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Save this man

In 2013, when the Hungarian government first criminalised homelessness, the  BBC reported figures from The civic group, the City Belongs to Everyone, estimating that 10,000 people lived on the city’s streets or in shelters they had fashioned in the forests on the outskirts of the capital. Yet, they said, there were fewer than 6,000 places in hostels, a serious shortfall. But the government said there was ample shelter available, almost 100%.

In 2018, it’s difficult to tell what the real figures are, but a simple walk around the city shows that homelessness in Budapest is pervasive. Last month’s amendment to the Constitution which now reads ‘Habitual residence in a public space is forbidden’ has flooded social media channels with opinions for and against the edict.  Those supporting it want the streets cleared, conscious as they are of the approaching winter and of the inherent aesthetic blight; those against say it does little more than criminalise poverty.

But shouldn’t the issue be how to prevent homelessness in the first place?

Meet A_. Born in 1964 to a music conductor and a socialite mother, A_ has been beset by illness since he was a baby. His mother, more concerned with her social standing than the wellbeing of her baby, left him out in the rain in his pram for a day. His kidneys never recovered. A_ trained as a cook and worked in restaurants in the city and also inherited some musical talent from his father. He was, he says, quite a good bass guitar player. Life was good. He had a job, a doting father, and his music.

At 30, A_ was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and sentenced to life in a wheelchair. His father bought him a tiny house in Páty village in Budapest county. He managed okay until his father died, leaving him alone in a house he was unable to maintain. His wheelchair sentence was miraculously commuted; he regained some of his mobility, but not enough to do the necessary maintenance on his home. His disability pension didn’t stretch to paying anyone to do it either.

Two months ago, A_ had a heart attack while in the village. An ambulance took him away. Had he been at home, he’d surely have died. My friend in Páty noticed he hadn’t been around and knowing he was short on relatives and friends, tracked him down. She took him money, clothes, and food. He was well looked after in the hospital and came home with a new pacemaker. But his living conditions had deteriorated in his absence.

Today, the roof of his cabin has a gaping hole. The only thing stopping the rain and snow from coming in is a thin sheet of plastic.  There is no insulation. No bath. No shower. No kitchen. No gas. No heating. No chimney. Just about all it has, in addition to its four walls, is running water and electricity. But last month, the electricity failed. A_ has paid his 300 ft bill each month (he uses just one 25w lightbulb) but his system has worn out. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years. To bring it up to code will cost at least 120 000 ft. This has to happen before ELMÜ will switch his electricity back on.

A_ is resilient. He’s a survivor. He can take the hunger, the dirt, the cold but he cannot handle the darkness. A passionate writer of short stories, freestyle poems, and self-reflections, writing has become his life, his raison d’etre. But he cannot write in the dark. Preferring to go hungry and be cold, he spends his money candles. If neighbours offer to bring him food and clothes, he asks instead for typewriter ribbons.

His future looks bleak. Although intelligent and well read, A_ has some psychological problems that make him incapable of arranging complicated things like the electricity reconnect. It won’t be long before his house falls down around him, leaving him homeless. As for moving to a shelter, he says he’d rather freeze in the dark than give up his independence.

A_ visits my friend regularly. She washes his clothes and feeds him. They chat about books, films, and music. He recites chapters from his favourite novels and verses of his favourite poems. He’s very positive, she says. Although he’s in constant pain, always cold, and most probably hungry, he still has a sense of humour. That, and his passion for writing keep him going.

A_, like so many others, is just a hair’s breadth from being homeless. But with help, he can live with dignity, maintain his independence, and keep on writing. And if this help is immediate, local, and well-directed by someone who cares about his needs and dignity, A_’s home can be saved.

Christmas is just around the corner. The ads are out. The tinsel is in. The shops are gearing up for the inevitable tide of mass consumerism. Hundreds of euro and thousands of forints will be spent on presents often neither wanted nor needed. My decision was an easy one. When my friend told me his story, I knew immediately that helping to keep A_ housed and warm and writing would be a better use of my Christmas budget. I made the transfer to help sort his electricity problem so that ELMÜ will reconnect his power. But his roof still needs fixing and his house still needs heating.

