The talk of the town

Do you know what it’s like to walk into a bar, recognise some faces, and then see them turn away? Do you know what it’s like to wave to someone you know across the street and have them stare back pretending not to know you? Do you know what it’s like to have your arrival punctuated by a series of muttered curses and deep sighs? I do.

A shameless hussy

I’m pretty thick-skinned. I grew up singing the childish chant ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’. At the onset of puberty and upon discovering the great work of my compatriot, Oscar Wilde, I changed my mantra to ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. It doesn’t particularly bother me that my popularity ratings have taken a beating lately. It doesn’t particularly concern me that my name is being coupled with adjectives such as ‘annoying’ or ‘irritating’. It doesn’t particularly disturb me that some people are ignoring my e-mails and not returning my calls. We Irish are made of sterner stuff. We’ve been talking ourselves in and out of trouble for generations. So when William Lower (the Canadian half of this illustrious column) stood on stage, in public, and cautioned people to be careful of me – I simply smiled. When it comes to getting my own way, I’m a shameless hussy. And when getting my own way involves a good cause, there’s very little I won’t do to fill the coffers.

Hustling for hopefuls

Yes, it’s speech slam time again – and I’m hustling for hopefuls who will take the stage and compete for the coveted title of Gift of the Gab 2012. Practically all of my conversations these days start with ‘Have you thought about speaking on stage?’ – I’m in danger of boring myself to death! It is any wonder people are avoiding me. You see, I’m on a mission to find someone in this fair city who can face Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney’s character in that great movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and have him utter that immortal line, in the deepest of southern accents: ‘I detect, like me, you’re endowed with the gift of gab’. Variously defined as (i) to talk idly or incessantly, as about trivial matters, (ii) the ability to talk readily, glibly, and convincingly, and (iii) the ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to you and believe you, the gift of the gab is said to be something that all Irish people are blessed with. Thanks to globalization, many who have but the faintest drop of Irish blood in them can now say they have the gift, too, be they American, British, Canadian, Dutch, Estonian, French, German or Hungarian.  It respects no boundaries; recognizes no color; claims no creed. Anyone can have it.

Hoping for entertainment

But who, exactly, is anyone? And why do I care? Better still, why should you care? Over the next six months, five hopefuls will take the stage once at month in Smiley’s on St István korut. There they will deliver what’s billed as a five-minute entertaining speech on a topic of their choice. [Note: Please don’t confuse entertaining with humorous or comedic – but be prepared to laugh should the occasion call for it.] So, I hear you ask, what’s so hot about that? Nothing really – except that so many of us are called upon to deliver presentations to captive audiences at work that we confuse this ability with what it takes to captivate a paying audience with expectations and a panel of judges randomly picked for its non-existent objectivity. This is a completely different ball game.  In the second half, these same five hopefuls will deliver three-minute impromptu speeches on topics chosen by the audience. [Back to Mr Lower… ask him sometime how a man who is never at a loss for words, oral or written, could gag on a clove of garlic.] And the same panel of judges will reign supreme. This is the litmus test – the one that proves, once and for all, whether contestants have the gift of the gab.

Collecting for charity

Now, considering the scathing wonder I poured on the contestants of Szexi vagy nem in this very column last week, you are fully within your rights to turn on me and ask why I’m so brazenly asking you to take a visceral delight in the discomfort of others. [And yes, for many contestants, this is a personal challenge and they will be uncomfortable.] Isn’t this the same thing? Well, not quite. These contestants are parading their verbal wit not their pectorals. And they’re doing it for charity. All proceeds go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little campaign. Now what could be more fun than that?

First published in the Budapest Times 16/9/2011

What if

I’m not allergic to work. I’ve never been allergic to work. In fact, I used to have a masochistic obsession with working overtime when I had jobs that paid by the hour in a hand-written check neatly wrapped up in a benefits package. Back then, being asked to do overtime made me feel important. It validated my work. If my employer was willing to pay time-and-a-half for every hour I worked outside my normal work week, I had to be doing something right. Right?

