Posts

Looking both ways

keyAs I put the key in the door to my apartment building last evening, I found myself doing something I’ve never done before in Budapest. I looked up and down the street to make sure there was no one coming. A man was walking in my direction so I stopped, pulled out my phone and pretended to make a call. When he passed, and the coast was clear, I unlocked the door to the building and entered.

No, I’ve not been reading too many crime novels. I’m not suffering from an acute dose of paranoia. I don’t believe that anyone has reason to follow me. But something has changed. Something intangible.

tom mugAn English friend of mine was recently attacked in the hallway of his building. He was followed inside as he opened the front door. The mugger got away with the princely sum of 500 forints, a driver’s licence and a registration card. Not exactly a haul worth bragging about. I was sharing this story with another friend who told me of a young woman who was on her way home one night. As she entered the key code to her building, a chap in a hoodie pushed her inside, shoved her up against the wall, and started to grope her. The kicking and flailing triggered the light sensors and he legged it. Yet another friend told of a girl who was held at knife point outside her flat in the middle of the day and relieved of her wallet.

Now, three swallows don’t make a spring and three incidents, all involving foreigners in the city in the last couple of weeks, don’t amount to a crime spree. But they have gotten me thinking and asking questions. I’ve been doing a survey of sorts – asking friends, foreign and Hungarian alike, whether they feel as safe in Budapest as they did, say, five years ago. And the overwhelming response has been…no. Admittedly, they say, there are cities that are far more dangerous – Prague was mentioned, as was Dublin, and Johannesburg. But while no one can quite put their finger on why, there seems to be a growing sense of disquiet – nothing tangible – just a feeling.

Thank God nothing untoward has happened to me in the last few years. I’ve no complaints about safety or security. Yet I am a lot more conscious of my surroundings these days. I no longer wander around in a Stendhal-type daze marvelling at the beauty of what’s around me. Yes, I still appreciate it, but I’ve learned to multitask – I can marvel and be alert at the same time.

bbcA quick search of the Internet shows that crime is on the rise in Budapest and has been for a number of years. A general search for answers to the question – How safe is Budapest? – yields everything from affirmations that it’s the safest place in the world to stern advice not to venture out of your hotel room. Everyone has a story, an opinion.  But wherever you are, whatever you think, there’s no denying that it pays to be alert.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2014

The great citizen sell-off

Driving to my hotel from the airport in Malta last week, I fell into conversation with the taxi driver. He spoke English, the language of business in Malta. But like many others on the island, it was a second language for him, and a poor relation to his mother tongue, Maltese. I asked him what was new in the country, politically. Malta has a new Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, a man who shares the same birthday as my taxi driver’s daughter. Both have just turned 40. To have such a young PM bodes well for a country methinks – particularly in the aftermath of my recent visit to Italy which boasts a gerontocracy with an average age of 64 and, from what I saw and heard while I was there, is the bane of young progressives who have little room to make their mark.

BT 2014 06Muscat is apparently turning Malta on its head. Young. Energetic. Focused. According to my taxi driver, he’s come up with a brilliant new idea ‘to sell 1800 citizens’ and make in excess of €1 billion in the process, money that would then be invested in ensuring that there are no more poor in the country. A laudable ambition by any measure. I was highly amused on two counts: the idea of selling off citizens (as opposed to citizenship) and the idea that this was Muscat’s brainchild. In this taxi at least, he was getting full credit for the idea.

Austria and Cyprus already offer investor immigration programmes that offer immediate citizenship. Malta joins this group with a lower minimum investment requirement of €1.5 million (compared to €3 million and €2.5 million for Austria and Cyprus, respectively). Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Hungary all offer residence programmes that give access to Schengen countries with a minimum investment ranging from €250,000 to €500, 000 (Hungary is at €300 000). Ireland and the UK have similar programmes although both are outside the Schengen area. In the rest of the world, Singapore, Canada, and the USA have variations on the same theme. It seems that money can buy just about anything these days – including citizenship and the right to live and work in another country.

