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Stop *&^!* thief!

The first Advent candle has been lit and the countdown to Christmas has officially begun. December is one of my favourite months of the year. The biting chill in the air is nicely combated by a warm infusion of mulled wine. The party mood is palpable. The markets are open and the city has a fairy-tale feel. I left the flat on Tuesday full of the joys of the season and just thirty minutes later my mood (and my language) had degenerated into that of a blaspheming fishwife. I surprised myself at the breadth of my invective – I hadn’t thought I was capable of such anger.

pp2My phone was stolen from my zipped-up bag while on the 47 tram. It happened as I crossed Széchenyi híd from Gellert tér to Fóvam tér. One stop. I didn’t notice until I went to pay for a coffee in the Grand Csarnok; the tourists queuing alongside me were treated to a strange mix of Hungarian, Gaelic, and English, as every bad word I knew came billowing out of me in a torrent of abuse directed at the world in general and one person in particular.

I don’t know what’s worse – that I didn’t notice it happening or that it happened at all.

I know it’s a first world problem – in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t herald the end of civilisation. Nobody died. It’s an inconvenience, albeit an expensive one, but just an inconvenience nonetheless.

If the culprit stole it just because they could, I’m not impressed. If they stole it to sell to feed a drug habit, I could drum up some modicum of sympathy. If they stole it to sell to buy food for their aging parents or starving children, then I could admit that they needed it more than I did.

But it’s not the loss of the phone itself that has my dander up – I won it a few years ago in a raffle so it didn’t cost me anything – it’s what was on the SIM card. Texts from my mate Lori before she died; Viber conversations that I like to revisit when I’m in need of cheering up; photos that I’ve taken to remind myself of books I want to read and wines I want to taste. The phone numbers, the addresses, the entry codes to friends’ apartments, none of which, of course, I thought to back up. Why would I?

Other people lose their phones or have them stolen. Not me. I had prided myself on being a little more careful. It could have been worse – they could have taken my wallet, too, and then I’d be facing an even worse nightmare as I made my way around town in an effort to replace my address card, my registration card, my driver’s licence, not to mention credit cards, debit cards, and my kidney donor card.

ppNo, it’s not the phone – it’s what the act itself represents. An invasion of privacy. A violation of self. An unwanted intrusion into my world that was neither solicited nor welcomed. If I met the culprit I’d ask them if they’d ever thought to weigh up their profit against someone else’s loss? They might get 5000 forint for the phone but the information I had on it was priceless, to me. I’d have much preferred just to give them the cash. Or even have them call me and offer me my phone back – at a price. A survey in Business Insider earlier this year puts me in the minority – just 5% of smartphone thefts are done on the street. It also puts me in the majority – I’d be prepared to pay to get it back. Perhaps though, that says more about my enslavement than it does about anything else.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 December 2014

Backstreets wanderer

‘So’, I said, ‘what do you want to do?’ My visitor technically wasn’t my visitor at all. I’d borrowed him for the afternoon from a friend who had to work and couldn’t entertain.

‘I need a coffee.’ It was one o’clock in the afternoon. We’d stayed out a little late the night before so coffee was also high on my agenda. After a quick think I settled on a tiny café/bakery on Hunyadi tér – ChocoDeli – that I am particularly fond of. I had hoped that the market would be in full swing but it doesn’t happen on a Sunday. Hunyadi tér market is one of the nicest in the city (and its market hall is the only one in the city that hasn’t yet been renovated). It has lots of great produce (particularly its herbs, its cheeses, and its flowers) and ChocoDeli has the best croissants in Budapest. But it, too, was closed.

It was one of those blue-skied sunshine Budapest days that come in spring and autumn – perfect for walking. So we walked. We followed Csengery to Almássy to Hársfa and down to Rákóczi, taking time along the way to look at some of the old buildings which though in dire need of a facelit, are still very beautiful. I was aiming for Bezerédi utca where the bullet holes from 1956 are still clearly visible. One top-floor window seems to have come under particularly heavy fire and when I look up, I have little difficulty imagining a sniper’s silhouette. I am fascinated by these remnants of times gone and never pass a bullet-ridden facade without stopping briefly to think a little and wonder.

