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The magic flautist

The first time I set foot in Hungary, back in 2003, I recognised the affinity that is peculiar to the Hungarians and the Irish. It goes beyond literature and art, beyond folklore and tradition. It’s something that resides deep in the souls of both peoples, something intangible.

Of course, literature and art have their space. Bloomsday celebrations of Joyce’s work are huge in Szombathely. The Weeping Madonna at Győr – who apparently cried tears of blood on 17 March 1697 after the Irish Parliament voted in favour of the Banishment Act to rid the country of its clergy – is further testament to an age-old connection between the two countries, this one based in a shared sense of Catholicism. And a retired diplomat I met recently told me of 400-page treatise written by a Hungarian scholar on the similarities between the two languages – Gaelic and Hungarian.

But it is in the Hungarian adoption of Irish music that I find the most inspiring. In Kobuci kert recently I first heard Paddy and the Rats. Hailing from Miskolc, the lads bill their genre as Pub ‘n’ Roll, Celtic Punk, and Sailor Punk. Between the six of them, their energy could keep Budapest in lights for a day. Paddy himself had the audience in the palm of his hand, in true Irish story-telling form. I was blown away.

IMG_7393And yet, good and all as they are, my heart is with Firkin who played an hour-long gig at the recent Sparking Wine Festival in Budafok.  Although it had been a while since I’d seen them live, they hadn’t lost their magic. There’s something quite surreal in hearing old Irish songs belted out in Hungarian. And, in fact, on more than one occasion, I could have sworn the lads were singing in Gaelic. Perhaps there is a connection between the languages after all.

IMG_7403 (600x800)Were I to be totally honest, I’d admit to being a little enthralled by their flautist. There’s something magical about János Péter; it was as if he’d sprung from the netherworld of the sidhe (the fairy folk), brimming with mischief and life. I can’t help thinking that had we more of his energy, we might manage to lift ourselves from the political doldrums that currently ensnare us.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2013

From Budafok to Bonn

Apart from the fact that I’m having an increasingly hard time imagining sweet nothings whispered in German actually sounding remotely romantic, I was quite taken with Bonn. I’ve even picked out my house. It’s a small, walkable city that seems to be living in the shadows of its perhaps more famous, or more ‘out there’ neighbours: Cologne and Dusseldorf. I know you can’t go by my geography, but last time I was in Cologne, I had no idea that Bonn was literally up the road. Yes, I knew it was once the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, but that’s about the sum total of my knowledge. How pathetic is that?

Apparently, it started off in the first centry AD  as Castra Bonnensia, a Roman fortress. When the Roman Empire broke up, it became a civilian settlement and then, in the 9th century, it became the Frankish town of Bonnburg. In 1949, the quiet University town was catapulted into the limelight as the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, a term it would serve until 1991, when Berlin once more resumed the mantel as Germany was reunified. So, it’s been around for a while and despite the wars, it’s still a beautiful city, tucked away on the banks of the Rhine. Beethoven was born there, Schumann lived there, and Karl Marx studied there.

The first thing I noticed about it is that it’s green. It has so many trees, parks, lawns, flowerbeds… a nightmare for those afflicted with hayfever, but a welcome respite from the usual, built-up metropoli that pass for major cities these days. Apparently 51% of the city is protected:  28% under landscape protection and 23% nature preserves.

The second thing I noticed is that it has big bio supermarkets – not a couple of shelves in the main shops dedicated to a paltry selection of bioproducts, but huge stores stocked with organic and bio products. So much to choose from and so much locally produced. How novel is that? I even came across a clothes shop that stocked only clothes by a German designer that are made in Germany – Zero has become my second-favourite, must-visit, must-buy clothes shop after the WE  chain in the Netherlands and Belgium.

And the third thing is its community spirit. Okay, so this isn’t exactly a tangible thing but if you watch, you see. The door of the Cathedral seemed to be staffed by a series of what look liked those on the down and out. They opened and closed the huge doors as visitors entered and left the church. Some people gave them money.  I saw a old lady pass off a packed lunch with a sleight of hand that said she wanted neither thanks nor recognition.

And then there’s the book stops: places where people can come and swap books, free of charge. Ok – I’ve seens these in some more progressive cafés, but never as standalone bookbanks in the middle of a street or park. There’s one on Poppelsdorfer Allee that draws quite a crowd on Sundays. I met an American chap there who appears to be its self-appointed guardian – making sure that if you take a book, you leave one, too, unless, of course, you’re a visitor to the city and didn’t know the rules! [And yes, people still wait for the green man to cross the road.] Interstingly, he is writing a book about these book stops and the characters they attract and the emotions they bring out in people. I don’t think I quite caught everything he was saying, but he managed to spin me a tale of mystery, mafia, and melancholy that might just make me buy his book, if it is ever translated to English.

There’s another one up by the University – this time housed in a red British phone box which was donated to Bonn by the University of Oxford. Right beside it is a signpost showing the distance to Oxford in kilometres, and the distance to Budafok. Is that my Budafok, I wonder? And, curiously,  the local wine is known as Drachenblut (Dragon’s Blood), a fine competition for Hungary’s Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood).

Both book stops are near to huge, open park areas with plenty of park benches – it was so nice to see so many readers out there doing their thing! All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.