Getting a seat on the salaried train exposed me to a system that expected me to keep working and working and working without any overtime; I was expected to take solace in the fact that what I was doing was important, vital even, to someone else’s success. Since moving to Budapest, I’ve wised up a little and am now fully behind New York Times bestselling author Timothy Ferriss’s concept of a 4-hour work week! Less is more in my book. Cue platitudes: love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life / work like you don’t need the money / work smarter not harder. But judging by what I’m reading in the papers these days, my love affair with Hungary could soon take a turn for the worse.

More work, less money

Current Hungarian legislation codifies a 40-hour working week. There’s a motion on the mat to have this increased to 44 hours a week before the overtime clock starts ticking. Under legislation proposed by the Economy Minister earlier this month, employers will be able to demand an additional 4 hours of work per week from their employees at the normal hourly rate. It would seem that longer working weeks are on the cards for Hungarian workers.

Now it’s rare that I find myself ever agreeing with Russian President Putin, but this particular two ruble’s worth of insight caught my eye. He’s on record as describing extending the working week as an ‘absolutely groundless method’ of generating profit.  Mind you, this was in answer to Mikhail Prokhorov’s proposition to increase the working week by 20 hours to 60 hours. In Hungary, we’re only talking 4. But is that what’s really behind the government’s move to extend the working week? Increase profits by way of increased productivity?

Fewer hours, more productivity

But wait…it wasn’t all that long ago – 1969 in fact – that Harry Trend compiled his report for Radio Free Europe editors and policy staff. Under the illuminating title Reduction in Hours Stimulates Labor Productivity in Hungary, it cites research into the effects of the 1968 move to reduce the working week to 44 hours, a move which gave rise to fears that a shorter working week would result in more overtime and more staff, and less productivity and less service. It all came to nothing. In fact, not only did productivity increase, overtime decreased. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened there! Unlike John Ruskin, I’m neither a genius nor an economist, but that doesn’t stop me applauding the foresight he showed in 1850 when he listed three things necessary for people to be happy in their work: ‘They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.’ Now seriously – is this rocket science we’re dealing with?

Doing too much

According to OECD figures, in 2008, Hungarians worked an average of 1988 hours (ranking 5th behind Korea, Greece, Chile, and the Czech Republic ) while at the opposite end of the scale, Dutch workers put in a mere 1389 hours, followed by the Norwegians, the Germans, and the French. Even Irish workers just put in 1601 hours…and this was before we bungled things so badly. To my untrained eye, it would seem that working longer hours doesn’t really pay off in terms of domestic progress. So what to do?

Well, instead of treading the well-trodden path of business as usual, what if Hungary were to blaze a trail and do what other countries are just talking about? What if it were to shelve the traditional, time-worn measurements of progress in favor of those that measure what matters? What if, instead of focusing on creating jobs, jobs, and more jobs, it paid attention to creating quality jobs? What if it found a way to bring Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow to life: to encourage employers to find the balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer? What if instead of invoking longer working weeks, people actually worked fewer hours with incentives to work smarter and work better?

What if?

First published in the Budapest Times 24 June 2011

Going back for seconds

Passing through Blaha Lujza tér on my way to have lunch at Jelen, I noticed that the Hare Krishna’s food line had moved from the square itself to just around the corner onto Márkus Emilia utca. Three thoughts hit me in quick succession: the first, a brief ‘how sad’; the second, a short invocation – there but for the grace of God go I; and the third, most telling, the material recognition of the aesthetic improvement to Blaha Lujza tér. Had I been on my own when the magnitude of this final thought hit me, I’d probably have launched headlong into a bout of severe self-loathing at such callousness, but I had company and I was hungry.

The great unwanted

Some days later, I read a piece in the Budapest Times about the city’s homeless – the Great Unwanted – and realised that this move around the corner was a prelude to a second move out to Teleki László Tér, near Kerepesi cemetery. Again, three thoughts flashed into my mind:  the irony of moving one literal step closer to the grave; a vague recollection from my flat-hunting days of Teleki tér not exactly being a choice neighbourhood; and a somewhat self-righteous disgust at the City’s attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet. But it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to worry about: appointments to fix, bills to pay, clients to meet…