Onwards then to the former Koztarsasag tér (now János Pál Pápa tér) where I noticed that the old Erkel theatre has reopened after many years of standingly idly by; it looks impressive. We stopped at the plaque commemorating the only foreign press casualty of 1956, French photographer Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini. He was 29. As always when I call on him, I was moved by the passion with which some people live their lives.

I was also hungry and wanted food and more particularly I wanted goose leg and red cabbage. And I wanted it from Huszár, one of my favourite restaurants in the city that sits on the Berzényi Daniel utca side of the square. But it, too, was closed – or closed to us at least – for a private function. I wasn’t doing very well at all.

With thoughts of food temporarily shelved (I’d called the lads at Kómpót on Corvin Sétány to make sure it was open so was happy enough), we strolled down to Kerepesi cemetery. It was a glorious day to commune with the dead and wander through monuments to the likes of Antall József, Kossuth Lajos, and Blaha Lujza. To the left of the main entrance, the Russian quarter had undergone a major renovation. It was a little surreal. More thinking is required on that one.

We caught the tram to Nagyvarad tér and walked down to check out the renovation of the old military school at Ludovika tér. Now the Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetemet (National Public Service University – a joint cooperation between the National Defence Academy, the Police Academy, and the Public Administration Faculty at Corvinus) it’s a wonderful example of what money can do for old builings. Truly stunning.

IMG_7750 (800x599)Finally, after a little detour up Leonardo Da Vinci utca to see the urban garden in full bloom, we ate. Not exactly your typical tourist trail admittedly, but sometimes venturing off the beaten track is a little more rewarding. Next week I might borrow a dog… or a toddler… and see where that takes me.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 October 2014

Into the unknown on wings of imagination

You would think that after seven years in a sometimes volatile but never boring relationship, I would have glimpsed, even if not fully understood, most facets of Budapest life. Seven years is long enough to get to know a city, its museums, its theatres, its bars and restaurants, its cafés, its libraries. Of course, some of the latter three often change their names and offers; that’s to be expected. But when it comes to the more established establishments, even if I’ve not set foot in every one of them, their names should register if mentioned.

I thought I was particularly up to date on my markets, having been to all I’d heard of at least once, if not repeatedly. So it was with some surprise that I learned of one I had missed: Bakancsos Utcai piac in the XVIIth district.

I have been to Örs vezér tere, the terminus of the No. 2 metro line, on numerous occasions. I’ve been mildly curious about the buses that leave from there, too, but I’ve never had reason to get on one. Any place past Örs vezér was a mystery, a part of the city that I’d never seen. Last weekend though, I ventured forth. The instructions were clear: Örs Vezér térről 67-es busz Szürkebegy utcai megálló (uszoda utáni 2. megálló) – get the 67 bus and get off two stops after the swimming pool.

The 25-minute trip threw up some wonderful place names that both simplified and confused. Uszoda (swimming pool) said it all, but what of 513 utca? What’s that about? What’s so significant about the number 513? I checked on Google maps and see there is a large square area in the XVIIth where all the streets are numbered in the 500s (from 500 to 545) and at its centre sits 525 tér. There’s a near-perfect symmetry in the layout of the streets which suggests that it’s a planned neighbourhood and if viewed from the air, I imagine it would look quite impressive. I now want to go see for myself.

The market itself is set in what for all the world looks like a piece of wasteland in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. We didn’t have to worry about finding our way: it seemed like everyone on the bus was heading in the same direction. Inside a walled area, hundreds of vendors had laid blankets on the ground or set up tables and were selling their wares.

