I have a peculiarly impulsive sense of smell that has led me to stopping random people and commenting on the scent they’re wearing. Women usually smile, take the compliment in their stride, and volunteer the name of their perfume. Men, once they get over my brazenness, seem inordinately chuffed that someone even noticed. Read more

Coming home

I have a weakness. I have several weaknesses in fact, but more than any of the others, this one I find impossible to resist. You can keep your wine. You can have your chocolate. You can save your flowers. What gets me every time is bread. Fresh bread. With a wad of Irish butter. There is nothing tastier. It works. Every. Single. Time. And it’s not just an Irish thing, it’s a Hungarian thing, too. Well, maybe not the butter. Read more

If only we hadn’t missed that turn

Back in 2008 at a conference in Budapest, I discovered Thinkers50, a biannual global ranking of management thinkers billed as ‘the essential guide to which thinkers and which ideas matter now.’ When the list launched in 2001, Charles Handy held the No. 2 spot. He was in Budapest to mark the publication of two of his books in Hungarian. I had the pleasure of introducing one of them – The Empty Raincoat (Üres esőkabát) – at the launch. We discovered, in conversation, that he was born less than a mile from me at home, in the vicarage on the other side of the crossroads. How small the world. Read more

Better leaders, better world

I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a primary school teacher. I gave little thought to my second and third choices on my college application form. So when I got the letter from the Teacher Training College saying that I hadn’t gotten a place, I was devastated. I’d just turned 17. The future had morphed overnight from a well-thought-out career/life path into a complete unknown.

Career guidance, as it was known then, consisted of government-issued leaflets on all sorts of jobs. Such was the guidance offered in my school that long-distance-trucking was once an option on my future board. I had no one to turn to. Life coaching wouldn’t come into fashion until years later. And self-help books didn’t quite cover last-minute decisions on career choices.

I ended up studying Accounting and Finance. A bad choice. I lasted just one year before bailing in favour of a paid, pensionable position that had the advantage of ready money but the disadvantage of a lifetime of drudgery.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in higher education, taking certificates, diplomas, and degrees in various disciplines from counselling and communications to safety management. I wasn’t studying with any great plan in mind – I was studying to stay engaged.

One of the most difficult things about living in a country where my ability to speak the language falls short is that I miss out on classes and courses offered only in Hungarian. Flower arranging, paper making, ballroom dancing – all toyed with and discarded. And while I might well be able to muddle my way through the instruction, when it comes to coaching (another subject of interest), fully understanding the language is a must.

beakepzesbemutatsavagottI came across Business Coach Kft recently and its 60-hour intensive SPARKLE coaching course (offered in English) certified by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). There’s quite the demand for an English-language coaching course apparently, as many international companies based in Hungary have non-Hungarian-speakers in their employ.

Competition for managerial and supervisory positions is such that being trained to support the development of others ranks high in the plus column when it comes to promotion. And indeed feedback from those who have completed the course confirms as much. They say they know themselves better (an oft-overlooked but extremely important facet of being a good manager). They have become more effective leaders by using the coaching methods and tools they were taught. Some start coaching within their own companies, a reflection of the modern ethos that a coaching-style leadership is effective as it promotes better communication and collaboration. Managers focus more on developing their people rather than simply telling them what to do. This style of leadership helps build trust and brings out the creativity in people.

Others see the certification as a stepping stone out of the corporate grind and choose to work independently as a coach, a particularly attractive option for anyone who wants a better work/life balance that can come with freelance work and being able to fit work around a hectic home schedule.

When it comes to training to be a coach, though, choose carefully. Be sure to get an internationally recognised certification. According to Laura Komócsin, owner of Business Coach Kft, 90% of coaches in China are expats who choose to stay in country when their corporate tenure finishes. [I once had a very successful coaching experience via Skype from Germany.] It’s definitely doable.

Coaching isn’t about offering solutions, but rather supporting others to find their own answers. Trainees learn to identify new alternatives, find resources, and trust that their client has all the required skills and resources to find their own solution.  Thankfully, in Hungary, learning these types of skills is no longer language-dependent. And as the Business Coach Kft’s tag line says: better leaders, better world.

First published in the Budapest Times 30 September 2016

The royal Balaton

My geography is terrible. My Hungarian geography is particularly bad. Add that to a horrible sense of direction and the countless times I’ve gotten lost in life are easily explained. I’d take a simple left or right over east and west any day, but even then you’d have to tell me which way to face.