Are you disillusioned with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? Do you realise that but for the grace of whatever God you worship or whatever force you believe in, you could be in A_’s shoes? Do you believe that local solutions to local problems work better than the overly costly, unnecessarily legalistic, and very quickly political solutions introduced by state bureaucracy? Would you like to help save one man’s home, and in doing so, save his dignity? Let me know. I’ll put you in touch with my friend in Páty who is working to make sure it all happens.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 November 2018

 

Hungary happened

I’m not a great one for making plans. Most of my major life decisions were taken on the spur of the moment. I’m definitely a heart-over-head type. There’s a closetful of clichés that talk about regret, and intuition, and going with your gut, and if I had a rule by which to live, it would be to go for what feels right. At the time.

Some 10 years ago, I decided to see what it would be like to spend time in Budapest. I knew nothing of the city other than a glimpse I’d had on two separate weekend trips some four years apart: one in the dead of winter and the second in an unseasonably warm spring. I liked what I saw. I liked the feel of the place. And I’m on record as saying that I believe Budapest has an energy about it that I’ve not found anywhere else. I’ve been at my most productive here and somehow, everything seems possible, even when I’m banging my head off a bureaucratic brick wall and decrying the city’s ability to make the simplest act hair-tearingly complex.

I’ve seen the city change. District VIII is a case in point. Ten years ago, it was probably the least desirable address to have in the city. Today, with the development around Corvin Negyed, Corvin Sétany, and the walk between Klinikak and Nagyvarad tér, it’s one of the most attractive. The castle district has undergone a facelift as has the parliament and a host of other buildings and churches that dot the skyline. Shops and restaurants and cafés have come and gone but the delightful old stalwarts are still there, places which take enjoying a cup to an art level.

The politics hasn’t changed much. The pendulum swung a little left and then a little further right but it keeps swinging. Antisemitism, never far from the surface, is obvious to greater and lesser degrees. Likewise, the pervasive attitude to the Roma. Public involvement in how the country is run has enjoyed various upswings and downswings with the passivity scale hitting minus figures at times. Hopefully, though, it’s on its way back.

Like a lot of capital cities, Budapest is often perceived as epitomising the whole of the country. Those who have visited on a weekend break will claim to have been to Hungary in the same way as Dublin tourists think they know Ireland and Parisian visitors think they know France. But if I’ve learned one thing over the course of the ten years that I’ve been spending time in Budapest, it’s that Budapest is not Hungary, not in its entirety. It’s like a city-state within a larger state, where time runs faster, imbued with an urgency and a sense of must-do or must-be-seen-to-be-doing that sets it aside from other cities in the country.

Like every other country on the global map, Hungary has its detractors and its supporters. Blanket statements of Hungarians being miserable, never smiling, always complaining, amuse me. I file them in the same bin as claims that every Irish person is an alcoholic or every German was born with a punctiliousness that borders on pedantry.  They’re simply not true. But perhaps, if you were to view the city’s inhabitants on any morning, when the army of workers wends its way to their desks, then yes, perhaps the smiles might be missing. As they are in London, or Dublin, or Paris, or any major city where the populace moves in synchronised droves at given times.

I read a series of posts recently from expats who had lived or spent some time in Hungary and apart from a few positives, they were overwhelmingly negative. The Hungarian fear of foreigners. The high levels of corruption. The chronic homelessness. The poor wages. The high costs (relative to other EU countries like Spain and Italy). The unwillingness to help strangers. The language difficulties. And I’m sure that all complaints are valid, not imagined, but very real to those who wrote in. I can still remember bawling my eyes out in frustration walking down the körút having failed dismally to make myself understood and having been dismissed unceremoniously from a shop by a sales assistant who told me that I was too big for their clothes.

But it’s unfair to say that a Budapest experience constitutes the Hungarian reality, just as a Berlin experience isn’t Germany and a Pretoria experience isn’t South Africa.

