2015 Grateful 36: Mark Dawson

Who exactly is Mark Dawson? How come I didn’t know about him? I consider myself reasonably clued in with regard to who’s writing what in the crime/thriller world and would be reasonably familiar with a lot of author names and characters. And if I hadn’t read them, they’d have come up in conversation with similar crime aficionados. But Mark Dawson slipped beneath my radar. Read more

There's more to a country than its capital

When I ask an Irish person where they’re from, I get the name of the village. When I ask a Hungarian, if they’re not from Budapest or one of the bigger towns/cities like Debrecen, Miskolcs, Pécs, Győr, or Sopron, they simply say ‘the countyside’. Now, in fairness, this could well be because they assume I won’t recognise the name of their town or village, but sometimes I get the impression that to be ‘from the countryside’ simply isn’t cool. And that’s wrong.

The small town of Békéscsaba made the news last weekend in more places than Hungary. And all because a footballer in the local second division club scored a goal that is in contention for FIFA’s Puskás Award. Named after that great Hungarian footballer Ferenc Puskás, who also played for Real Madrid, the award goes to the player who scores that ‘most beautiful’ goal of the year. And Birtalan Botond, who made the world’s football stage on Saturday with his ‘incredible backheel scorpion kick volley’, in a game against Gyirmot, might well be taking home the trophy. How cool is that?

I wrote earlier this year about going to a pig killing in the village with the boys from Békéscsaba 1912 Előre. And while I was there, I got to see more than just the killing.

Local man Zoltán Váradi has turned an attic in one of his outbuildings into a private museum. He was concerned that his children and their children were losing touch with the traditions he and his parents and grandparents grew up with. Modern life, in its technological wonder, leaves little room for anything else, as iPods and smartphones and other wonder-gadgets make everything look redundant.

IMG_5972He scoured through stuff that his parents and grandparents had left lying around and collected them all in one place. Farming implements, tools, dishes, clothes, leather goods, pálinka stills, and viniculture accoutrements line the walls of the attic, marking the evolution of technological progress over the space of a hundred years or so. Going upstairs amidst the hanging hurka (sausage) is like stepping back in time.

He took me on a tour, all the while telling me of his life, of how he grew up with Communism and what this meant for him. He quietly related how confused he was as a child when the Party decreed he could no longer pray. He told of the changes that came after the transition when the country moved from full employment to capitalism, which brought with it its accompanying woes.

IMG_5986 (600x800)As we travelled around the room, he pointed out WWI memorabilia that came from uncles and granduncles who had fought alongside the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who died fighting with Austria-Hungary along the northern border between Austria and Italy. A stunningly beautiful jewellery box from 1910 spoke of the relative wealth of his ancestors. A magnificent heavy embroidered wool coat transformed this modern man into a traditional shepherd. Years fell away and the heart of the Hungarian in him shone through.

He says he did it out of respect – respect for a way of life that is no more. He says he put the museum together to remind him of all that had gone before him. It’s a peaceful place, a lovely spot in which to sit and have a pálinka, to recalibrate and remember from whence you’ve come.

Zoltán, too, played for Békéscsaba back in the day and while he and Birtalan (a Budapest native) are from different generations, they both share the fortunes of this small town. One has captured the football world’s attention while the other quietly makes sure his world never forgets.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 March 2015

2015 Grateful 51

foreignerEveryone is a foreigner somewhere. I’ve been a foreigner for almost half my life. And while there are days when I wish that I fit in, that I could speak the language well enough to get by, and that I had an innate, almost intuitive understanding of all things cultural here in Hungary, there are other times that I delight in being a külföldi. And if I have to be a foreigner, being Irish is perhaps about as good as it gets. But then, I’m biased.

I don’t think there will ever be a time when I don’t hanker for something from home – be it crisps or chocolate or tea. There will always beenIrish abroad comparisons in my mind, ratings and yardsticks that help analyse how I feel about something and offer some sense of perspective on an issue that’s bothering me. And yet when I’m in Ireland for any length of time, I find myself hankering for some things Hungarian. And when I’m somewhere else entirely, it’s a toss-up  as to which country I’m using as my meter.