I cannot fix the shape and direction of the Balaton in my head. I want to stand it on its end, vertically. Otherwise the whole North/South shore thing simply doesn’t make sense in my peculiar world of logic. Perhaps this is why I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been down there … or is it over there? See what I mean?

When you take all this directionally challenged, geographic ignorance and put it behind the steering wheel of a car, you get disaster. I’m fine driving on my own. But when others are in the car with me, what little navigational sense I have switches off. I state clearly that I am simply driving. Others have to navigate and make decisions. But it rarely works well.

I thought we were going to see Keszthely. They thought we were going to the Balaton. The fact that Keszthely is on the Balaton is immaterial. I was thinking a wander round the town; they were thinking a swim. And as all of us are staunch believers in  the capacity of divine inspiration to replace verbal communication, we ended up in Szigliget, the first signpost we saw after tempers frayed and sensibilities unravelled. The afternoon was in danger of spiralling into a chilly silence that would have done away with any need for air conditioning.

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The village lies in the shadow of Szigligeti vár, the ruins of a castle built around 1260 atop a 242 metre hill. It is said that King Béla IV donated Szigliget to the Benedictines from Pannonhalma so that they could build a castle which then passed into royal ownership. The panoramic views of the Balaton and Tapolca are stunning and more than worth the hike up the hill and the steps up to the oldest tower.  One of the few castles in Hungary to never fly the Ottoman flag, its soldiers managed to maintain its independence for 150 years. While some say it was blown up on the orders of Emperor Lipót in 1702, I have it on local authority that it was felled by a lightning strike. You choose.

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What stones lefIMG_5116 (800x600)t are beautifully showcased with tri-lingual signs (Hungarian, English, and German) explaining what once stood where. The chapel, now restored, is simple and lovely and given to quiet contemplation of how the world has changed in the 755 IMG_5118 (800x600)years or so since people first knelt to pray inside. With its Baroque kitchen, weapons display, and schoolroom, the place provides quite an insight into times past. It’s not difficult to imagine how things might have been.  But if you don’t have the imagination needed, you can IMG_5095 (800x600)download an app that will do it for you. (That puts the smart back into smartphones.)

There is also a 2-3 hour study trail that takes in the castle and the village, with points of interest (everything IMG_5100 (800x600)from wildlife to volcanoes) noted on signposts along the way. Afterwards, to cool down, Szigliget strand provides respite for the sweaty traveller. Hitting it at 5pm as we did, the day before the season officially opened, we had the place practically to ourselves. Heaven.

Admission is 600 ft (concessions 300 ft). The castle is open seven days a week. From 9am to 7pm in June. From 8am to 8pm in July and August.  Worth a visit, if you’re in the area.

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First published in the Budapest Times 3 June 2016

Úgy áll ott a várrom,
mint öreg király fején korhadt koronája.
Ajtónak, ablaknak nyílásán áttör a
nap fénye, s az a fény a távolból
mintha drágaköve volna a koronának.
(Eötvös Károly)
There stand the castle ruins
like the decayed crown
on the head of an old king.
Through door and window breaks
the sunlight, and from a distance the light
is like the jewels in the crown.
(Translation: Bernard Adams)

Break for the border

I have an innate distrust of guide books, the well-known names in the travel world. I doubt if the authors have ever even been to the places they write about. I dislike their sameness. I prefer to find books written by locals, books that talk about the depth of a place rather than gloss over the superficial elements designed for photo opportunities and postcards.

Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. Sadly, I lent the book to a friend whose flat was burgled; the burglar was obviously planning on taking a trip there, too, as he made off with my mate’s laptop and my copy of this brilliant little book. I bought it because I was struck by the blurb: With everything from practical advice for aspiring Venetian lovers to hints at where to find the best bacaro, Scarpa waves the tourist in the right direction and, without naming a single restaurant, hotel or bar, relates the secret language needed to experience the real Venice. So ignore the street signs – why fight the labyrinth? Excellent.

A couple of weekends ago, on the second of my Border Dashes this year, we headed to Košice, a city in Eastern Slovakia known more familiarly in Hungary as Kassa. We caught the 6.30 am train from Keleti Station on Saturday morning and arrived at our destination around 10 am.

We’d booked into the lovely Penzión Hradbová, close to the Dominican Church. Newly refurbished it has a great little spa and offers a cooked breakfast in the morning. The staff are friendly, helpful, and on call 24/7. Recommended.