The grand delusion

Then just last week, I found myself visiting the Hare Krishnas in Csillaghegy. As I walked across the road from the local Catholic church to the temple, I had a strange sense of crossing a great divide – something far wider than the 20 feet or so of tarmac that separates the two. I was nervous. I was brought up Irish Catholic and had survived convent school with all my prejudices intact. Back in 1980s Ireland, this new-fangled religion that made grown men dress in orange, shave their heads, and spend their days singing in the streets while banging on drums had met with walls of suspicion and fear that Ireland’s young and impressionable might be caught up in the madness and disappear, never to be seen again. It’s funny what you remember and how you remember it. Even thirty years later, some miniscule part of me wondered fleetingly if I’d make that hév back to Budapest. A little nervously, I ventured inside, completely unprepared to have all my delusions shattered.

The global phenomenon

ISKCON (the International Society for Krisha Consciousness) is just one month older than me. In its lifetime, it has developed into a global confederation of some 250,000 devotees. That surprised me. When compared to other religions, it’s not a big number – and yet the effect that just one of the ISKCON programmes is having worldwide, would blow the lid off any religious Richter scale.

In 1972, looking out a window in Mayapur, a small village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw a group of children fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. His reaction? The promise that no one within ten miles of a Krishna centre would go hungry. And so began the Food for Life programme, which recognised that starvation isn’t a problem of supply, but rather of fair distribution. Each day, this programme alone feeds over 800,000 people worldwide.  Ételt az életért began in Budapest in 1989, with the occasional distribution of vegetarian food during Christian holidays. In 2001, now officially registered as a non-profit organization, it took up residence in Blaha Lujza tér. From the back of a van, devotees distribute as many as 500 hot meals most days of the week with a further 500 to needy families near the Budapest temple. That’s 1000 meals a day from produce grown on their farm and food donated by the public. Ten years ago, most of their clientele may well have been homeless; today, many have homes to go to but are unemployed, surviving on a meagre pension, or victims of the foreign-currency mortgage fiasco. All are ordinary people, just like me.

The grave truth

The right to human dignity is enshrined in the new Hungarian constitution.  But where’s the dignity in having to stand in line for some hot food? Where’s the dignity in having to parade your poverty in front of strangers? Where’s the dignity in being ignored by so many and helped by so few? Rather than simply relocate the problem, wouldn’t the dignity of the homeless and the needy be better served by providing the Food for Life programme with a permanent home? Surely there’s an unoccupied building, centrally located, that could be put to better use? Sprucing up Blaha Lujza tér is one thing; relocating the in-your-face evidence of the City’s failure to preserve the dignity of its poor is another.

My grandmothers will be turning in their graves as they read this. Not only did I survive my first encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I plan on going back for seconds.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2011

All bets off

Mao had his little red book. The World Bank has its little green book. Me? I have a little blue book that I keep on my desk beside my computer. It’s a dream dictionary. I dream a lot. I dream in vivid colour and in many languages, most of which I do not understand, but the pictures are great. My little blue book gets a lot of use. It’s part of my daily routine now, to check what I can remember of the previous night’s revelations while my laptop powers up and  launches me into yet another workday. Last week is a case in point.

Full house

Sunday night, I dreamed I was in Ikea trying to find a photo frame that wasn’t made in China. I have tried not to buy anything made in China for the last three years and have mostly succeeded by buying very little at all. When I think of what might happen if a) China stopped producing for export or b) every person in China began consuming at western rates, I break out in a cold sweat. I wonder if we realise how dependant we have become. When I checked my little blue book on Monday morning, I read that I would reunite with an old friend if I dreamed of photographs. Not ten minutes later, I had a Skype call from a chap I lost touch with years ago. He was calling to invite me to collaborate on a screenplay about a poker game set in Hungary. (Did you know that Hungary is second only to Ireland when it comes to online poker? I didn’t.)

Snake eyes

Monday night, I dreamed I was rolling dice on the craps table in Bezenye, in the new Euro Vegas casino. That’s the beauty of dreams – things get built on time and within budget. I consulted my LBB first thing on Tuesday morning and found that I could expect some short-term financial gain. Sometime later, my doorbell rang. It was the postman. He usually never calls, preferring to leave me notes and make me trek to the outer realms of District VIII to collect my parcels. But on Tuesday, he called to give me money – 9375 huf. I think it came from Elmű. [Note to W. Lower: You can get money back in Hungary!]