Bureaucracy is a symptom of city life. Harried people live in fast-paced cities. Those looking in from the outside tend to focus on the centre of policy, on where the politicians meet, on where the cruise ships dock. International reporting is naturally drawn to the headliners. And the result is a pixelated picture of Hungary that however accurate in isolated detail, leaves a lot to be desired as a complete image.

Go outside the city. Visit other cities. Go to Veszprém or to Keszthely or to Vác and see how different they are. Spend time in the villages and market towns and see how inordinately helpful people are. See the lengths they go to, to circumvent the petty bureaucracy because they have the time to see how inane the rules are. Witness how non-English-speaking locals make Herculean efforts to understand and make themselves understood. They, too, have the time. And time makes a difference.

Ten years ago, a tarot card reader in Brighton told me that I’d spend 10 years in Budapest. I didn’t believe them. That’s wasn’t part of the plan I didn’t have. But life has a way of taking over and things simply happen. Hungary happened.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 August 2017

Other people’s lives

There is a growing discontent in the air in Budapest. Something that goes beyond the normal level of human complaint. What I’m hearing now is more systemic, more worrying.

A friend announced recently that he planned to leave Hungary. To emigrate. I was surprised. I asked why. Why now? He said his friends are polarised, on one side or the other. Lines are being drawn. Sides are being chosen. His career has been stymied. He’s been branded by those in power as being pro-Jewish, one who surrounds himself with liberals. He feels he’s left with no other option. I heard strains of the Hollywood cliché: you’ll never work in this town again.

Another told me of hearing friends of their 14-year-old daughter talk about how bad Brussels is, about how dangerous it is for Hungary to be a member of the EU, about how we need to detach ourselves. When they asked the teens why they thought this, they said they’d read the billboards, they’d seen the advertisements, they’d heard the government speak. They are 14. They are our future. And whatever they are being taught in school apparently doesn’t involve critical thinking.

A third, a lecturer at a higher-level institution, told me of a student walking into the classroom with twenty minutes to go in the tenth of a twelve-lesson series. This was his first time to come to class. He wanted to write the four essay assignments he’d missed because he needed to pass the class. In twenty minutes? No. He expected my friend to stay that afternoon and supervise. To work, for free, to accommodate his schedule. When they said no, he accused them of being inflexible. He was a sportsman. These lessons were interfering with his play. They needed to be more accommodating. That my friend had already extended the deadlines for each assignment to accommodate the litany of excuses from a body of students who didn’t seem to understand the concept of deadlines was neither here nor there. After a tirade of abuse, he left, promising to take it further.

Another lecturer-friend told me how their bonus (an extra payment on top of their pittance of a salary) was tied to the students’ appraisal of their teaching. I was gobsmacked. So, if you are lax in your teaching, flexible with your deadlines, kind in your marking, you will make more money but your students will be ill-prepared for the world that awaits them. But if you are rigorous in your teaching, steadfast in your deadlines, and critical in your marking, you lose out. The students will gain, but you will lose. Why are teachers in Hungary undervalued so? They are responsible for producing the minds that will govern tomorrow. Education is a crucial part of shaping our future. Why is it being undermined? The new laws affecting CEU are high-profile, but the problems appear to run right through the education system.

But the most disturbing conversation I’ve had in recent weeks struck me as encapsulating the palpable frustration of a society that seems to be imploding. There’s a building in Buda where one tenant has been intimidating his neighbours for years. House meetings are no longer attended because of the abuse he hurls at the other tenants. He has sabotaged plans to improve the building so it’s decaying. It’s a small house. Many of the tenants are retired couples who have lived there since it was first built. They’re good people, another friend told me. They want little more than a safe environment in which to live. One free of harassment. A community that works together for a common cause.

They tried hiring external companies to manage the upkeep of the building and the common cost each of them pays towards its maintenance. In the last seven years, five such firms have quit because of this one man and his bullying behaviour. Now, the word is out. The monthly common cost has spiralled upwards because each new company wants an exorbitant fee to manage this one tenant.

His life is consumed with filing lawsuits against the tenants’ association, petty suits that don’t stand up in court. And while he might lose, it costs the other tenants money to defend themselves. Pleas to the courts to recognise what he is doing have gone unheeded. The courts have seen his record. They know what he’s at. But they keep hearing him out.