Bags dropped, we headed to the Tourist Information Office. With just 36 hours to see as much as possible, we thought a walking tour would be a good place to start. It was here that we found a gem: a bi-lingual guidebook. Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice. A sequel to Wanders in Košice, it focuses on the details that are so often overlooked. It tells story after story of the little things worth looking for.  We bought both and sat for an hour over coffee at the fabulous secessionist Hotel Slavia on the town’s main street, where we picked out what we’d like to see and plotted our route. Our picks were not included in the two-hour walking tour we had later that day so we really did get to see a lot.

IMG_4396 (1280x960)IMG_4292 (800x600)From the grandeur of St Elisabeth’s Cathedral to the barrenness of Miklus Prison, from the treasury of gold coins discovered in 1935 to the splendour of the botanical gardens, the city is made for walking. We tracked down the military shoe tree, the gargoyle of the ugly woman captured by the water goblin, and the stonework on the old Thalia theatre. We wandered the backstreets tracing the footsteps of the great poet Sándor Márai. We found craftsman’s row and promised ourselves to come back when everything was open. And we lucked out and got to see the heart-wrenching inscription preserved on the wall of the synagogue.

IMG_4458 (800x600)IMG_4461 (1280x960)Košice is home of the oldest marathon outside of Greece. It has a world-renowned opera house that attracts big names (the programme is worth keeping an eye on). And it has the best pizza this side of Naples. I kid you not: the pizza at ZaZza Pizza is worth the train ticket alone.

Sunday evening we were ready to head back to Budapest. According to Máv (both the website and the ticket agent) our train was to leave at 18.30. Remembering our near miss when in Subotica recently, I asked the Penzión to triple-check. Máv was wrong – again. Beware. The one train of the day leaves for Budapest at 18.02. Am sure there is nothing in any guidebook about that!

First published in the Budapest Times  29 April 2016

Beer and other matters of distinction

If I needed affirmation that I’d picked the best district in which to live in Budapest (something I’ve long since known), I got it recently when Vogue described Budapest’s District VIII as ‘delightfully shabby’ and named it ‘Budapest’s new must-visit spot’. Duh. Where have ye been, people? I’ve been banging on about this for years!

My little corner of the neighbourhood has been undergoing huge change, change that I document reasonably frequently. It needs to be done. Stuff opens up here almost overnight. I go away for a couple of weeks or so and come back to find yet another little gem on my doorstep.

sor5Right next door to what has to be my favourite wine bar/shop in the city, Vino és Wonka (which translates as ‘wine and chocolate’ – what’s not to like?) is the new Serfőző. This Czech beer pub also stocks beer from Hungary and Germany, both on draught and by the bottle. While its wine choice is limited (it favours wine from the cannot-go-wrong region of Szekszárd) and more of a nod to the non-beer drinkers who might be dragged inside that for serious wine drinkers, I had no complaints. It’s small, cosy, and serves up a variety of good beer to those lucky enough to get a seat.

sor2An offshoot of the successful Serfőző brand, which is perhaps better known for its involvement in Budapest’s regular summer craft beer festival (also in District VIII), partner László Kóczián didn’t waste much time moving in. He first spotted the vacant premises during a beer festival they organised in Corvin Sétány back in May and by 8 December, the doors were open and the beer was flowing.
sor4Kóczián is no stranger to running a pub. His mother ran a small pub down on Csepel Island and he more or less grew up in the trade. A graduate in Event Management, this 30-year-old typifies the talent and initiative that underlies the Hungarian start-up culture. He saw a gap in the market – this particular part of District VIII needed a pub that sold decent beer – and he went for it. He joined forces with a beer importer who gets the beer to Hungary and then he, Kóczián, sells it on. A match made in brew-heaven. I was nearly tempted by a green kiwi beer but resisted. Given the recent anti-Uber demonstrations in the city, I had to smile at the display of Taxis beers.

sor1Not content though with having a foothold in the beer business in the form of a licensed premises, Kóczián and his crew are going one better – a winter, indoor beer festival. Who says festivals have to be outside? No need to wait for summer to indulge as Serfőző has teamed up with the Gellert Hotel to host the city’s first Winter Beer Festival on the weekend of 19-21 February. The three-day event will focus on English beers on Friday, German beers on Saturday, and Czech beers on Sunday.

sor3I can’t say that beer floats my oats, but even I was just a tad impressed by the line-up. The festival will feature Hungarian breweries Bigfoot, Franzberger, and Sümegi alongside the Bavarian Maisel Brewery and the Czech Nymburk Brewery home of the famous (as in even I’ve heard of it) Postřižinské [it gets its name from Bohumil Hrabal’s book Postřižiny (translated as Cutting It Short) and immortalised in film in Jiří Menzel’s famous comedy of the same name]. They reckon they’ll have more than a 100 all told. The festival will also have music, food, and an exhibition of beer collectors’ curiosities. Whatever tickles your taste buds.