Clothes, shoes, china, cutlery, books, records, photographs, pictures, vases, statues, lightbulbs – anything and everything you might ever want or need was there for the finding. And, unlike the city-centre markets such as Petőfi Csarnok or the better known suburban market Esceri piac, both of which are common tourist haunts, the prices in Bakancsos were reasonable. Very reasonable.

Flea markets like this are wonderful places to take a trip into a parallel universe. I lost some time looking at framed portraits, so engaged was I in imagining the lives of those in the pictures. Leafing through autograph books I was struck again by the stories that lay behind each and every item on sale. If only they could talk. It’s a mecca for anyone with an imagination. The old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is so true. People were buying the most unlikely things: why would you buy a wedding photo of total strangers? Trying to figure out why others had bought what they had was nearly as much fun as sifting through the remnants of bygone eras in search of something I didn’t know that I couldn’t live without myself. Open Friday to Sunday 6am-1pm, it’s a grand way to pass a Saturday morning.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 October 2014

Comments and their consequences

Dining out alone one evening lately, I got into conversation with a couple of Canadian tourists who were on a driving holiday through the region. They seemed very impressed with Budapest, so I didn’t feel the need to switch into ambassadorial gear and sing its praises. We agreed that Prague, while interesting, was simply too full of tourists to be enjoyable. And we shared similar impressions of Vienna as an aging dowager who had lost some of her joie de vivre.

They still had two weeks left of their tour and were in the process of planning their route to Zagreb. I’m a pathetic poker player. If a thought registers in my head, it’s clearly visible on my face. I have learned to immediately shift into self-correction mode, and I am getting faster at adjusting the image presented, but if you’re looking at me and paying attention, I’m like an open book. They were looking at me and they were paying attention; they registered and correctly interpreted my ‘Zagreb? Are you mad?’ look.

I had hoped to be let off lightly with a blasé ‘as a city, it just doesn’t do it for me’ but they were obviously looking forward to their visit and my careless reaction had thrown a big wet blanket on their enthusiasm. I had been introduced to them by the restaurant manager as someone who travels extensively and they wanted details.

IMG_1447 (800x600)Zagreb really doesn’t do it for me. I thought it tired, listless, and somewhat jaded. No matter how much I tried to conjure up some of the magic that must have been there back in the days of the Orient Express, I failed miserably. Even saying in the fantastic Esplanade Hotel wasn’t enough to fill the void. I tried to find some contemporary Croatian writers in translation to see what I was missing, but sadly, what I found was far from inspiring. We did walk about, we did explore, and apart from its wonderful cemetery, I can’t remember anything else of note. I’m glad I visited, but I’m in no hurry back.

My Canadian travellers decided that as they’d already booked and paid for their accommodation, they’d press on regardless of the fact that to my mind, a couple of days in Subotica and then on to Belgrade would have been far more interesting and rewarding.

Later that evening, I stopped to reflect on how easily I offer up my unsolicited opinion. Some might find this charming and even a little engaging. But not everyone really needs to know what I think. At least with blogging (and indeed, this column) people can choose whether or not to read what I have to write. But when we’re in conversation – short of telling me to shut up – there’s little you can do but listen or walk away.

I think I might need to revisit the carelessness with which I sometimes venture forth and perhaps take a second or two to give some thought to the consequences of my comments. So, Zagreb mightn’t be up there on my list of places to visit, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And while Budapest has its drawbacks, if you caught me on a bad day when nothing was going right and life in Outer Mongolia was looking positively attractive in comparison to yet another day in this city, I’d hate to think that my opinion on a given Tuesday might put you off coming to see it for yourself.

This week, I’m left wondering what sort of menu my comments would make if, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said: ‘Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.’

First published in the Budapest Times 26 September 2014

Christmas in the spring

christmasIt feels a little bit like Christmas here in Budapest, in spite of the fact that bare legs and bellies are being lured out of winter hibernation by the warm temperatures and sunshine. I say it feels a little bit like Christmas because it seems as if every week, we get a new present from the government.