Time is being wasted. Reputations are being ruined. General funds are being depleted. And his attacks are not limited to his fellow tenants. When individually they hire someone to work on their flats or to fix, say, lights in the hallways, he harasses these workers, too. Like the management companies, they also require what amounts to ‘danger money’ to work there. He has physically assaulted one tenant, verbally abused the others. The police were once called to forcibly remove him from the Management company’ office. His verbal rants have been documented on video, to little avail. The nightmare continues.

The courts have let them down. The property management companies are reluctant to get involved and charge exorbitant prices to do so.  The legal system isn’t helping. And a group of people who simply want to live peaceably with their neighbours is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. As long as he’s in residence, their flats won’t sell. So, they can’t move. With little option but to stay and persevere, they’re forced to live in the shadow of a blustering bully who picks on the vulnerable, stands in the way of development, and is seemingly determined to ruin his own little fiefdom.

These people are at their wits’ end. If you’re a lawyer, and have a suggestion, let me know. If you’re a tenant with experience of handling such a situation, please comment. If you can help at all, get in touch. Doing nothing shouldn’t be the last resort.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2017

Small halls and potholes

It was an intimate affair. About thirty discerning souls in the back room of Beckett’s Bar in Budapest on a cold, rainy, rather miserable Thursday night. Given the week that was in it, it’s probably not surprising that more didn’t venture out. Denial can do that to you. But tonight was all about the love. And the man on stage, resplendent his three-piece suit and spats … he was all about the love, too.

No one quite knew what to expect and those sorts of expectations can be difficult to manage. The audience was a global one with Hungary, Scotland, England, Ireland, Norway, America, and Australia (and possibly more) ready for whatever the wee man with the funny accent (a heady vocal cocktail laced with traces of Glasgow and Donegal) threw at us. Some, concerned that their English mightn’t be up to it, relaxed when Little John Nee admitted that his English wasn’t great either. We were in safe hands.

jn2_easy-resize-comWe’re used to being technically entertained – the lights, the amps, the pageantry that come with modern productions. But last night, we could have been in a town hall in the back-end of anywhere.  It was just him and us. He had his array of instruments neatly lined up on the stage behind him; we had our appreciation and our wonderment on tap, ready to pour.

jn4_easy-resize-comA storyteller who uses music and drama to tell his tales, Little John Nee took us on a journey through rural Ireland, popping over to Scotland on the Derry Boat for a look-see and then back again. He introduced us to people we’d never met but would know ten years from now if we ever ran into them. As we listened to his songs and stories, it hit me that what we were seeing bordered on innocence. No bells and whistles. Just pure, honest-to-goodness entertainment … from the heart.jn7_easy-resize-com

Storytelling is about holding the audience’s attention, about having them hang on your every word, about painting a picture that makes the sights and sounds and smells you describe come alive. And we were there. Everywhere Little John Nee went in that 90 minutes, we went with him. He gave us a gift: the opportunity to use our imagination, to let it take flight. Those of us born and reared in Ireland had no trouble at all reading volumes into the nod of his head, the tip of his chin, the roll of his eye. Those who had visited were back in the land of the familiar. And those who’d yet to make the journey started planning their trip.

His is a rare talent. He has a way with words, an innate ability to extract the best of stories from a combination of words like androgynous, brobdingnagian, cantankerous, and daffodils. We rode a wave of emotion with him, the peaks and the troughs. And afterwards, we felt good, better than we had a couple of hours earlier. Everyone was smiling. Reflective smiles that come with having been privy to something special.

Come back any time, Little John Nee. Next time, stay longer.

[Photo credit to Declan O’Callaghan]

2016 Grateful 17

Last week, I gathered some of my miscellaneous currency – you know the bits you have left over after a trip and are too lazy to do anything with? I had notes from Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Switzerland, and Turkey. About €10-20 worth of each so not an unreasonable haul. Me and my man in the Northline booth, a young lad of about 30, were getting on just fine until I went to give him 30 Turkish Lira. He waved it away, dismissively, with an attitude. When I asked why, he roared at me.