Straight flush

On Wednesday, I dreamed of a jaguar – the cat, not the car. We were sitting across a table, playing poker. I had a straight, in diamonds. When I checked my book on Thursday I discovered that I could expect to hear some gossip about myself AND that I would be wealthy (I was probably still flush from my win on Elmü the night before). Now, gossip doesn’t particularly bother me. As Oscar Wilde once said, the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. Later that morning, while sitting in my kitchen, tucking into my mid-morning, cigarette-replacing isler, I overheard my neighbours chatting on the balcony, wondering about my recent weight-gain. De huszi vagyok, nem terhes!

Odds on favourite

On Thursday night, I dreamed that I was strolling through a beautifully kept, landscaped park – I think it might have been Károlyi kert. I could practically smell the flowers. On Friday morning, after due consultation, I learned that I could expect a passionate romantic encounter. What a way to start my weekend! I was jazzed. I was going to a talk that evening and would be in the midst of 400 like-minded souls (well, like-minded inasmuch as they, too, had bought a ticket!). My odds were looking good!

All bets off

On Friday, I dreamed that I was listening in to a very public conversation where the Minister for the National Economy appeared to be reading from a 1990s business text book, underscoring the need for Hungary to adopt benchmarks, best practices, and centres of excellence if this country is to become the new Ireland of Central Europe, without, of course, the ensuing financial fall! (Was this a dream or a nightmare?) Astutely dodging the direct question of whether Hungary might consider raising the ante and adopting an indicator other than GDP to measure progress, he continued to hammer home the need for jobs, jobs, and more jobs. It was about quantity, not quality. If people have work, they will have money and ergo they will be happy. (Definitely a nightmare.) Such jobs would also ‘create valuable human beings to be analyzed’. Now, I’ve worked for money, for experience, out of boredom, but never once I have ever though that it would make me a better subject for analysis. I opened my eyes and he was still on stage in front of me. That night, I was too afraid to sleep.

First published in the Budapest Times Thursday, 26th May

Dropping the eaves

Deliver me from inanity, from the idiotic, senseless, banal conversations that people engage in these days. A born eavesdropper (I prefer the term ‘naturally curious’ to ‘nosey’), I am suffering for my art. And it is an art. To sit and listen in to someone else’s conversation all the while appearing as though I don’t understand a word takes a certain skill. To compose my features so that nothing registers, no matter what I overhear, takes talent. The effort it takes to harness that natural reflex to interject with an opinion has released many a holy soul from purgatory. Yes, I am suffering; suffering to the point of resigning my membership of the International Eavesdropping Fraternity. I’m on the brink of handing back my membership card and cancelling my annual dues. Why? Because there is simply nothing worth listening to any more.


While sitting at Ferihegy Airport having a coffee, waiting to board a flight to Kiev recently, this British couple stood up from the table beside me.

‘I’m going to stretch my legs’, she says.

‘Ok’, he says.

‘Well, we’ve been sat in the taxi coming here, and that took nearly an hour. And we’re going to be sat on the plane for nearly three hours. And then we’ll be sat on the train. And then we’ll be sat in the car going home. So I need to stretch my legs.’

Bad grammar aside, who cares? Hubby obviously didn’t need it pointed out – he would be sat with her every tortuous inch of the way. I certainly didn’t need an explanation for such a simple intention. Have a heart, lady…

On the flight itself, I sat in front of a youngish North American couple – they seemed thrown together more by chance than by design so I’m using ‘couple’ here in its most literal sense. They were on their way to Tel Aviv. The cabin steward was going through the usual safety instructions and was showing us how to fasten our seatbelts (really – is there anyone left in the world who doesn’t know how to do this?). Ms North America pipes up:

‘I was on a flight once and this big guy who was sitting beside me mistakenly strapped his belt into mine.’

‘Really?’ asked her companion, a little incredulously. ‘Really?’ I thought… thinking that this opener had the hallmark of an interesting anecdote that might even be worth writing about. (Was I was right, or what?)

‘Yeah’, she replied.