Metro 4 was unwrapped recently with its new stations providing ample amusement for the masses. Riding the full length of the line and getting off at each new station has become the latest thing to do. It took a long time to get there. When I was here in 2007, I looked at a flat in what is now Janós Pál pápa tér. The old boy who was selling it told me that the Metro 4 would open soon. I hope he lived long enough to see it. While it was first mooted as a possibility back in 1970, construction didn’t start until 2006. The seven or so kilometres of line took seven years to deliver at a cost of €1.5 billion. The best part of this expensive present though, is that the line is fully accessible at all stations. Perhaps even more than bare legs and bellies will be tempted out of hibernation this summer.

The newly renovated Kossuth Lájos tér has been unveiled and it is looking rather well, dressed as it is to coincide with the second consecutive term in office of the ruling party Fidesz under the leadership of Mr Orbán with what looks very much like a supermajority. (I’m not very well up on my political ideologies but to me, the term democratic supermajority sounds like an oxymoron.) Revamped at a cost of close to €100 million, the eight-hectare area looks as magical to some as the recent pre-election 20% cuts in gas and utility bills look to others. Presents for everyone.

For those with a more artistic bent, the Erkel Theatre (the biggest theatre in Central Europe apparently) has been returned to its former glory over the course of just six years at a cost of €6.5 million. In his inauguration speech a few months ago, Mr Orban noted that ‘opera houses and concert halls are all temples of national culture, where the spirit and intellectual greatness of the nation is made apparent. This is what really determines a nation’s size, significance, quality, smallness or greatness.’ In light of this, then, the continued renovations of other venues like the Liszt Academy of Music (€45 million) and the Pesti Vigádo music hall (€7.5 million) makes sense to many, but perhaps less so to the homeless.

There are lots more presents on the list, too. We can look forward to the opening of the Castle Gardens Bazaar (€31 million) later this summer and work will soon begin the new Museum Quarter (€150 million). The FTC stadium (€45 million) will also open its seats to the football-going public in the foreseeable future. Quite close to me, the Ludovika renovation (€65 million) seems to be plodding along on schedule and I’m looking forward to the seeing the final result. And, of course, this is just in Budapest.

Going back to that speech in November to mark the opening of the Erkel Theatre, Mr Orbán quoted Churchill’s reply when he was told that austerity measures were needed within the fields of art and culture as they have no strategic role. He asked: Then what are we fighting for? And while Mr Orbán makes a point when he says that many indigenous peoples have no economy, no GDP, no import-export balance and often use no kind of currency, but they hang on tooth and nail to their own culture and unique arts, and insist on maintaining their own traditions, I’m left wondering at the cost of Budapest’s facelift and exactly who will benefit.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 April 2014

The right to bitch

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a wide-spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible. I wish I could claim that as my own but English philosopher Bertrand Russell beat me to it. And he makes a good point.

When I’m looking for excuses not to do what I should be doing, I like to scan expat blogs, check out the many expat forums, and read through the myriad Facebook comments, in an effort to see what the expat world thinks of living in Hungary. While many comments are at best rather inane, others border on outrageous.

This week, for instance, an advertisement seeking a native-English-speaker to work in an office here in Budapest got this response to a follow-up question as to why native English was a requirement, given the number of Hungarians who speak better English than a lot of native-English speakers:

“As someone who’s employed a hell of a lot of expats and ‘Hungarians with excellent English’ – let me share a common consensus when it comes to employing Hungarians in the future…. NEVER AGAIN. English is invariably sub par, general attitude problems are rife (how to motivate someone who struggles to smile??), pay expectations beyond reason (often due to a degree in something pointless) and to top it all off a real ‘no can do’ attitude.”

Thankfully, subsequent comments to this one showed that this is far from the common consensus the author claims.

voteI’ve long since held that if you don’t vote, then you shouldn’t complain about those in office. If you don’t get involved, you should keep your opinion to yourself. If you don’t engage with the community, then you should put up and shut up. But as the election approaches next week, I’m all too conscious of the fact that I don’t have a vote and yet whatever is decided at the polls is likely to affect how I live my life. It’s a scary thought.