I was in Békéscsaba this weekend – a town of about 80 000 people half way between the cities of Debrecen and Szeged, the second and fourth largest cities in Hungary, respectively. And, as is somewhat the norm in smaller cities and towns in Hungary, English isn’t as widely-spoken as it is in Budapest. But I got by. My myriad questions on local customs and traditions were met with patience and tolerance, with everyone happy  to take the time to make themselves understood and to help me understand. The hospitality shown was second to none. Because everyone so obviously wanted me to have a good time, there was little option but to enjoy. And enjoy I did.

I remember my first trip to India and how before our meetings started, I’d ask my hosts some questions about stuff I’d seen on TV the night before or things I’d noticed in the street. And far from begrudging me the time I was taking from their busy schedules, they went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that I enjoyed my stay. It was as if showing an interest in their lives unlocked a door that might otherwise have stayed closed.

The more questions I ask when I travel, the happier people are to spend time with me. French Nobel Laureate Anatole France reckoned that curiosity is man’s greatest virtue and he had a point. It’s only by asking questions that we can ever hope to understand what’s going on. And we don’t necessarily need every question answered, either. It’s enough to ask.

My mother reckons I was born asking a question – my initial wail apparently sounded very much like an elongated whhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyy. In primary school, when I moved from one class to the next, my old teacher would warn the one who was getting me that I had a thing for asking questions. And it would seem that I’ve never lost it.

This week has been a good one. I caught up with some old friends. I caught up on my sleep. And I got to travel. Most of my questions were answered and those that weren’t are not keeping me awake at night. I met some really interesting, inspiring people who, by taking the time to talk to me, to answer my questions, have made my world all the richer. And for this I’m truly grateful.





2014 Grateful 32

As life-long fans of QPR bask in the aftermath of their Championship win yesterday and their team’s promotion to the Premier League, Réal Madrid fans were also celebrating their team’s UEFA Champions League win. Football is something that transcends borders, colour, religion – in fact, in and of itself it could well be seen as a religion of sorts, such is the fervour and faith displayed by its fans.

IMG_2290 (800x600)For the last two seasons, I’ve been part of a small international following of a third-division Hungarian team Létavértes. Yesterday, nine of us showed up at their final league match in Hatvan, a town that got its name by virtue of the fact that it sits 60 km from Budapest. Lightning flashed throughout the game but the threatened thunderstorm never came to pass. The slight showers weren’t enough to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm and our team’s 4-2 win made the cold worth standing.

IMG_2300 (800x600)IMG_2310 (800x600)True to form, our lads played their hearts out. They’d already technically won the league when they played last Saturday. Goal difference made them uncatchable… unless one of the other teams pulled off a miracle or three.We were ahead on goals and yellow cards – not their finest performance as sportsmen admittedly – but the other team’s coach was sent off and tempers on both sides were frayed.

The lads have been somewhat bemused by this random set of internationals showing up to cheer them on at their away games near Budapest and they’ve appreciated our support. The others in the stands have also been somewhat amused by our antics, as our lack of portable cushions and sunflower seeds (the basic accessories for football fans in Hungary) mark us as different.

The coach, Zoran Spisljak, is moving on. He’s going to Békéscsaba, a second division team with its sights set on promotion. The Big Z’s track record speaks for itself – taking Debrecen to the Champions League in 2009, stopping Ujpest being relegated and taking them to the semi-final of the Hungarian Cup in 2012, and then Létavértes (which an average age of just 19) emerging as Champions this year.

While I’ve enjoyed the Létavértes games and cheered as if I had a blood relationship with them all, my time is done. Next season, I’ll be cheering just as hard for the lads at Békéscsaba. Real football fans will no doubt break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of such a traitorous transition. And they might have a point: this apparent fickleness has made me stop and look a little closer at loyalty.

The game itself does nothing for me. I’ve said that before. But seeing the players develop, the pride they take in their game, and the enthusiasm with which they play – that’s refreshing. That I can support. I’m a great fan of the Big Z – had more managers a modicum of his insight into what it takes to motivate people and develop talent, Hungarian football would be more competitive and, if business managers took note, the world would be a better place.

Living in Hungary as an expat, it’s good to have something to support. Watching an English team play on TV doesn’t even come close to sitting on concrete steps in a town with a singularly unimaginative name and cheering the lads on as if the salvation of tomorrow depended on it. And doing so with people from so many different countries certainly adds to the experience, an experience to be grateful for and one I look forward to repeating.

So congrats to Létavértes. Pick up that cup next Sunday and be proud. Am sure we’ll be seeing some of you in Békéscsaba.