Check their Facebook event for details.  Tickets are available from the usual outlets and from the pub on Corvin Sétány – as if you needed an excuse to drop by.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 February 2016

A New Year’s Prayer

For many, 2015 might be a year they’d prefer to forget. One that brought all sorts of travesties to the world, resulting in the deaths of many and the maiming of more. One that unpeeled the facets of human nature to reveal a selfish, hardened core, offensive to some, frighteningly acceptable to others. One that pitted friends against friends as politics and policies introduced a whole new level of divisiveness. Yes, for many, 2016 couldn’t have come too soon.

While the world at large may not have fared well, individual worlds trundled along quite nicely, untouched to any great extent by the global happenings and perhaps a steadfast refusal to get involved. A case in point was last year’s refugee crisis at Keleti Station in Budapest. If you had no reason to go to that part of the city, you could have happily ignored what was going on.  The recent flooding in Ireland and the north of England is another. If you lived far from a river, lake or sea, you could watch in detached horror as others have all they’ve worked for destroyed by rising waters.  The bombings in Paris and Beirut and the shootings in San Bernadino and Roseberg could be viewed as if part of a Hollywood movie. These and other catastrophes likely had most of us offering thanks to whatever higher being we turn to in times of crisis: thanks that we were not there, not involved, not affected.

When the world goes so off kilter, the whole ‘God question’ hovers as those who don’t believe question why any god would allow such chaos to prevail. Those who believe in one exclusive God dig in and proclaim that theirs offers access to the one and only pathway to true salvation. And of such blinkeredness, fundamentalism is born.

My uncle told a joke over Christmas dinner. God (whichever god), was giving a new entrant a tour of heaven. As they looked down over the vast expanse, he pointed out the Jewish section, the Muslim section, the Hindu section, the various Protestant sections, and those sections belonging to the other world religions until finally he pointed to the Catholic section. With it came a warning: Walk quietly past that gate, he said, as they believe they’re the only ones up here. Move the words around at will and there’s something in that.

I have my own views on religion. I subscribe to being a pick’n’mix Catholic with a belief that different religions see their version(s) of the one God. I don’t argue about it. I don’t debate the finer theistic points. I know that I need to believe and that it is my faith in a higher power whom I call God that keeps me sane. But as the world continues to spiral out of control, what are the odds that my God will continue to hear my prayers to spare me and mine hardship? I thought perhaps that I needed a new perspective on prayer and then I read this:

May God make your year a happy one.
Not by shielding you from all sorrows and pain,
But by strengthening you to bear it as it comes;
Not by making your path easy,
But by making you sturdy to travel any path;
Not by taking hardships from you,
But by taking fear from your heart;
Not by granting you unbroken sunshine,
But by keeping your face bright;
Not by making your life always pleasant,
But by showing you when people and their causes need you most,
And by making you anxious to be there to help.

So, no matter what you believe, may your God’s love, peace, hope, and joy stay with you for the year ahead.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 January 2016

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My wish this Christmas

The world is in a mess, a terrible mess. Decisions being made in the hallowed halls of power in one country are affecting the lives of ordinary people in another. Natural disasters are occurring all too regularly, depriving many of their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Unnatural disasters like mass shootings have become so frequent as to warrant little more than a raised eyebrow and a tut-tut from those not affected. Our morals are skewed and our values warped. We have relinquished control of our lives, lives that are now dictated by a constant search for success, be it material, fame, or power.

I can do nothing to change the world at large. I can’t stop the wars. I can’t reverse climate change. I can’t eradicate poverty. And much as I would like to, I can’t turn the clock back to an era where family and friends came before work and progress on our list of priorities. But that doesn’t stop me wishing it would all get better, that we would find a way to live together in peace and harmony, to share our resources, and to look out for our fellow man. Yet where would we start?

I’m writing this from India. I’ve been here for a week now and have been struck, once again, by the hospitality of the people, the pride they take in a job well done, and their constant good humour. When they smile their infectious smile, it’s as if someone switches on a light inside them. They’re quick to laugh, and seem to take genuine pleasure out of ordinary, simple interactions.