Since it introduced the residence bond programme in December 2012, Hungary has reportedly sold 430 of them to non-EU nationals who want to reside/work in an EU country. My understanding is that a residence permit will allow someone to work in Hungary and travel freely within the Schengen zone but, unlike citizenship, it will not entitle the holder to work in another EU country … just in Hungary.

Given all the deals that are out there, Hungary seems to be the best bang for your buck. Of the initial €300 000 required, €250 000 is refunded after five years but the residency granted is for life. Divide that cost between a family of, say, five (three minors), and it comes at a price tag of €170 per person per month for five years. A good deal, no?

So why isn’t there a longer queue?

First published in the Budapest Times 7 February 2014

An interesting engagement

There nothing like the onset of an election to unleash myriad perspectives from people who till now have never expressed an opinion on politics, one way or another. It seems as if, suddenly, everyone has an opinion that they’re more than willing to share. And I’m fascinated.

Daily, I hear people I know and respect argue in favour of politicians I have little time for, or indeed argue against the only one that I have any time for at all. I remind myself that the world would indeed be a boring place if we all shared the same opinion, so rather than challenge their views, I’m relishing the fact that they have opinions they’re willing to share with me in the first place. For democracy to work, people have to engage. I wasn’t born in Hungary and my command of the language is basic at best. So for me to understand the vagaries of Hungarian politics, I need to hear it all: I need people to talk to me and tell me what they think.

electionPolitics, like most things, is about perspective. We interpret the actions of a particular government or party or individual politician based on what we think is right or wrong, good or bad, smart or stupid. If we have a vested interest in, say, higher education, anyone who does what we’d like them to do in this area is likely to win our vote, regardless of what they might do for another sector of the community in which we have no interest at all. If we think we’re paying too much tax, then our vote will most likely go to whoever promises to lower it. Political parties and their politicians play to this. They recognise human nature for what it is. We are conditioned, in this part of the world anyway, to think of ourselves, to put our own interests, and those of our families, first and foremost.

American columnist Franklin Pierce Adams had it right all those years ago when he proclaimed that elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody.

ubuntuI read a Facebook post recently about an anthropologist in Africa who set a basket of fruit some distance from a group of kids. He told them that whoever reached the basket first could have all the fruit. Instead of making a mad dash for it, the kids held hands and ran together. They all arrived at the same time and shared the fruit. When he asked why, they replied: How could any one of us be happy eating the fruit if everyone else was sad? In Africa, this is known as ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language…It is to say. ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…

I wonder what the government would look like if we proved FPA’s claim to be false and instead voted with ubuntu in mind.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 January 2014

Top talent on Thursdays

How the various expatriates living in Budapest engage with this city is a source of constant amusement … for me. I know some who rarely venture outside established expat circles. I know others who will go to great lengths to avoid expats altogether. Me? I ebb and flow.

Some friends returned to Budapest earlier this month, having lived here for a year a while ago. Both were taken aback at how even after their 12 months of active exploration, the city as still coughing up new sights. It’s as if it is constantly morphing into something new; circumstances contrive to entice you into an area you’ve never ventured into before; and even old haunts offer up something unexpected.

I was in Jack Doyle’s last week, an Irish pub on the corner of Pilvax and Varoshaz utca. There’s a regular music session on a Thursday night where two of my favourite Hungarian men – Attila and Csaba, collectively known as The Jookers – entertain the punters and create a welcoming space for those who want to sing or play themselves. It’s one of the many times where I find myself wishing I could hold a tune for longer than two seconds.

Top talent on ThursdaysI’m familiar with the concept of open mic nights and have yet to be disappointed in a Thursday night at JD’s. When I have visitors in town, it’s on my list of places to go. But what I hadn’t fully appreciated is the wealth of talent this town has to offer. There’s no denying that the two boys are brilliant musicians in their own right and that the regulars who get up and entertain are gifted themselves. But the drop-ins, the random acts that pass through – that’s what adds spice to the evening. You never know what you’ll get to hear.