But when it comes to my earned right to complain as a tax-paying, law-abiding, active member of the community, I’m left wondering where I draw the line.

Is it okay for me, say, to complain about the arbitrary nature of Magyar Posta’s ticketed queuing system, which by virtue of the fact that it’s automated should mean that everyone is seen in turn but rarely is? Or the fact that the ticket for a concert I attended as part of the Spring Festival on Tuesday night cost me €13.00 online and yet the printed ticket I received said 3000 ft (which is no more than €10.00)? Or the fact that as the hot weather approaches, alleyways and side streets are starting to smell like public urinals?

I say yes – I can complain. I live here. I pay taxes. I engage. That gives me the right to express my opinion. I’m not claiming it’s a common consensus. I’m not saying that I represent a majority. I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone but myself.

But if I were an expat living in Budapest who thought that the English spoken here was ‘sub par’ (vs Hungarian-language fluency level of foreigners living here???), who thought that pay expectations were beyond reason (sure, as a qualified teacher in Hungary, is it ridiculous to expect to take home more than €300 a month???) and that the country (which is buzzing with entrepreneurial talent) had ‘no can do’ attitude, then I’d do the sensible thing: move on or go home.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 April 2014

Hire that algorithim

I’m all for living in the present. For getting through the next minute, hour, day, or week without any major catastrophe. I’m in favour of seizing the moment, of being at one with whatever it is I’m doing, of living the experience. I subscribe to the philosophy of being present, even if it’s something that most of the time I fail miserably in doing.

I’m not a planner. I’ve only ever had one plan and when that ended in abject failure at the age of 16, I resolved that the only plan I would have would be to have no plan. And yes, my pension has suffered accordingly. It only recently dawned on me that someone would have to look after me in my old age and, without children to depend on, it is either going to be shacking up with my similarly placed girlfriends in a real-life version of the US TV series The Golden Girls, or… well … I don’t even have a plan B.

But it seems that I’m not alone. In a talk at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank earlier this month, Bill Gates put into words what so many are failing to fully realise: the day is fast approaching whereby human endeavour will be replaced by technology. Yes, technology will take our jobs and do them for us. We’ll have no income, no pensions – and then what?

Hire that algorithim

The whole idea of software substitution may sound a tad alien – honestly, can you imagine people being replaced by software programs? Before you say ‘no way’, think back to 20 years ago and ask yourself if you could have imagined a voice called Siri scheduling meetings for you on your iPhone or being able to find out where your mate is by tracking their last post on Facebook.

Maybe the heart surgeons are safe, but those that do less skilful jobs certainly have cause for concern. And if the business of business is to make a profit, I can’t see many CEOs refusing cost-saving initiatives that prefer algorithms to people. But is it only low-paying jobs that would be subsumed by software? Apparently not. Last year, the Economist predicted that relatively high wage earners like accountants, real estate agents, and even commercial pilots would lose their jobs (and incomes) to software in the next two decades. And if there is no need for accountants, then think of all those business schools having to reinvent themselves. Are they planning for this eventuality now?

If this is the road we’re heading down, how can we prevent the predictable social unrest that will result from wide-scale unemployment? Accordingly to Bill Gates, governments will need to get business on side. This is particularly relevant in Hungary where taxes are so onerous that employing people is a very expensive venture. I asked a number of business owners what it would cost to hire one employee and pay them a net salary of 100 000 huf – the answer was the same from everyone – double. Is it any wonder that the gray economy is alive and well here?

Were I up for re-election or even hoping to unseat the incumbent ruling party, I’d be thinking of substantially reducing (or even doing away with) employment taxes. I’d be doing everything I could to incentivise companies to employ more people so that we could reach a state of full employment where everyone who can work is working and paying the appropriate taxes.  But then again, I’m not a politician.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 March 2014

Irish. In Budapest. Next week.