NO!

I asked why again, thoroughly confused, and got an even louder: I SAID NO!!

Up till this point, language hadn’t been an issue. And I had no reason to expect it to start now. I counted to six and asked again, quietly, Why? Sure after four consecutive transactions, I at least deserved an explanation.

And I got another maniacal: I SAID NO!!!!

Still in control (barely), my heart thumping and my teeth clenched I told him that there was no need to shout at me. I could hear him perfectly well. [Man, I sounded so like my mother.]

He screamed: I SAID NO!!!!!

I didn’t know where to go with that so I told him that I really hoped his day would get better.

THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH MY DAY. I SAID NO. NO.

I didn’t stay to argue. And I won’t be going back there any time soon.

I called my bank today. I wanted to transfer money from my euro account into my Hungarian forint account, both of which are in the same branch. I was curious to know what it would cost me and what sort of rate I’d get. I also needed to clarify the difference between foreign currency and foreign exchange.

Because I’m an individual not a corporation, they could offer me 301 ft for my euro. If I was a business I could get 305.

But I have a business, I said. I can transfer it to that account. It’s with your bank, too.

No. As I would be the one transferring the money, it would be classified as an individual transaction.

So I thought, if I withdraw the money, walk outside, change it at a different Northline office, I can get 308 ft. Then I can come back and deposit the cash in forint.

Yes. But withdrawing the euro will attract a 1.09% charge, he said. Of course, we wouldn’t charge you anything to accept the forint.

How do banks get away with this crap?

Last week, Louis CK commented on how we’re all using the Christian calendar to date our cheques. I, for one, would love it if we could all use the same currency, too. Think of how much it would improve my life: no mad men with a pathological dislike for handling Turkish lira screaming at me, no unseemly profits for my bank for its discrimination against individuals and its penury currency exchange rates.No blood pressure issues for me.

On the grateful side: I didn’t shout back. I’m learning that I need to pick my battles and that sometimes, I simply can’t win so best not to even attempt the try.

2015 Grateful 8

My life is bursting with good intentions. I am forever making notes to myself to see, do, go, call, write, ask… and a good 7 times out of 10, I never get around to doing anything but rebuking myself weeks later for not having seen, done, gone, called, written, asked …

museum-applied-arts-budapest1For weeks now, I’ve been reminding myself to go see the Home Sweet Home exhibition at the Iparművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Applied Arts), which, incidentally, is the third oldest applied arts museum in the world (or one of the oldest at least, depending on what you read). It runs until November 15 and time was running out. So late this afternoon, I went. And was dutifully impressed. 

I was with three American friends, all of whom qualified for a concessionary ticket. Am not sure I agree with stuff costing more to be young(er). But hey – at less than €10 for a full-priced combination ticket that gets you into everything, it’s nothing to be sneezed at.

The Home Sweet Home exhibition is actually three exhibitions in one. Tickets also  include  admission to  the BID – Collective Imagination (Imaginación Collectiva) and the Hungarian Design Awards and Design Management Awards exhibitions.

I was particularly impressed with a range of clothing designed for those with autism, based on studies of behavioural habits and favourite poses/relaxed positions. There was also a set of black-and-white ceramic tableware designed for those who are partially sighted; shopping bags made from fishing line and wire; and shoes that can be worn on either foot and so are only sold in ones.

I love design shops. I love seeing how creative people can take thoughts and turn them into something tangible. I love the possibility of it all.

Globalization, technological revolution, environmental issues, sharing economy – concepts that have shaped our mindset in recent years. But how does an abstract concept take form? How does the world leak into our homes, how does our micro-environment transform into a mirror of the society, and how are designers inspired by the big changes of history? HOME SWEET HOME exhibition tries to answer these questions – mainly through items by Hungarian designers, in an inspiring way for both general public and professionals.

