very little else on the shelves. I bought the entire stock of washing-up liquid one day – both bottles. The other doubles as a dohany nemzeti (a cigarette shop), a coffee shop, and a pub. It’s standing room only when the first six through the door take their seats.

But during the week, various suppliers come through the village in their vans, each with their own distinctive jangle. My favourite is the butcher van (with its Old MacDonald tune) staffed by a young couple who come on Wednesdays. They have sausages to die for. The breadman I’m steering clear of, as I don’t need that daily temptation. The frozen food guy will have to wait until we get a freezer. And the household supplies won’t get any business as I have that hording gene that ensures I always have a bottle of whatever I need in reserve.

In the 2-hour drive from the city, I play my country music and sing my head off to Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt and the like. If the mood takes me, I think along to Blues. But when I pass the county line into Zala, I start to breathe more easily. When I drive through the village of Zalakomar and come out the other side (right now greeted by a haze of yellow with fields planted with oil seed rape) I can feel every ounce of tension dissipate. That couple of miles before I hit our village is one of mounting excitement. What will have budded in the garden? Will the carpenter have been to put in the windows? Will Gyöngyi Néni (my neighbour) have left some eggs on the doorstep? Will the view over the Kis Balaton have changed?

The house is a work in progress. It’ll take a while (as in years) to get it to where I want it but that’s okay. The process is one I enjoy. When work has stalled, I find myself shopping for old furniture. I’m trying my hand at shabby-chiqing and plan on giving upholstering a go, too. I get to do the inside; the outside I’ve left to himself.

I’m not a gardener. Never have been. Laziness saved me from uprooting weeds only to discover this week that they are actually irises. But the fruit trees are budding and we haven’t a clue what we have. Peaches? Cherries? Plums? Apples? It’s all a matter of wait and see. And that’s the beauty.

Time down here takes on new meaning. Everything is laid back. They say they’ll come around 8 on Tuesday – but which Tuesday, whose 8? Things happen when they happen. On days I have work, I work; all day and half the night, cooped up in my dark room that just got a fabulous new window. My coffee breaks I take on the terrace.

We eat when we’re hungry, stay up half the night watching West Wing dvds, get up when we feel like it. There’s no schedule. There’s nowhere to be. There’s nothing to do but live.

Two years ago, when I got on that bus, I never for a minute imagined that this would be the part of my life that I miss most when I’m not living it. And if JFW and CsRW hadn’t paved the way, I’d not be here. So this week, with the new windows in place and the painter set to start next week, I’m truly grateful for that May day invitation two years ago. Who’d have thought that I’m really a country girl at heart.

Reluctant to leave

After a number of years of living in rural Alaska, I began to hanker for the city smoke. The bustle. The arts. The restaurants. I didn’t want to have to wait until the annual theatre festival – I wanted drama, year round. Not the personal kind; the staged kind. I loved living in Valdez. My commute was  spectacular. The mountains seemed to rise out of the water on those days they weren’t completely hidden by cloud. I liked the small-town feel of it all, that everyone knew everyone. But after 9/11, I felt the walls close in a little and I needed to go home.

I swapped rural Alaska for semi-rural Ireland to ease myself back into it all before heading to London – the big city. I traded community for anonymity and I loved it, too. For a time. But then the city got too much and I downsized – to Oxford. Still within a relatively easy commute of the city but straddling the fence between the modern metropolis of London and the wizened, oldie-worldliness of Woodstock, it was great while it lasted. Circumstance moved me further South East and after two years of living in an earthly rendition of God’s waiting room, I was back to hankering for city lights that didn’t go out at 8pm. And so to Budapest.

I love it. And if anything, I love it more now than I did, say, last year. Because now I don’t have to get on a plane to leave it. I have the best of both worlds, splitting my time between the city and the countryside and two more different lives I can’t imagine.The country me favours fleece cotton pj bottoms and an old sweatshirt. She potters from desk to kitchen table to sofa depending on the mood. Nights are spent watching boxsets or reading. Days are spent working or exploring. Phone calls are a rarity and visitors are few. It’s a little piece of heaven.

Balatonmagyaród sits on the southern end of the Kis-Balaton, a few miles off the M7. From what I can find, the first time it appeared on any records was in 1308… so it’s old. Back then, villages were owned by families and in the late fifteenth century, it was the Báthory’s turn. Some time around 1540 it was destroyed (by the Turks perhaps?) and again around 1680, when the Germans and Croats passed through and burned it down.

In 1696 Széchényi György took over and pretty soon, despite the odds, the place was flourishing. By 1739, there was a church. By the 1800s, several noble families had taken up residence and by the mid-1800s, 752 people called it home. Fast forward to the 1920 when the lake was drained to reclaim some agricultural land and this is where it gets hazy for me. From what I gather, this wasn’t altogether successful; so much so that in 1985 (I think), the lake was flooded again. The marshes returned, the birds came back, and it’s now a conservation area, famous for its bird life and the Great Crested Grebe, in particular.  The walk around Kányavári sziget, an island in the lake accessible by a rather spectacular wooden bridge, is a lovely way to spend a couple of hours, enjoying the birds and watching the fishermen watch the fish. 

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It took me a number of years to get my head around the fact that the Balaton doesn’t stand upright on the map but rather drapes itself as if on a chaise longue. And now I discover that the Kis-Balaton appears to be not one but two lakes. I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag.

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Anyway, yesterday evening, just after sunset, I watch hundreds of greylag geese come home. They flew in formation back to the lake for the night, having spent the day God only knows where. It was quite spectacular. The noise was deafening. I would have thought they’d be long gone by now, particularly as the lake is quite frozen. But they’re sticking around and, from what I read, these overwinters are not that unusual but they’re just a fraction of the whole population. The lake is about 400 m from the house but these guys may as well be living next door. If only I could speak goose.

I’m happy to swap the police sirens for gaggles of geese. I’m even happier to swap the post-midnight street arguments about where to go next for gentler, more rhythmic bird calls. And like the greylag geese, when it comes time to go, I’m reluctant to leave. But Serbia calls…

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