One after the other, they sang their hearts out last Thursday night. Hailing from Ireland, England, Australia, Scotland, America, France, and everywhere in between, they sang covers and their own songs, too. We had it all – from the Mountains to Mourne to La Boheme; from Tracy Chapman to Mary Black. Everything worked. My goose bumps were plumping.

If you’re at a loose end on a Thursday night, you could do worse that popping into Jack Doyle’s after 10pm. There are no guarantees though. I can’t promise that every night will be as good as last Thursday … next week might be even better.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 November 2013

The wrath of grapes

Ernest Hemingway reckoned that an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools. And indeed who amongst us who takes a drink has never chosen to tune out the drones around us by indulging in just one more or has never had a sip of Dutch courage before an important event? We talk of drowning our sorrows, of wetting a baby’s head, of toasting a new deal – and, for the most part, our social drinking is relatively harmless.

hangover 2Until, of course, you wake up wondering what on earth happened the night before. Did you actually do what you think you did? Did you actually say what you think you said? Will anyone remember? And, if you’re a public figure, this scrutiny is rarely restricted to the confines of you and your bathroom mirror. Word gets out and the things you do while under the influence make the news.

István Lovas, a Hungarian correspondent in Brussels, might well be living to regret polishing off that bottle of wine and the two kupica of pálinka that led him to write a steaming letter to the foreign correspondents in Budapest accusing them of false reporting and of painting an unfair and false picture of Hungary. His excuse … he was drunk. And yet he seemed to be fully aware of what he was doing: I have never ever been as rude in my life as I am being now in any article, or in any “official” letter addressed to anyone. A little embarrassing, I’d say.

hangoverLast week in parliament, István Pálffy, a relative newcomer, was said to have been under the influence while in attendance. And a few months ago, József Balogh, another parliamentarian, made the news when he allegedly beat up his partner after getting drunk at a wedding, apparently fracturing her skull in the process. In the throes of what must have been a massive hangover, he’s reported to have said that she’d been tripped by the family’s blind dog. Mortifying, I’d say.

Is the well worn excuse of being drunk still viable? In fact, was it ever? It’s not rocket science: the best way to avoid the morning-after guilt is to know your limit and drink responsibly. Everything in moderation… now why is that such a difficult lesson to learn?

First published in the Budapest Times on 22 November 2013

How deep is too deep?

The stapes is the smallest bone in the human body – and that’s about the size of the radical feminist streak that runs through this very traditionalist body. Don’t get me wrong:  I’m all for women’s rights – the right to choose what happens to our bodies, the right to vote, the right to equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal treatment . But I draw the line at the notion that equality of the sexes in terms of physical and emotional strength and capacity can ever exist. Men and women will never be equal; we will always be different – and Amen to that. (And, for the cynics amongst you, as Timothy O’Leary pointed out: Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.)

Occasionally I come across situations that get my dander up, like the recent clothes row that’s going on at the University of Kaposvár. Ferenc Szávai, the university’s rector, has apparently introduced a swathe of rules that requires students to be neat and tidy every day (a stretch for some, admittedly) and will restrict what they can wear on campus. This has been met with topless protests and the disapprobation it deserves.

decFrom my understanding (and I’m open to correction if I’m getting this wrong), Szávai’s rules decry the wearing of too much perfume, skirts that are too short, and décolletage that is too deep. I laughed out loud when I read this and immediately began to wonder how he plans to measure too much, too short, and too deep.

Yet apart from his desire to put an end to bare feet on campus, all the restrictions seems to be pointed at female students. There’s nothing that I can see asking the male fraternities not to wear too much aftershave, or to refrain from baring their midriffs in summer, or asking them to hike up their jeans and avoid a wanton display of underwear … or bum cheeks.