It’s not difficult to be Irish abroad, especially not in Hungary. And especially not during the lead-up to St Patrick’s Day. When he was writing in 1957, James Michener called Hungarians ‘the Irish of Eastern Europe’. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve seen so many similarities between the two peoples. We both have what WB Yeats describes as an ‘abiding sense of tragedy that sustains us through temporary periods of joy’. We both like to party. And we both like to talk.

_IGP2353-1 (800x532)Next week begins a series of events for everyone with a drop of Irish blood and those with a penchant for all things Irish. Far from what has become a drink-fuelled frenzy in other parts of the world, St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Budapest are of a different standard altogether.

Kicking off on Wednesday, 12th March, is the final of the 2014 Gift of the Gab, a charity speech slam that is now enjoying its fourth successful season. Five qualifying finalists compete to see who in Budapest has that unequivocally Irish trait, that ability to talk to just about anyone, just about anywhere, about just about anything. The five hopefuls will each give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice and a three-minute impromptu on a topic suggested by the audience. Five judges chosen on the night will decide who is crowned the winner of the GOTG 2014. This year’s final takes place at the New Orleans Music Club on Lovag utca in the VI kerulet and kicks off at 7.30 pm. Tickets can be purchased from the venue (10am – 5pm) and cost 2000-2500 huf with an additional option for dinner. All proceeds go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign.

On Sunday, 16th March, the annual St Patrick’s Day parade will set off from Szabadsag tér at 3.30pm. People start gathering about 2pm and as the crowds amass, the craic kicks off. Leprechauns, Irish wolfhounds, and other random characters dressed in green mix and mingle as the anticipation grows. Then, in true parade fashion, with banners and bands, as many as two thousand people will wean their way through the city to end up at Instant,  Nagymezo 38 for a real Irish party including the three essential elements: ceoil (music), caint (chat), agus craic (and fun). Festivities will continue on in to the night with the foot-stomping Hungarian Irish band, Firkin. All you need to do is dress up, show up and bring a smile.

On Saturday, 22nd March, the annual St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner will be held at Le Meridien hotel in Budapest. In its seventh year, this annual event is a great opportunity to experience a real Irish-Hungarian night out. With a four-course Irish dinner, traditional Irish music and dance, it’s a night not to be missed.  Tickets are on sale now from the IHBC or Le Meridien. See www.IHBC.hu for more details.

Whatever you’re after, St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Budapest will sort you out. Step out with the crowd and banish those winter blues by donning any one of the forty shades of green.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 March 2014

My child is growing up

I’ve lived a life without issue. I have no children. I’ve not watched someone grow day by day, week by week, month by month. I’ve not been present for the teething, the nappy changes, and the terrible twos. I’ve not see them start school, play sports, and pass exams. I’ve not seen the first date, the broken hearts, and the angst that comes with being a teenager. The closest I’ve come to such a metamorphosis is my little corner of the VIII kerület (district).

When I moved into the neighbourhood back in 2008, I was flying in the face of some strenuous objections. It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live. It was full of minorities. (There are just about enough Irish in Budapest to form a minor minority… hello?) It was home to drug dealers and hookers and less than savoury people. It had no decent shops. It had nothing in the way of good restaurants or wine bars. And apart from Corvin cinema, it had nothing much in the way of entertainment at all.

Now, rating powers of observation on a scale of one to ten, with one being ‘so unobservant that I didn’t notice that taxis in Budapest were turning yellow’ and ten being ‘so unobservant that I didn’t notice that the Nemzeti Hotel on Blaha is now furnished’ I’d rate myself about five. Okay, so I never noticed Corvin Plaza being built. In fact, I didn’t know it had opened till a month later when it was pointed out to me by a friend. And I live just 200 meters from its front door. But since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to what’s going on in my corner of the VIIIth.