 

The second exhibition runs a little longer. Lifting the Curtain presents the birth of modern architecture in Central Europe from a rather different perspective. [PF and CM – thought of you both – you’d have loved it.] It’s not about architects or styles, but more about  the networks of modern architecture and the influences that transcend borders. I hadn’t known, for instance, that back in 1944, as the Russians were getting closer and closer to Budapest, an entire class from the Technical University (including students, professors, and admin staff – some 1600 in all) were put on trains and shipped out of the country. The idea was to save a generation of engineers and architects who would return to rebuild the country once the war was over. Most ended up in Denmark as POWs before eventually returning to Budapest where the architects among them brought back some influences of Danish modernism. Who’d have thunk it?

Stolen wallet aside, it’s been a good week, one that ended in fond reminiscences. It’s not often I get to sit people who don’t know each other around a table and listen to them discover (and marvel at) how they all have Alaska in common. Or get to visit a home on Csepel Island that might have been transplanted from Valdez. Or actually get to do something before the window of time snaps shut on me. Yep – lots to be grateful for.

And Rex, you’re here with us in spirit – we know. 

 

2015 Grateful 9

What’s this? I asked the waiter, pointing to what looked suspiciously like a piece of a chilli. It’s a chilli, he confirmed. But it was in my coffee, I replied, raising what little of the voice I still had in a question. Yes, he said, nonplussed, it says so on the menu.

We’d stopped in to the ever-so-awfully-posh New York Café for a cup of coffee, just because one of us hadn’t been there before and I figured that three years of boycotting the place (almost to the day) after my first and only visit was long enough to hold a grudge. For all its faults [price, service, attitude], it’s a beautiful space.

IMG_1513 (800x600)I spotted a Magyar Kavé on the menu – a Hungarian coffee. A new one on me. I read a little further. The ingredients: Tokaji Szárasz Samorodni (a dry Tokaji wine), méz (honey), eszpresszó kavé (espresso coffee), and csípős tejhab (spicy milk foam). I’ll have some of that, I thought. Hang the expense. Wine and coffee together? Could life get any better? 

It tasted strange, but good. And I kept drinking. And then I bit on something that, on closer inspection, looked a lot like a chilli seed. And then came the chilli. And then I called the waiter.

Chilli? In coffee? I asked, raising my eyebrows so high they hit the exquisitely ornate ceiling. Yes, says he, defensively, it says so on the menu. Really, says I, damn sure it didn’t as I’d already transcribed the entry. May I see?

Off he goes to get the evidence…

Well, not really, he said – it just says spicy milk foam. I don’t know about you, but when I think spices for coffee, cinnamon or nutmeg come to mind, not chilli.

It’s been a long, hectic, mad week of literary talks, play readings, workshops, logistical nightmares re flights and visas, and lost voices. I’m still speaking in croaky whisper, ignoring the phone as I can’t talk loud enough to be heard. But when I add last night’s pumpkin parade to the discovery of Magyar Kavé, I’m grateful that after eight years, this city still regularly surprises me.  Wine and coffee, in the same glass. Who’d have thunk it?

 

 

2015 Grateful 12

From a three-piece suit in a business blue to a shiny silver Vegas number accented with red socks, the boys from Pink Martini had a wardrobe to be proud of. A most unlikely looking bunch of musicians as ever I saw – not that anyone can ever really look like a musician except they have that rock-star chic look going. Ten lads of varying ages and nationalities took the stage in Budapest earlier this  week with lead singer China Forbes. The band hails from Portland, Oregon, but they came from far and wide to get there.

PMOn the road since 1997, Pink Martini is a versatile little orchestra. Their 2013 album Get Happy  features 16 songs in 9 languages. No shortage of variety there. Band leader and founder of the whole shebang, Thomas Lauderdale, spoke to the mainly Hungarian audience in Budapest this week – in Hungarian. Granted, his pronunciation made mine look pitch perfect, but he tried. And not just the usual ‘Hello, Budapest’ either. He had pages of script and introduced many of the numbers in halting Magyar. One of the first classics they played was Je ne veux pas travailler (I don’t want to work) which is now an anthem of sorts for any sort of strike in France): I don’t want to work, I don’t want to lunch, I only want to forget and so I smoke [English translation; song is in French].