Admittedly there are times I see some of my sisterhood and wonder if they passed a mirror on their way to their front door, so little has been left to the imagination. But surely dress is a matter of personal choice and taste, an outward manifestation of style and personality. Such a pointless imposition of restrictive measures seems… well… pointless.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 October 2013.

Alienating tourists

There’s a small part of me that has the makings of a conspiracy theorist. I have what I like to think of as a healthy scepticism when it comes to government and organised religion. I tend to look for the why, the motivation, the compulsion that makes such entities do what they do, and then I try to make sense of it. I’m rarely successful.

(c) http://consciouslifenews.com/

(c) http://consciouslifenews.com/

One mystery that has been niggling me for years now is absence of wheelchairs in Budapest. I can count the number of times I’ve seen someone in a wheelchair trying to navigate this city (and practically all were tourists). The fact that many of the metro stations are inaccessible unless you’re upright and walking goes some way in explaining this phenomenon. The fact that so few places have wheelchair access goes some more. I know I’ve told friends who have difficulty getting around that Budapest is not a particularly accessible city. But applying the law of averages, there must be people living in Budapest who are wheelchair-bound. So where are they?  Don’t they ever go out?

When residents of Bélapátfalva raised their voices against relocating disabled residents to smaller houses in the community, it didn’t make the headlines. That Hungary is years behind schedule in its deinstitutionalisation of disabled people was of little concern. Separation, not integration, seemed to be the consensus. Fast forward now to Szilvásvárda where 300 of the 1700 or so residents recently opposed the sale of a number of houses to the Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság who plan to use them as homes for forty people with disabilities, people who are currently living in Bélapátfalva. And the reason for this opposition: elriasztanák a turistákat (alienate tourists!)

My reaction when a Hungarian friend told me about this was nothing short of incredulity. I actually laughed out loud in disbelief. Alienate tourists? Western tourists? People who live with disability as part of everyday life? C’mon people, get a grip. Yes, I know… it’s only the opinion of a few … but it has conjured up all sorts of horrible images in my head involving locked doors and barbed-wire fences. I’m looking at Budapest with different eyes now, exploring how restricted my options would be were I in a wheelchair. And I don’t like what I see.  

First published in the Budapest Times 27 September 2013

And another year begins…

With twelve years of Catholic convent school buried deep in my distant past, September still represents the start of another year. But now, instead of covering my copybooks in brown paper and kitting out my pencil case with a lead-like despondency at the thoughts of upcoming battles with science and maths, I start making plans for the autumn – my favourite time of year. The influx of new blood into the city brings with it a vibrancy that lifts me out of my sun-induced coma and injects new life into a weary soul.

I was over at Immigration this week getting a new registration card. I whiled away the hours trying to identify the number of nationalities waiting for their number to be called and marvelled at the diversity of people choosing to make Budapest their home. I lit upon a trio of young Irish women, new veterinary students, who’d just arrived. Amused by their valiant attempts to pronounce their addresses, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that they’d already found the Irish bars in town. Some priorities never seem to change. Yet while having the craic was definitely on the agenda, their exhaustion, tinged as it was with a heady sense of excitement, leant an air of anxious anticipation to their chatter as they discussed how early they had to show up at class the next morning and the daunting workload that lay ahead of them. I don’t envy them the hard slog that lies ahead, but I do envy them their newness.

nemzetiI still have not tired of this city. I might not care for its politics, or the recent spate of what smells a lot like nationalism. I might not like the fact that while I can see through a sex shop window, the windows of the Nemzeti dohánybolt are darkened, leaving me to wonder which is, indeed, the greater vice. I might not like the fact that free market forces appear to be waning and that, as one amusing Facebook comment stated, we might soon see the occasional Nemzeti Sárga Festék Bolt as taxi synchronise their colours.