That’s it? That’s all? ‘Yeah!’ God Lord, woman, where’s your imagination? Where’s your follow-through? That’s all you can come up with? ‘Yeah!’


Much more interesting are the foreign-language conversations that I earwig on. To get any sense of meaning from those, I have to position myself so that I can glance surreptitiously at the speakers. After all, apparently only 7% of our communication is done through words – the other 93% is tone, inflection, body language, all those word-free ways in which we get our message across. So, strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to understand the language in order to understand the message. The Italians are best – arms waving madly at what could be anything from a description of a terrible tragedy to an account of a recent shopping trip to Milan. Next in line, for my money, are the Russians where tone and inflection are often so incongruent with the message that couples might equally be declaring undying love and affection as threatening to leave and take the fur coats with them.

One of the consummate joys of eavesdropping on a foreign-language conversation is that I can make it up as I go along. And if it’s Hungarian, so much the better. I get to fill in the blanks between the few words I recognise and take it from there. My eavesdropping world is an anthology of short stories just waiting to be written.


‘How rude’, I hear some of you say. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t be listening in to other people’s conversations. And if they spoke sotto voce, I probably wouldn’t be bothered. But plugged into iPods and living in our stereophonic worlds, we have lost our ability to speak normally. With social media bringing a whole new meaning to sharing, we’re losing the run of ourselves. And, as American novelist Thornton Wilder put it: ‘There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.’

In my ideal word, people would only speak when they had something to say, something of meaning, something that other people needed or wanted to hear. Imagine the quiet, the calm, the peace. Imagine, too, how we would really listen to each other instead of tuning out, how we would value each other’s interventions, and how conversation would take on new meaning. Just imagine!

First published in the Budapest Times 12 March 2011

Let the spending begin

Let’s all go out and spend our hard-earned money on stuff. Let’s go mad and buy up every high-tech gadget we can find. Let’s buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes that we won’t be able to fit into once we’ve pigged out for the next month on turkey and ham and goose and cold Brussels’ sprouts. Let’s go absolutely stark, raving mad and unleash the spendthrift inside us, that same wastrel who has been battling with our inner scrooge all year. Let’s throw fiscal responsibility to the wind and do what we despise our governments for…let’s waste our money. Why not? It’s tradition.

Knowing the cost of everything…

Caught up in the holiday frenzy, we spend millions of euro, pounds, and dollars (and billions of forints) on unwanted gifts. We go mad buying for people whose middle names we don’t even know. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, postmen, binmen, milkmen, all come in for something… just because… it’s Christmas. Family, relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, classmates, the list is endless. And now we even have variations on the theme… no, no, it’s not a Christmas present, it’s just a little ‘thank you’ for all your help during the year, for watering my plants while I was away, for feeding the cat, for picking me up from the airport, for listening to me go on and on and on about whatever, for being there for me. What is it about Christmas that brings out this latent generosity in us all? Do we really save up all our gratitude for December? Are we overcompensating for being mean and miserly all year? Are we simply balancing the books? Perhaps if the three wise men had left the gold, frankincense and myrrh at home, we mightn’t be in this mess.

Christmas has been hijacked by retailers. Discounts, special offers, and bargain deals abound. Untold pressure is put on people to buy the best of everything, the latest this, the most expensive that. Kids, passive victims of advertising campaigns want everything they see. Christmas letters to Santa Claus have evolved into lists, complete with make, model, and serial number. They cover all the bases, ending usually with the ubiquitous ‘and a surprise’.