Take the service industry as a case in point. Nothing is too much trouble. Everyone is so obliging. And the attention to detail is meticulous. Whether it’s the auto-rickshaw driver or the hotel chauffeur, the concierge or the officer janitor, the shop assistant or the restaurant manager – each one seems to want to do what they can to make my life better. And the more I express my gratitude ‒ a simple thank you, an acknowledgement of what they’ve done ‒ the better it gets.

I made a lot of comparisons with Hungary and Ireland over the first couple of days, mostly unfavourable ones. If I could wave a magic wand, I would arrange for customer service everywhere to be like it is in India. It’s so refreshing not to see miserable faces, not to have to deal with recalcitrant attitudes, not to be dragged down by bad moods and foul humours.

And it’s not just the service industry. I’ve met a lot of different people in different cities and circumstances, people from all over India. And each one delights in the ordinary. It’s contagious. It’s hard to complain when all around you are actively looking for the best in everything. It’s hard to be negative when those with so little can still smile. It’s hard to be unhappy when everyone you meet finds joy in simply being alive.

None of this is new. As far back as the fourteenth century, Amir Khusro, poet-courtier-soldier-chronicler-linguist, nailed it:

How exhilarating is the atmosphere of India!
There cannot be a better teacher than the way of life of its people.
If any foreigner comes by, he will have to ask for nothing
Because they treat him as their own,
Play an excellent host and win his heart,
And show him how to smile like a flower.

My Christmas wish is that we might be infected by the spirit of India and learn to take delight in the ordinary, to appreciate those around us, and to count our blessings rather than our burdens.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 December 2015

Friendly faces when they’re most needed

In a world where politics polarises people, where contrary opinions can ruin friendships, where ideological differences can result in being ostracised, it’s easy to forget that we’re all human. We all have feelings. We all bleed red.

Whether you’re in favour of the new fence going up between Hungary and Serbia or whether you’re against it doesn’t take from the fact that thousands of those it’s designed to keep out are already here. And more are coming by the day.

Where are the churches? Those pastoral institutions that purport to have the care of humanity at their core? Surely it can’t be true that they are sitting idly by and doing nothing? Admittedly the problem is so huge that it’s difficult to know where to start, but thankfully there are groups of motivated individuals out there who are banding together to make a difference.

maid2People like Zsuzsa and Patrick at the Caledonia Pub on Moszár utca who have offered their pub as a drop-off / pick-up point for volunteers going to meet the trains of incoming migrants arriving from the border towns. They’re in need of items like baby food, personal hygiene products, medicine, and food. They have cold storage facilities for fresh fruit and sandwiches and a network of distributors. Volunteers can meet there to plan and discuss who is doing what and what needs to be done next. Check out their Facebook page Caledonia Social Bite for details.

maidAnother group, Migration AID, has set up sub-groups to man each of the main stations so that those arriving see some friendly faces doing what they can to help. Volunteers give juice to the kids, toiletries to the parents. Many need plasters for their blisters, cream for their sunburn, and lots and lots of water. Some need medical assistance, or help finding missing family members. And through their social media networks, these volunteers put out the word and find someone who can help.

I can’t begin to imagine what it might be like to have walked for hundreds of miles, for weeks on end, from Iraq, Syria and even Somalia, in search of a better life, leaving everything I own behind me, and then to finally arrive and not see a friendly face. In some circumstances, a plaster and a bottle of water must seem like manna from heaven.

Reports say that about 1000 people cross the Hungarian border every day. Those who don’t slip through unbeknownst to the border officials are fingerprinted as they request asylum. They’re given entry papers and 48 hours to make it to their reception centre. If they don’t, and they’re caught with expired papers, they face jail. When they disembark in Budapest, the station staff shepherd them outside. So they head to the parks, where the police come and move them on. They’re left to roam the streets, waiting for their next train out. There’s no coordination, no infrastructure, no system in place to cope.

But the people have rallied. Hundreds of volunteers are readily giving up their time to help in a situation that is getting more nightmarish by the day. They accept the fact that for whatever reason these people are here and they need help. Each one has a story to tell, stories which many of us, accustomed to a life of relative plenty might find it difficult to empathise with.

And while it is important to debate the politics of it all, to find a policy solution that will stem the tide, we would do well to imagine ourselves in their shoes and think of how we’d like to be treated if, tomorrow, we found ourselves homeless, blistered, and hungry in a strange country, knowing that going home wasn’t an option.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 July 2015