But for all its frailties, Budapest is still a spectacular city, home to much of what’s good about this part of the world. And for the new souls just landed, its hidden depths are waiting to be explored. Go n’éiri an bothair libh.

First published in the Budapest Times 6 September 2013

Out with the old

They told me that I needed to grow up. To get with the programme. To join the twenty-first century. They told me I’d outgrown him. That he’d lost his usefulness. That he was old, battered and not nearly as versatile or as attractive as a younger, more modern version. They told me that my life would change. That I wouldn’t know myself. That I’d forget him in time and move on. I tried to stay loyal, to hold my ground, to be faithful, but worn down by months of steady haranguing, I finally gave in.

Granted, it was fate that intervened. The universe conspired against me. I was perfectly happy with Fred, my old-fashioned, antiquated Nokia. He’d served me well. He and I had had a perfect understanding. He knew his limitations. I knew his limitations. More importantly I knew my own (technological) limitations. We got on very well together. He was incapable of any fancy moves. He couldn’t anticipate my every whim. He simply served a need and served it well. He kept me in contact with people.

 For each task, a tool

I had a camera to take photos. I had a laptop to write e-mails. I had a watch to tell the time. I needed Fred to make phone calls and send SMSs. Nothing more. If I wanted to know the meaning of a word, I’d check the dictionary. If I wanted to know the weather forecast, I’d turn on the radio. If I wanted to know how to get from A to B, I’d look at a map.  

I knew two things for certain. I didn’t want begin an incestuous relationship with a smartphone. To grow attached to it. To become dependent on it. And I didn’t want to be at the beck and call of the world and its mother, all day, all night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I wanted to retain some independence, some distance. I didn’t want to be available.

 For each passion, a season

I’d seen too many of my friends fall by the wayside. I’d seen too many of them get caught up in a wanton affair with their android of choice. I’d seen too many of them interrupt our conversation, cut short our visit because of a beep or a buzz or a cute song-and-dance routine that heralded the arrival of someone more important, some matter more pressing, some opportunity more exciting.

Fred was self-sufficient. He knew his place. He wasn’t high maintenance and didn’t need constant checking. Ours was a purely functional relationship: if I had no need for him, he stayed put, silent.   

But then I won a Samsung Galaxy III mini (a generic, nameless beast that admittedly looks better than old Fred, but is a little intimidating). It took me three days pick up the courage to take it out of its box. It took me another three days to work up the nerve to take Fred to T Mobile for a lobotomy – to transplant his brain, his memory, into my new smart friend. And it took T Mobile three days to redress the damage it did to my SIM card. I lost half my contacts. I lost connectivity for the weekend. And I lost my patience.

 For each lesson, a school

But in that 72 hours when Fred was comatosed and my new smart friend remained inert, I rediscovered time.

I spent a lustrous weekend with Robert B. Parker. I visited with Harlan Coben. I had dinner with Michael Connelly. I took a bath Mark Giminez. I copy-edited eight articles on topics ranging from biotechnology to corporate social responsibility, from drug testing and analysis to greenhouse gases. I worked on a book about the Relics of Jesus Christ. I did three loads of laundry, lost three kilos in weight, and finally listened to every Gospel recording Elvis ever made.

I had no calls, no texts, no plans. I had no telephone numbers. I knew no addresses. I posted on Facebook that I would be out of commission until Monday evening and the world left me alone.

For each worry, a reason

But the holiday is over. My smartphone is ready to be unlocked, unleashed. Fred is about to be retired. My life is about to change. I am, apparently, about to discover a whole new world. 