PM2Their 2014 album Dream a Little Dream has some interesting guests: Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame. How did I not know that (a) the von Trapps were a real family and (b) they still sing together? Where have I been? It takes listeners from from Sweden to Rwanda to China to Bavaria, and also features The Chieftains, who have to be among Ireland’s best known exports.  pm3

I first met them a few years ago when my mate VB from Arizona sent me their album Hang on Little Tomato. I fell in love with the song Let’s never stop falling in love. She also sent me Hey Eugene with its classic of the same name, written about a chap China met out on the town one night, a chap called Eugene who took her number and never called : Hey Eugene! Do you remember me?
I’m that chick you danced with two times Through the Rufus album, Friday night, at Avenue A

Percussionist Martin Zarzar (from Peru) works Mar Desconocido, a number which Lauderdale describes as ‘like a song from a Pedro Almodovar film with an excerpt of a Chopin waltz in the middle of it.’  That might go some way in describing just what the band are about. They’re bloody amazing. One of the most memorable numbers of the night had to be a duet of an old Armenian number featuring percussionist Timothy Nishimoto (him of the red socks). I lost count of the number of languages on stage – I know there was French, and English, and Armenian, and Croatian, and Spanish … and possibly more. But then again, what would you expect from Harvard graduates?

Hungarian audiences aren’t noted for going wild. Theirs is a more restrained enthusiasm. And yet, when Lauderdale invited the audience on stage a couple of times to dance to particularly dancy numbers, there was no shortage of volunteers. By the time I weighed up the hassle it would be to extricate myself from my centre section seat and the energy it would take to actually move in something fashioning a dance, against being able to say that I was on stage once with Pink Martini, I stayed put. Make no mistake: I’m a fan. And I’m glad that the lovely VZsZs managed to get some tickets. But I was knackered. So tired, in fact, that I almost fell asleep. Not good.

I’ve been to concerts (Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen come immediately to mind) that have gone on for more than a couple of hours. But lately it seems that gigs are getting shorter. Sinéad O’Connor wasn’t on stage for much more than an hour. And Pink Martini didn’t last much longer. What it is I wonder? Is it because our attention spans are shortening? It can’t be money, can it? It’s the same to them whether they play for one hour or two surely? They’re in country anyway. Mind you, there was some debate on stage over whether or not they’d been to Budapest before. Turns out they had been – but only to eat. They actually played at the Balaton.

No matter. I got to seem them live. In Budapest. And for that I’m grateful. If they come your way, do what you need to do to get tickets. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

Walking and talking

For anyone moving to a new city, making friends can be difficult. And the older you get, the harder it seems. I’ve reinvented myself a number of times, moving to cities and countries in which I knew one, maybe two people, and oftentimes no one at all.

Back in my 20s it was easy. Most of those I met were of similar age and as young, free, and single as I was. They were open to meeting new people and making new friends. Of course, I’m blessed to be Irish, probably the one nationality in the world that almost everyone seems predisposed to liking. By virtue of my birth I come packaged with an expectation in others that I’ll be up for a party – whenever, wherever.

In my 30s, I noticed a difference. A subtle difference, mind you, but an important one nonetheless. My peer group were now newly married couples, perhaps young parents whose priorities in life had changed. They had husbands and wives to go home to. They had children to bathe. They had stuff to do at the weekend and families to be with on the holidays. I managed. I always do. But it was a tad harder.

In my 40s, it took a lot more effort. Moving to a country whose spoken language still defeats me, a country where things are simply different – not better or worse than other places I’ve lived, just different – this was harder again. And a lot of it was down to me. I had my peculiarities. I was prone to my particular figaries. And I had become a little more discerning about whose company I kept. I’ve noticed that my tolerance levels are gradually declining as the years advance.

For the first couple of years in Hungary, I didn’t seek out an expat community. In fact, it wasn’t until the birth of the Gift of the Gab some two years after I’d arrived, that I had my coming out. I began to meet people. Some expat groups were a little too cliquish for my taste, a little too ‘them and us’ when it came to Hungarians. And I tried a few. And then true to form, the Irishness in Hungary won out.

The Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is one of a number of chambers in town and despite its name, its focus is not purely business; there’s a charity and a social arm as well. And the social arm is very inclusive. The regular pub gatherings (this year in the Caledonia) on the First Friday of each month draw people from all over. The volunteer work trips to the orphanage in Göd attract people of all ages. And the regular hikes during the year are one of the best opportunities this city offers to meet new people.

IMG_1022 (800x534)Some hikes have had six hikers. Some have had over 40. The inimitable Malcolm Trussler tailors the walks to suit the numbers … and the weather.  Last Sunday saw 20 of us get the train to Nagymáros where we caught the ferry across to Visegrád and from there hiked a nice 10.5 km through the lower Pilis hills to Pilisszentlászló. Sixteen adults, four kids, seven nationalities … and a dog.

As we wended our way through the hills we fell in with different people and had a chance to chat without distraction. No phones. No iPods. No tablets. Just us. Clean air. Good conversation. Afterwards, we ate at the Kis Rigó Vendéglő before bussing back to Szentendre and catching the Hév back to Budapest.

Next hike is planned for October. Dust off those boots and get the thermos ready.

First published in The Budapest Times 2 October 2015

 

The least we can do

Hungary has made the news in Ireland. When I was there last week it seemed like all anyone was talking about was the migration situation. Pictures of Keleti train station. Pictures of Szeged. Pictures of the fence. Pictures of families sitting, waiting for an uncertain future.

The one overriding question asked of me was “Is it as bad as they say?” And the only answer to that is no. It’s worse. And then they asked why Hungary (and by implication, Hungarians) wasn’t doing more. People in Germany were offering up their homes on AirBnb. Austrians were driving to the border and beyond to pick up families and take them home. Angela Merkel was offering to take in hundreds of thousands. Ireland might only be taking 4000 (to our shame, some say) but Hungary doesn’t appear to want any at all.

I had neither the political nor the sociology background to answer their questions with anything even approaching authority. But when I started to talk about my experiences and what I’ve seen and heard and read, I was a little surprised at what came out.

None of the current Hungarian government is on my Christmas card list. Neither is the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary. I believe they both could have done more. And yet I found myself taking quite a defensive position.

I reminded my petitioners that here in Hungary, people don’t have much. Monthly take-home salaries are figured in hundreds of euro rather than thousands. Flats are small. There are no spare rooms to offer.

Some 40% of the population hasn’t enough to make it to the end of the month. Farmers watch as the crops they need to get their family through the winter are picked clean by those passing through. Many in the east of the country live hand to mouth. Many in the cities, too.

And while the international press might scathingly report on the quality of food provided at the camps, they forget that patients in Hungarian hospitals fare no better. And while they castigate the police for their heavy-handedness, they forget that Hungary, as a Schengen border country, has been charged with keeping that border safe.

And yes, it could all have been done differently. Ideologically it’s a shared border that should be manned by all Schengen countries. The responsibility should not fall on Hungary alone. But then does Hungary want help? Yet another question I cannot answer.

refugees_walk_beside_motorway

The government here is making a hames of it all (and it’s not alone).  But the people, individual Hungarians, are showing a generosity of spirit that should not be forgotten. It has to be difficult to see Keleti awash with young people scrambling not for food but for places to plug in their smartphones. To see queues at Western Union as money is wired for train tickets out. To see placards thanking Germany and shaming Hungary.

It’s an impossible situation. Everyone has an opinion. Many are simply afraid.

Afraid that ISIS might be using this exodus to Europe as a cover. Afraid that we might wake up one morning to find our churches replaced by mosques. Afraid that our poor and our homeless will lose out to those who are looking not for a safe place to live but for a better standard of living.

Fear makes us say stupid things. It makes us batten down the hatches and indiscriminately protect what we have. It makes us add exclusivity clauses to which neighbour we should love.

And while letters of accusation fly back and forth between governments and EU leaders scramble to get their act together, more and more refugees arrive at the Schengen border in the hope that they will be granted access to a safer world. The very least that we can do is to show some compassion.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 September 2015