…and the value of nothing

Me? I copped on a long time ago. I was seven. I asked Santa for a cradle for my doll, Lucy. Instead, I got a plastic knitting machine. I learned a valuable lesson: blessed is she who never expects anything for she shall never be disappointed. Now, if you ask me what I want for Christmas, I’ll tell you. And I’ll be specific. None of this… ‘Oh, something for the flat would be nice’. I want a tall, wrought iron book case, with five shelves, narrow enough to fit at the end my kitchen presses and shallow enough not to stick out past the wall (it doesn’t exist). Forget the timid…  ‘Maybe some perfume?’ Nope – I want some Dior Hypnotic Poison 100 ml shower gel and 100 ml body lotion (impossible to find!).  As for jewellery, can you be more specific than a 5-cm diameter circle of Kudu bone set in a raised silver ring? I don’t think so. I’ve learned my lesson: I ask for the impossible and when it can’t be delivered I offer up Option B: mmmm, I know you’d your heart set on buying me something but you could always give me cold, hard cash instead. Cash that I can send to friends who are working, doing good somewhere in the world with people less fortunate than myself. Cold, hard cash: that perfect gift that keeps on giving – one size fits all and the colour goes with everything! But that’s if you’re buying. If you’re making me something by hand, that’s a different matter entirely. I’m one of those annoying people basking in smugness right now who Christmas shops all year round: hand-made jewellery from Lithuania; beaded placemats from South Africa; knitted scarves from Gozo; dío madár from Hungary.  Support local artisans and give something that hasn’t been mass produced and marketed to death. Or better still, do something for me. Cook for me, take me somewhere, wash my windows.

Let’s face it, there’s a helluva difference between need and want. Fulfilling a need is rewarding; satisfying a want is indulgent. And don’t forget the ‘r’ word – we’re in recession, remember! So, if you’re racking your brains about what to give this Christmas, perhaps a suggestion from novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) might help: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.

Boldog Karácsonyi Ünnepeket. Nollaig shona dhaoibh. Merry Christmas.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 December 2010

A matter of choice

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. These simple words are often attributed to American novelist Madeleine L’Engel, who died in 2007, two months shy of her 90th birthday. She lived through the roaring twenties, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War. Her mid-thirties coincided with the golden age of the 1950s when colour TV was invented, Disneyland opened, and a vaccine was discovered for polio. She was around during the Viet Nam war, the decade of hippies, drugs, protests and rock and roll. The far out seventies brought with them Star Trek and the Jonestown massacre, while the eighties welcomed Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin wall. L’Engel would have read about the end of the Cold War and the release of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s and seen news accounts of the Oklahoma bombing and the Columbine massacre. And as she entered the new millennium, she probably had ample time to think about choice… and to come to this conclusion.

Bringing it home

Dr Ágnés Geréb might well have something to say on the subject of choice. Recently arrested and facing charges for reckless endangerment committed during the line of duty, Dr Geréb has spent her career making choices.

An experienced doctor and midwife, she has attended more than 2000 home births (i.e. not in a hospital). As I understand the current situation, Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth as the patient had some sort of blood clotting disorder. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.

Dr Geréb was elected to the Askhoka Fellowship in 1997 in recognition of the work she is doing in Hungary with her ‘undisturbed’ birth project. She established the first network of midwives, doulas (mothers experienced in childbirth who provide continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother before, during, and just after childbirth), nurses, and doctors who oversee home birth throughout the country. On 6 June 1998, Dr Geréb won an important legal victory in the area of hospital births: mothers giving birth in hospitals could now request that their friends and relatives be allowed into the birthing room. Her foundation ‘Alternatal’ ensures professional help for those who choose to give birth at home.  She is, in other words, offering women a choice, a choice that is apparently denied them by the state. Or is it?

Personalising the experience

Had L’Engel and Geréb had a chance to sit down and talk about choice, about how human it makes us, I wonder what the outcome might have been? I’m not an expert on the merits of home birth, or any sort of birth for that matter. Thankfully, I can’t claim first-hand experience of the Hungarian medical system. What I am concerned about is the basic right to choose. Pregnancy is not an illness. The right for a woman to choose where to have her baby is surely a basic human right, one recognised the world over. Were I a soon-to-be mother, I would want to deliver my child in a familiar environment; with my family present; with the help of a midwife and a doula. The alternative (unless I had the financial wherewithal to pay for a private hospital) is a state-run, sterile, impersonal environment. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are doctors and nurses out there who genuinely care about their patients; whose commitment to their job isn’t measured by their meagre salaries; who see the birthing experience as something more than just another medical procedure. And I’m sure that for every horror story emanating from maternity wards around the country, there is a glowing report of an equally wonderful experience.  This isn’t about competency; it’s about choice.