corvinCorvin Sétány now boasts its own fab Hungarian fusion restaurant – Kompót – that has an excellent daily menu and a yellow fin tuna starter that’s to die for. It also has a great little wine and chocolate bar – Vino és Wonka – that has a chalkboard menu sporting wines from every wine region in Hungary, wines you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else. And it has a friendly fruit and veg shop that will source whatever exotic fruit or veg you can think of. It’s home to Dumaszínház – comedy central and has other restaurants, bars, and cafés to suit all tastes.  It has a gym with a 25-metre pool (or so I hear), a Norbi outlet, and just opened, (or should I say, just noticed) a Lidl. And this is on the Sétány, not in the mall itself. The area is landscaped to within an inch of its life with the best of materials and in summer is a great outdoor space with live music, and an almost Barcelonian feel to it.

Until recently, it had its own community garden but this was bulldozed a few months ago. Fences went up. The diggers came in. And I was left wondering what was afoot. Yesterday I saw the placard. Another 227 flats are being built … these, in addition to the hundreds already built in phases I and II. When will it end?

My child has grown from an unruly but lovable ragamuffin into a cosmopolitan teen with its own ideas and opinions, its own taste and style, it own flair and fashion. And I’m the one rebelling.

Of course I love it. I want for nothing. Everything is there, right on my doorstep. What’s not to like? But a little part of me wishes that it was still untamed. That it hadn’t matured so quickly. That we weren’t losing touch.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 February 2014

 

A change of fortune

To go from relative obscurity to international fame in a matter of days could be a dream or a nightmare, depending on which angle you look at it from. Personally – I’d prefer the obscurity. But for Győr resident László Andraschek, news of his good fortune was picked up the Guardian and subsequently newspapers in places as far flung as Taipei and Zambia. His win, relatively modest by many lottery standards – HUF 630 million (€2 million) – is certainly news – but international news?

lottoWhat makes Andraschek different is that prior to purchasing his winning ticket, he was, in fact, homeless. He actually won the lottery last September but it’s only now coming to light. Andraschek attracted international attention when he made a significant donation to a homeless shelter in Hungary. It was that good deed rather than the win itself that made the news, coinciding as it does with a series of protests worldwide against the new law that allows local authorities do what they need to do to protect ‘public order, security, health and cultural values’.

In Budapest, the measures taken include banning ‘habitual living’ in public places. These include underneath bridges, subways, parks and playgrounds, and much of the tourist trail in the city centre. The city of Debrecen has followed suit banning its homeless from the city and from the neighbouring Nagyerd forest. Violations of the law result in fines, community service, and possible imprisonment.    Hungarian embassies and consulates in Paris, New York, Vienna, Lisbon, Dublin, Brussels, Essen, and Istanbul have witnessed demonstrations from their windows in recent weeks. And more are planned.

lotto2Buying the ticket was a last-minute decision apparently, a spur of the moment thing that certainly paid off. He has bought flats for his three kids, paid off his debt and that of his relatives, donated to the shelter, and is now setting up a foundation to support addicts and victims of domestic violence. He also plans to travel to Italy. He says he hasn’t changed as a person and that he will invest cautiously. I hope so.

I Googled ‘lottery win ruins lives’ and was a little taken aback at the number of stories it coughed up. It seems for that for many, the overnight change in fortune goes to their head. Binging on designer clothes, fancy cars, and a lifestyle that would mirror that of a B-list celebrity, things start to go wrong very quickly. Perhaps they should have listened to the wise words of Somerset Maugham: Money is like a sixth sense – and you can’t make use of the other five without it.

lotto1I’d be lying if I said I’ve never daydreamed about winning the lottery. Who I’d tell (no one). How I’d spend it (anonymously). Where I’d go (everywhere). A fortune-teller told me once that I was destined to be rich (I thought she was referring to monetary wealth rather than that which comes in the guise of good friends, health, and happiness) – and part of me is still holding out hope. I wonder how much my life would change. How much I would change. I’d like to think that like Andraschek, I, too, could say that the money had little effect other than to give me to means to do good. But I’d have to win it first to see.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 February 2014.