My fear is that this world will be one where compulsive communication becomes my norm. Where my android (I can’t bring myself to name him) becomes my best friend. Where I discover, a little too late, that my greatest worry manifests itself in reality: that carrying a smartphone will be like carrying a tracking device, similar to one of those electronic anklets that prisoners under house arrest wear. And that someone, somewhere, will know every move I make, when I make it, and with whom I make it, too. I worry that life, as I know it, will be over and that I will finally have to join the twenty-first century.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2013

Supersized me – po’girl carrying excess baggage

Walking down the aisle on the airplane en route from Chicago to Munich, I found it difficult to keep my distance from those occupying aisle seats. At first I thought it was the design – another space-saving measure dreamed up by an airline to add more seats to an already cramped plane. But three weeks ago I’d made the same journey on a similar plane flying in the opposite direction and hadn’t impinged on anyone’s personal space. Then the light came on. I’d grown – literally – into a bigger person – in just three weeks.

A food odyssey

Kentucky and its southern BBQ had started off the expansion. Add the burgers in Nashville and the po’boy sandwiches in Memphis and there’s a couple of Tennessee kilos accounted for. Moving across into Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, a steady diet of carne asada burritos and well-dressed nachos washed down by copious margaritas added a couple or three more to the mix (yes, I really did eat Mexican seven days on the trot).

California was relatively sane – something bordering on healthy in a vain attempt to reacquaint myself with vegetables; I’m not sure though that a six-pack of avocados was the way to go. What was saved in Palm Springs was more than spent in the all-you-can-eat buffets in Las Vegas.

A food heaven

All you can eat – the sign said – for just $22. Or get an all-day pass good from 7am to 10pm for $35. With a neat little wristband showing you as a paid-up member of the buffet brigade, you could start eating at 7am and not stop until 10pm, and all for $35. Can’t beat that for value. We were a tad more restrained, settling for the dinner version – two nights running.

Buffets are great when you have two people incapable of making a decision about where and what to eat. We’d used up all our decisions by the time we crossed into New Mexico and were running on empty by the time we got to Vegas. The buffet was an easy option… and the food was good.

A food obsession

What is it about buffets that makes us lose sight of reason, ignore our stomach’s screams of “no more, no more” and continue to load that plate until we’ve tasted just about everything on offer? What is it about the human psyche that turns mercenary at the sight of a food-for-all? Is it about eating every last cent of that $22? Is it about eating just because it’s there? Is it about greed or gluttony or piggery?

For the first time ever I’ve considered why gluttony made it on the list of the seven deadly sins. Why this need to make pigs of ourselves? Why can’t we just settle for one plate of what we like and leave the rest? And even if we attempt to walk away, our carbohydrate-laden weaker wills are called back by the buffet devils whispering, “Go on, you have room for just a little more”.

A food attack

Over the course of two evenings I watched my fellow diners return to the line three or four times to load up their plates with food, food and more food. And, to my shame, I was right there beside them. All of me. In fairness, they usually started with a salad and then moved on to pasta and then to the carvery and finally to dessert.

And don’t Italians do more or less the same very day, I told myself, in an effort to convince my conscience that I hadn’t become yet another victim of buffetitis. They do, yes, but not in these quantities.

Taking refuge from the scorching heat and the smoke-filled casinos, I took to watching cable TV. Ad after ad showed all-you-can-eat ribs, all-you-can-eat chicken wings, all-you-can-eat seafood. All you can eat… is it any wonder America has an obesity problem?

A food problem

But then I remembered the last time I was in Verandah – a great little restaurant in Budapest’s District IX. It, too, has an all-you-can eat buffet lunch. And there, too, people heap their plates high – something of everything. They might not go back for second and third helpings, instead making sure that their first go around captures it all. A false economy methinks.

The main visible difference in Budapest is that the holder of the laden plate is usually a svelte, size 8, which is in sharp contrast with the chubby size 18s and even 28s on show in Vegas. When I see slim young things put away so much food, I’m left wondering just how long a union break the food gods get.
And the non-Christian part of me snickers and thinks to myself: just you wait. One day, you’re going to wake up fat and forty. Try then to squeeze yourself down an airplane aisle without bumping anyone off.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 July 2013