In many western countries, such as the UK or Germany, home birth is a legal and respected option; an integral part of the healthcare sytem. In Hungary, it is alegal.  Under Hungarian law, a woman has the right to choose where to give birth. So what’s the problem then? Well, the law makes no provisions for anybody assisting the woman with her home birth; doctors and nurses who choose to help run the risk of being prosecuted for misusing their license; independent midwives may be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. So the danger of prosecution is really on the helpers, not on the birthing woman herself…as we’ve seen with Dr Geréb. A woman can choose to give birth at home. Those who choose to assist her show their humanity, and for that, they pay a price.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 October 2010

Gorgeous girls and goosefat

I am very fortunate to have some wise and wonderful Hungarian friends who are extremely knowledgeable and clued in. Between them, they have managed to answer practically all of my never-ending questions about life in Hungary as it is now and as it was then. Their areas of expertise include history, geography, politics, linguistics, sports and the arts, with a little bit of religion thrown in for good measure.  Together, their knowledge of who’s who and what’s what in Budapest alone is encyclopedic. They have their fingers on the city’s pulse. They speak its language and, more importantly, they also speak mine! But try as they might, there is one question that still remains unanswered.

Making comparisons

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Hungarian women are beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that grown men literally stop and stare as they walk by. And it’s not that surreptitious glance from a gawky teenager that you might see in Dublin; a glance made all the more daring by the chances of being caught in the act. No, Budapest has left puberty behind. Here, men stop. And stand. And stare. It used to catch me unawares. There I’d be, walking along, lost in my own little world, trying to conjugate a particularly difficult Hungarian verb, when the man in front of me would suddenly stop. And stand. And stare. And I’d run right into him and ruin the moment. Now I pay more attention. I’m more considerate. I save my conjugation for cafés. But it rankles. Hungarian girls are gorgeous: they have perfect figures, great skin, healthy hair… and all of this on a diet of red meat, goose fat and lángos! How can it be so? Where’s the justice? Answer me that!

I love my food. I can’t imagine life without red meat and chocolate. I shudder at the thought of never again enjoying Filete Enchocolatado. While at an open-air market recently, I noticed my visitors going pale at the sight of pork steaks swimming in vats of hot oil. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. At dinner later that evening, while they searched in vain for a fruit-filled palacsinta, I went straight for the hórtobagyi. Hungary, for me, is hog heaven, with a large duck pond and a garden full of geese. But unfortunately, I am missing that all-important gene that allows Hungarian women to eat what they like, when they like, and still look fantastic.  I’ve thought about this a lot and for want of help from my encyclopedic friends I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s simply no other explanation. It has to be genetic…doesn’t it?

Making concessions

The last time I fitted into a size 8, I was 18. I have neither the interest nor the inclination to do what’s needed to go back there.  Don’t get me wrong: if it could be done with a wave of a túró rudi, I’d be first in line. But diet and exercise are two words that don’t feature in my vocabulary, in any language! I have made a couple of concessions though. I only allow myself langós when I have virgin guests in town – far be it from me to deprive first-time visitors to Budapest of an experience that is truly Hungarian! When I cook at home, I always have at least two real vegetables: tomatoes, onions and peppers don’t count! Come to think of it: that’s another question I must ask. Where do all the real vegetables go once they leave the market stalls? The carrots, the parsnips, the turnips, the cauliflowers – I’ve yet to see one come out of a restaurant kitchen in solid form!

 Making choices

My weight fluctuates according to where I’m living. In California, it was too hot to eat. In Alaska, it was too cold not to. Ok, so perhaps I didn’t have to take hibernation as seriously as I did or have so much sympathy for the whales that I began to morph into one myself.  No matter. That’s history. Today, I have chosen to live in a city full of beautiful women; a city which is populated by men who are very obvious in their appreciation of this beauty. Perhaps, subconsciously, the skinny person living inside me is making a last-ditch effort to escape. Maybe hers is the voice I heard telling me to move to Budapest in the first place. Maybe she was hoping that being in the presence of such beauty would inspire me to lend her a hand. But, as Woody Allen wondered: what if the 20lbs I lose is the best 20lbs I have? The pounds that contain my genius, my humanity, my love and my honesty? What then?

This article first appeared in the Budapest Times on Monday, 22nd October, 2009